Monday, 27 November 2017

No Sugar

King Henry VI, Part Two, Act Three, Scene 2.

I recently spent some time in Western Australia, and came across a copy of Jack Davis’ short 1985 play No Sugar in an op shop (link here).

Davis (link here) was born in 1917, and led a varied life as a stockman, writer, playwright, activist, and spokesman for Aboriginal people. As a young fella, Davis spent a couple of years at the Moore River Settlement near Mogumber just north of Perth, an experience which clearly informs his political and literary activism. By the end of his life in 2000, his plays had achieved international acclaim, and he had been recognised with an OBE, and Order of Australia, and various state and federal Board memberships.

No Sugar, set in the region surrounding Perth in Western Australia during the great depression in the early 1930s, tells the story of the fictional Millimurra family and their interactions with the ‘protective’ state government of the day.

While I knew of Davis by reputation, I never met him and had never seen his plays nor read any of his writing, so reading No Sugar was an opportunity to begin to close a gap in my own appreciation of the depth of the Indigenous contribution to Australia’s cultural life.

Davis’ achievement with No Sugar extends beyond crafting a work of considerable artistic and literary merit, which brings to vivid life the challenges of the depression for many Australians, but in doing so rips the band aid off the raw wound which lies at the heart of the history of race relations in Australia. His genius lies in bringing to life through the narrative of a single family the brutal ongoing reality of the interface between the settler state and first peoples over 100 years after the initial colonisation of their lands. Davis also throws light on the deeply human responses of Aboriginal people, the ways in which the state laws operate to drive different responses to injustice, both among Aboriginal people and wetjalas, the Noongar term for white fella or the English language.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of No Sugar is the inclusion of a significant amount of Noongar language and colloquial expression in including Aboriginal humour in the dialogue, and the Currency Press edition which I found includes a very helpful glossary of Aboriginal terms at the end.

The reason for including an account of No Sugar in this blog is that it struck me that Davis had a lot to say about the ways in which policy and public administration was used to reinforce the politics of exclusion. His accounts of the ways in which control was exercised by the Superintendent of the Moore River settlement, the interactions between the legendary Chief Protector of Aborigines, A O Neville and the local town police, the legerdemain used to persuade and cajole the Millimurra family to leave their settled camp in Northam and the unsettling exposition of the bureaucratic imagination in full flight to justify the unjustifiable is a tour de force in policy analysis, albeit via the play’s semi-fictional narrative.

I say semi-fictional, because the removal of the Millimurra family in No Sugar mirrors the actual forced removal of 90 Aboriginal people from Northam to Moore River Settlement in late 1932. The then Premier’s own electorate was Northam, his Government faced an election in April the following ear, and his popularity was on the wane. Local community antagonism to Aboriginal people was rife. See the insightful account of this episode (and much more) in Anna Haebich’s excellent account of Aborigines in southwest Western Australia, For Their Own Good, published in 1988 by UWA Press.

The point of No Sugar is not merely to recount or explicate the effects of a shameful and discriminatory period in our past. It celebrates the resilience of Aboriginal people and their cultures and languages notwithstanding sustained attempts to obliterate their presence metaphorically and actually. It raises questions about the propensity of our liberal democratic system to hypocritically ignore our widely accepted commitments to the right to life, to freedom of speech, to freedom of movement, to liberty and security, to due process under law, to freedom of thought, belief and expression, to freedom of assembly and association, to the right to marry and begin a family, and to the right to be free of discrimination.

A further important point of No Sugar is to raise questions about our current approaches to policy development and implementation in Indigenous affairs. While the levels of deep exclusion of Indigenous people which were practised in 1930s Western Australia are no longer evident in Australian politics and policymaking, one would have to be blind to believe that all is well, that exclusion is no longer practised or prevalent, and that the sentiments espoused in 1944 by Chief Protector Neville are not still alive and well in some parts of our state and federal policymaking domains. Neville stated then:
The native must be helped in spite of himself! Even if a measure of discipline is necessary it must be applied, but it can be applied in such a way as to appear to be gentle persuasion…the end in view will justify the means employed (quoted by Haebich 1988:156)

Anyone who plays a part in developing or implementing Indigenous policy in Australia should take the time to read No Sugar.

Davis’ play takes its name from the ironic parody of a hymn ‘There is a Happy Land’ sung by the cast members portraying inmates at Moore River:
There is a happy land,
Far, far away
No sugar in our tea,
Bread and butter we never see,
That’s why we’re gradually
Fading away

But as Bernadette Brennan points out in her essay on No Sugar (link here), the title also references Aboriginal rejection and renunciation of the bureaucratic strategy implicit in Neville’s advice to Jimmy Munday in Act One of the play: ‘sugar catches more flies than vinegar’. As Brennan states: ‘Aboriginal people will not play sweetly, they will not be meekly charming and play by the rules of the imposed game’.

Policymakers have much to learn from Davis’ No Sugar, and from the insights it offers into the nature of unthinking bureaucratic process, the ways such processes can support exclusionary policies and the ways unthinking policy can undermine human lives and dignity.