The end of 'big men' politics

13 Nov 2008

Early this year I was approached by many young women, mothers, grandmothers, and those who work with them. At first I was nervous about what they may say: I knew I had stepped beyond what was expected of me in my Griffith REVIEW essay 'Trapped in the Aboriginal reality show'. I had prepared myself for hate mail and abuse, and that came, but for each abusive comment there were at least an equal number of women who contacted me and said, ‘You spoke for me’.

One woman pushed me to confront the core of the problem: ‘You and I know that the problem is big bunga politics.’ If you haven’t been in the Aboriginal world in the last thirty years, you may never have heard this phrase, but for those of us who have spent our lives fighting racism, agitating for change, for evidence-based policy, it describes something we know too well – the real politic of power in our world – power that is all too often used against women and children, power that takes many forms, and has too frequently been used for personal aggrandisement. The big bunga way – a scatological term used to refer to the ‘big man’ syndrome – works to the advantage of a few and has become normalised, and even glorified, in some circles. Meanwhile, assault, rape and an astonishing variety of other mental and physical forms of abuse have become the norm in far too many communities and families.

The symptoms of this are becoming increasingly well known – manifest in both vertical and lateral violence. At its core, there is a pattern of entrenched violence directed both against those in positions of official power, and poisonously and insidiously against those close by who have little power or capacity to respond. Violence as a proxy for power traumatises Indigenous families and communities in Australia, and in other countries that share a history of colonisation and displacement.

Vertical violence involves responses that are usually, though not always, disproportionate and dysfunctional, such as attacks on police officers, vehicles and stations. Anyone in a position of authority may be a target, as settlement battles are replayed. At times, the attacks are a response to abuses of power, but more often they are booze and dope fuelled rampages, such as the attacks which have been reported from time to time at Aurukun and Wadeye and the assaults on nurses and teachers. The usual result is that the nurses and teachers retreat, police officers are evacuated for a period of time and the gangs take over these townships, exacerbating the lawlessness, anarchy, crime and lateral violence – violence against their own.

In brief, the idea is that dissatisfaction and anger are expressed through acts of violence against the institutional supervisors, such as police, nurses and teachers. The consequences of this vicious, repetitive type of violence are that a parallel power structure evolves; the ‘big men politics’ that lie at the heart of both lateral and vertical violence that are reported much too regularly from Aboriginal Australia. It is painful and difficult to explain, but this is what I hope to do here.

Publication Details
Published year only: 
Subject Areas
Geographic Coverage