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Posted on 30 May 2023 in Non-Fiction |

DAVID SCRIMGEOUR Remote As Ever: The Aboriginal struggle for autonomy in the Western Desert. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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David Scrimgeour charts local successes and government failures for Aboriginal people in the Western Desert.

While there has been a growing awareness over recent decades, it would still be reasonable to suggest that most non-Indigenous Australians have only limited knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their culture, and the impact upon them of colonial settlement, the frontier wars, and the policies of colonial, state and federal governments over the long haul of Australia’s post-settlement history.

David Scrimgeour is a doctor who has spent most of his career working in Aboriginal health. He has been both a primary health worker in remote areas of the Western Desert – a large expanse of land that traverses the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia – and a consultant or board member of a number of umbrella organisations providing medical services to Aboriginal people. With this hands-on experience, Scrimgeour brings a wealth of knowledge concerning not only the health needs of Aboriginal people, but also how they have fared in the colonial settler society that is Australia.

He has written Remote As Ever: The Aboriginal struggle for autonomy in the Western Desert with two major objectives in mind. First, to provide an account of the various ‘mobs’ he has worked with in the Western Desert, and second, to provide an overview of the impact of government policies on the health and general welfare of Aboriginal people. Scrimgeour never loses sight of the fact that Australia is a colonial settler society, and cites anthropologist Patrick Wolfe (Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology, 1999), who:

… has suggested that settler colonialism is driven by a ‘logic of elimination’ that works to relocate Aboriginal people from their land and culture … Settler colonialism is not something confined to the past. For Patrick Wolfe … ‘invasion is a structure, not an event’.

Scrimgeour begins Remote As Ever by pointing out that in the 1970s two significant Aboriginal social movements were gathering momentum. These were:

… [a] community-controlled health-service movement … by Aboriginal people to take control of their own primary healthcare services … [and the] Aboriginal homelands movement (also known as the outstation movement) in which Aboriginal people relocated from missions and government settlements to live in more dispersed settlements on their traditional country.

Both were attempts to establish independence and autonomy for Indigenous Australians.

David Scrimgeour was a ‘Johnny on-the-spot’ witnessing these movements, and played an important role in relation to health care. In Remote As Ever his participant-observer account examines how different Western Desert mobs sought to achieve these aims. He juxtaposes these attempts with government initiatives – consistent with Patrick Wolfe’s observation of the ongoing nature of settler colonialism – to thwart them.

Following the completion of his medical degree in the mid-1970s, Scrimgeour began work in a mission in the Northern Territory. He took to heart the advice he was given by doctor and Aboriginal rights campaigner Charles Duguid, who told him that the culture of local people should be respected, he should learn the local Aboriginal language, there should be no coercion, including religious coercion, and that mission staff should work towards handing over control of the mission to local people.

The bulk of Remote As Ever describes the work Scrimgeour undertook with different mobs in the Western Desert. He initially provides an overview of the culture of Aboriginal desert mobs and how they are delineated in terms of language and kinship. He provides background information on the factors that forced them to be concentrated in various areas, such as pastoralists’ need for labour, the establishment of missions, and decisions by governments – the most extreme of these being the attempt (which was not successful) to clear desert people out of harm’s way during the Maralinga atomic tests of the 1950s and 1960s. Invariably, the people concerned were not consulted about these decisions, which were forced on them.

Possibly the most interesting example of resistance was the 1946 to 1949 strike of pastoral workers in the Pilbara. His account of this strike draws on the work of his sister Anne Scrimgeour (On Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike, Western Australia 1946-1949, 2020).

Scrimgeour examines the attempts of different mobs to return to their homelands, and what happened when they did so. Once a mob arrived back on their homeland, they needed a medical service. This is where Scrimgeour played an important role, establishing management structures for these services under local Aboriginal control. He consistently maintains that local control is essential for the successful delivery of medical services and improving the health of Aboriginal people. It should also be remembered that Scrimgeour (and many other doctors) learnt local languages in order to gain the respect and confidence of their patients.

Medical teams would consist of a doctor aided by two (sometimes more) nurses, who regularly visited homelands. They would train locals in basic healthcare so they could attend to minor issues. More complex and urgent patients were transferred to hospitals in major population centres. Scrimgeour also points out that medical help worked best when western-trained doctors worked in concert with traditional Indigenous medical persons.

In traditional Aboriginal medical care, a consultation is a social event, with a small crowd of people being present as a [local Indigenous medical person] attends to a patient, contributing to a validation of the patient’s illness and allowing a group expression of sympathy.

Scrimgeour’s overall conclusion, based on both his own experience and his reading of academic literature, is that this model of medical care improved the overall health, both physical and mental, of Aboriginal people.

In the final two chapters Scrimgeour examines how, following the election of John Howard in 1996, the federal government adopted a neoliberal approach to both the homelands movement and health care. The general line run by the government was that local communities and their accompanying health centres were inefficient and wasted resources. People in remote communities should be forced into larger population centres and medical services should be provided by mainstream providers. Much of the rhetoric for these changes was linked to drunkenness, child sexual abuse and exposure to pornography.

Scrimgeour provides a detailed account of the various policies introduced by Howard and subsequent governments. He points out how such policies were introduced with little or no consultation with the Aboriginal groups they were supposed to help. He emphasises that a major reason various mobs returned to their homelands in the first place was to escape the problems of larger population centres such as grog, drugs, pornography and violence. He is also critical of attacks on Aboriginal medical services and the move to mainstream fee-for-service providers. Such an approach involves more expenditure on Aboriginal health with worse health outcomes. Mainstream providers lack knowledge of Aboriginal health problems, cultural understanding and language skills and, especially for people living in remote areas, are too far from patients, which discourages their use with consequent negative effects on health.

The great strength of Remote As Ever: The Aboriginal struggle for autonomy in the Western Desert is how David Scrimgeour casts a shining light on so many aspects of Aboriginal life under colonial settlement. He highlights the continual struggle of different Aboriginal mobs for independence and the autonomy to preserve their culture and way of life. This is a book that tells us so much about what we ‘New’ Australians have done and keep on doing to Original Australians. It is a book that should be read by all of us.

David Scrimgeour Remote As Ever: The Aboriginal struggle for autonomy in the Western Desert Melbourne University Press 2022 PB 336pp $39.99

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

You can buy Remote As Ever from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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