I live ten minutes away from my family home and I reckon I’ve seen my Dad 20 times this year. Because my Dad- Ray Martin- is non-stop. At 72 he’s busier than ever, in and out of the city and the country for work and play. He’s spent most of the year in the Top End- one of his favourite places in the world- visiting and working with Indigenous communities, as well as taking endless photographs- his absolute favourite obsession- I mean, pastime. He also spent a month up north filming the 2nd season of First Contact, which sees six regular Aussies- or in this case, Aussie celebrities- interact with Indigenous Australia for the first time. I found one night in his chock-a-block schedule to sit down over a beer and a burger- most of which he fed to my dog- to talk to him about First Contact, the second time around.
Thanks for talking with me.
You’re very welcome.
You and I have spoken a lot about your First Contact experience- both while you were doing it and afterwards- but what I haven’t asked you is how this season was different for you personally. You went on Who Do You Think You Are between Season 1 and 2 and you learnt more about your- our- own Indigenous ancestry. Did that knowledge make a difference this time around?
I don’t feel Aboriginal. And I haven’t been raised an Aboriginal person, but I’m very proud of my Aboriginal connection and so I guess understanding it better and learning more about my- and your- Indigenous Great-Grandmother makes me feel an even greater connection to this issue. And beyond that, people talk to me in the communities because they know I have Aboriginal blood and that’s a huge advantage because they feel free and able to trust me.
The six people are meant to represent 6/10 Australians who have never met or “made contact” with Indigenous Australia. Season one was a team of six regular Joe’s. This time around it’s six Aussie celebs. In what way were these people different than the first group?
When we mean “met”, we mean “had a conversation and interacted with", not just seen them on the street. None of these six people had done it which surprises me, given how worldly some of these celebrities are. Having said that, that “worldliness” probably meant that they got to the revelatory phase much quicker. That’s not to put down the first group, it’s just that these six people have more life experience on a world scale, so they- most of them- seemed to get the message sooner.
Something you’ve always drilled into me is the difference between racism and ignorance…
Yeah. If people are ignorant, and all twelve people (including David Oldfield) put their hands up and said yes they were ignorant- that pleases me because it’s not racism. Some of the comments the celebrities said were racist but they were based on ignorance not racism. I think that if you have ignorance then information can neutralize or can answer ignorance. However, information can’t answer racism. I was pleasantly surprised by this group as I was by the first group that when they saw the truth of disadvantage- whether it be overcrowding or drunkenness or suicide- that they realised the problem was real and part of Aboriginal society and that we should fix it.
So of the six, who surprised you the most?
David Oldfield surprised me in that he didn’t change his attitude. There were a couple of times when he was moved by their plight but he didn’t change his attitude. He said “to experience something doesn’t mean you change”, but I think if you experience something and you don’t change then you haven’t actually listened. And if you say you’re ignorant which is what he said and then all you do is talk rather than listen then you’re not going to change. The danger is that people who are like that- who aren’t prepared to listen- hear nothing.
I don’t know how you put up with him. I remember you calling me once or twice to blow off steam because you were about to lose it with him.
Oh, I lost it plenty of times. I reckon I had half a dozen serious arguments with David when I felt he was embarrassing himself or the rest of the team because he was being too brutal or too rude to our hosts. I think he thought the other five were in denial and he was the only one who saw things clearly. He saw his role as telling the truth that others were unprepared to say. Some things were confronting- some situations were dirty or unpleasant- and in those situations the other five just walked away and said what they were really thinking later. David didn’t. He felt the need within four minutes of being in someone’s house to tell them how filthy it was- which is why he- rightly- got asked to leave. It’s not being a hypocrite to say it later, it’s just manners: when people have invited you in their home, I don’t think you’ve got a right to be rude. You don’t get invited to someone’s house and then tell them how filthy it is. And the truth is it wasn’t filthy at all- the woman had bathed ten kids, fed them and gotten them off to school just that morning so the place was in chaos but it wasn’t filthy- it was perhaps just untidy by our standards. As the moderator, I didn’t want to take a position- but it got to the point where I was just so embarrassed that our hosts were uncomfortable or offended and I had to tell him he was being rude. You won’t see that in the show- most of it wasn’t filmed- but that’s what happened. David would say I interfered and that wasn’t my role but I thought it was my role. We were guests of these people and I don’t think you should be rude when you are guests in someone else’s community.
I think for me the hardest thing to watch was David’s behaviour on the beach when he just refused to participate, or respect Timmy and his culture.
Yeah, that was really serious. Timmy (the Elder) had brought his community together to that sacred place to share it with us and he’d trusted us- the producers and the team- that it would be respected and then David showed up and he was just being so rude. Timmy actually said to us that we’d have to go and he’d have to take his family and leave because the place was too negative after David had been there. He said he’d have to come back and smoke the whole area to get rid of the negative vibes that David had brought. But because he’s, by nature, a conciliator and an Elder and they don’t like to confront, he didn’t want the confrontation. He said he’d take David to the beach and show him his father’s graveyard- David had spoken about how close he and his father were- so Timmy thought that might be a way of breaking through. They came back after a few hours and Timmy said David had cried and they’d talked about their fathers and established something in common. And that was really the first time David started to open his mind just a little. He did get better, he did let his guard down a little, but it was a tough first week or so.
Ok, so David was surprising in a not-so-good way… what about the positives? Whose journey got to you the most?
I don’t like to really single people out… apart from David they seemed to get the message that Aboriginal life is far more complicated and unmanageable than they thought. But I think Nikki Wendt was really inspiring. She is intelligent and sensitive and caring and I think it left an indelible mark on her- she spent a month with her mouth open, amazed by what she saw- both the warmth and hopelessness of the Aboriginal situation. It’s what made her so fantastic- she went there with an opinion: she said she’d never really loved Aboriginals or hated them for that matter- she’d never noticed much about them. But when she saw the poverty and the deprivation and also the beauty she was just overwhelmed by it. And she more than anybody has really been impacted by it a couple of months later- it’s changed her attitude to life. Dicko was great too. He said really honestly he was worried he was going to sound like a racist. Now he’s not a racist. Dicko’s a very intelligent, funny, caring man and he knows the media and he’s able to use it- but as you saw he was moved to tears a few times and he said he was keen to bring his wife up at some point which I’m sure he will.
What were the main differences between this group and the first six?
As I said, this lot got the message quicker than the first team but then it was a matter of trying not to just accept the “poor bugger me” line. They kept trying to find- as David did too albeit in a fairly unpleasant way- why they don’t pick their rubbish up or why they commit suicide or why is there so much alcoholism and domestic violence.
I just think as they said at the end that all six- even David at times- were noticeably moved by the journey they took in a month. These were 6 celebs who have seen the wonders of the world but they were reduced to tears so easily and angered at the conditions these people live in. Did they find answers to domestic violence and drunkenness and suicide? No. But the reason we can’t solve this is that there are no easy answers. It’s a much more complex and interwoven problem. But I think that to go along with them as I did for every minute of their days I was staggered by how easily they were reduced to tears.
Why has the situation gotten this bad? And why do we allow it to continue?
Most Indigenous Australians are so removed from every day Australia life that we’ve had no trouble finding 6 high profile people who haven’t met them. They’re not part of our life. Fred Hollows used to say that Aboriginal people should be more radical and more violent, if only to get our attention. They don’t do that. They’re peaceful people by nature, they’re conciliatory people and they’re so downtrodden that they feel they walk in a public mall and everyone thinks they’re going to steal or do something offensive. That was what Renee echoed: all she sees in her Perth world is Aboriginals who are drunk or causing trouble or else she doesn’t notice them. Clearly most of them aren’t causing trouble but that’s all she notices. Aboriginal success stories fly below the radar in Australian society and they flew beneath the radar of most of our celebrities. It’s easy to ignore the problems if you don’t see them day in and day out.
Dicko wondered at the start if it was just a case of Aboriginals “getting off their arse” and thought maybe it was laziness rather than being incapable of making a change. Do you think that’s true?
Most people are capable, it just takes a tremendous amount of willpower, which isn’t something that everyone has anyway, let alone when they’ve been discriminated against for generations. Where it becomes nearly impossible to get off your arse is if you are sick, disabled or downtrodden- and that is what 90% of these people are. I think Dicko was shocked by what he saw- by the poverty and depravity- and then he was won over by Timmy’s beautiful family in Bawaka and he thought, “how can you criticise?” The baffling part is why are there so many kids running around at 11pm in a town like Cunnanurra, and why no one is working, and why so many are drunk… And yet he realised that because the people were down trodden and beaten up- emotionally and physically- generation after generation, why should they have the energy that we have?
Okay, so with all that you’ve seen and experienced in over 40 years of working in and out of Indigenous communities, you tell me: how do we fix it?
The reason we haven’t solved it in 200 years is it’s so complex. But I think part of the problem lies in exactly what Nikki said at the start of the show: she didn’t love Aboriginals or hate them. She just didn’t think about them. Yet she came away the most inspired and moved by the culture that she had seen… she couldn’t believe this rich, wonderful culture existed in Australia and she didn’t know about it. So I think that until we recognise Aboriginality as an asset, until we acknowledge that having the oldest culture on earth is a wonderful thing, then we won’t bother “waste time” so to speak on a culture that doesn’t matter. We need to acknowledge that this culture is a jewel but until we do that, there’s no justification for spending time and money studying or learning about or experiencing it. When we acknowledge that it matters, we might give it the time and attention that it deserves. It also needs money- much more money than their 2.5% of the population would ordinarily attract: the problem is that big.
Does that mean education? I’m not much younger than Natalie and I know a lot more about Indigenous culture than she does but it didn’t come from what I learnt in school, it came from you and your influence. I learnt next to nothing in school, beyond learning how to do dot paintings and reading a few dreamtime stories. Surely the change has to start in school.
If 24 million Australians could do the same journey we wouldn’t solve the problems but we’d understand the depth of it and we’d understand how raw it is and we’d agree that we have to somehow fix it. Now, it’s not possible for everyone to do it- it’s just too expensive. But schools are the answer. If you learnt at school just how sick and disadvantaged these people are then you’d have to be moved to seek out answers to the problems for yourself. If we could teach young non-Indigenous Australians the same truth that our 6 people saw, they would have to be concerned. They would have to be aware of the problems, as our people weren’t. It’s a no-brainer: should we spend money to teach people at school the basics of how poor and sick and unemployed and the housing problems. There’s no question we should, but only if we’re prepared to show them respect and to accept that they matter and at the moment they don’t matter enough: they’re not on our radar, and they should be.
You and I have had a couple of conversations about the infamous Bill Leak cartoon of a few months ago. You went as far as to say to me you thought he had a point when it came to “deadbeat Aboriginal Dads”- whether or not it was his job to say that is another question… We had a bit of a fight about this because I thought- along with many people- that the cartoon was racist. Tell me why you think it was accurate- or at least, partly accurate.
I have spoken with a lot of Aboriginal women in these outback and rural communities and they have talked about men taking no responsibility for procreation of their children. I think in traditional Aboriginal society- when they were on the move- the mob looked after each other- if a woman was sick or pregnant or a man was sick or dying- an aunt or a cousin would look after them. Now that they’re stationary and society has changed, they come and go from communities much more. Men can produce children and then move on to go find work in Darwin or Broome- so the end result is there’s no father at home. Women that I have spoken to see this as one of the major problems in Aboriginal society. A man in one of the towns that I met told me that he 13 children. And I asked him how many times he had been married and he said never. He was 40 and the first three boys were with one woman and the other ten were one offs- which means there are eleven mothers to his children. When I told this story of this one man with 13 kids to other men in Arnhem Land and the Kimberley and then up on the Cape, all the men that I spoke with- maybe fifteen over the month we were away- sheepishly smiled and would say they had between 3-10 children themselves, from 2-5 women. The older men and women will tell you the grandmothers look after the children. That doesn’t mean the mothers don’t look after the children and it doesn’t mean there aren’t many, many good fathers. It’s not every father and it’s not most fathers but it’s common enough for women across the outback to mention it to me over and over again.
But my point was that it wasn’t necessarily Bill Leak’s job- as a privileged white man- to teach us all about what is wrong with Indigenous Australia and that when white people speak on behalf of minorities and reinforce ugly stereotypes, it takes away the ability for minorities to speak for themselves. Also, that he didn’t specify that it was a rural problem, he just stereotyped Aboriginals in general.
And maybe that’s true. And like I said, it’s not every father and it’s not even most fathers. And you’re right- I don’t know how much Bill Leak actually knows about Indigenous Australia, particularly rural and outback Indigenous Australia. But I know a lot- I’ve seen a lot, I’ve experienced a lot and I’ve spoken to a lot of people. And as far as depicting what many, many Aboriginal women across the country have told me is a real problem in society, Bill Leak nailed it.
Fair enough. Last question. You’ve said that you don’t really “feel” Aboriginal, but when you went on Who Do You Think You Are, one of the greatest things for me was seeing you connect to that part of northern NSW where Bertha (Ray’s Indigenous Great-Grandmother) had lived and raised her family. Do you have an even stronger sense now- through your own experience and from doing two seasons of First Contact at how important that connection to the land is, that connection to country?
I was born in the bush and I grew up mostly in the bush. And I know that whenever I leave Sydney and I get across the mountains or up the top end I just breathe easier. And that’s something I can’t explain, even though I don’t think of myself as Aboriginal. But there’s no question that “country” and a love of country is in your blood. Having said that, I think part of the love of country for many Aboriginal people is that even if they’re not black-skinned, they’re Aboriginal and they feel Aboriginal and they feel as if they’re at the bottom of the totem pool. They feel put upon. So when they go back to a community- whether it be Dubbo or the outback- they feel that they’re amongst common people. I think that part of love of country is love of community: it’s “I go back to my community and I know everyone, I don’t feel like an outsider or like I’m going to have the finger pointed at me, like I do when I’m in my white school or when I’m in my white society.” More and more I think “country” really means community.
Thanks for talking to me Dad.
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The second series of First Contact starts on Tuesday 29 November at 8:30pm on SBS.