Scrimgeour, David. Remote as Ever: the Aboriginal struggle for autonomy in the Western Desert. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2022. RRP: $32.99, 336pp, ISBN: 9780522878974.
‘Dignity is more important than penicillin or toilets.’ (4)
So said Dr Trevor Cutter in 1978, a young medical physician who was to become one of author David Scrimgeour’s mentors and friends. From Cutter, Scrimgeour came to understand a simple truth: self-determination and autonomy are instrumental to improving health for Aboriginal people.
In Remote as Ever: the Aboriginal struggle for autonomy in the Western Desert, Scrimgeour, a non-Indigenous man, shares his experiences as a curious young doctor working in isolated communities in Australia’s Western Desert in the late 1970s, and his later efforts to support the Aboriginal community-controlled healthcare movement.
Well-researched, thorough, and to-the-point, this book is written as practically as one might imagine from a man of medicine. With minimal flowery language and almost a point-by-point relaying of the people and places he meets, the story begins with Scrimgeour as a fresh-faced young graduate falling into a job at Alice Springs after the devastating Cyclone Tracy sweeps him off course and away from his original outpost in Darwin.
We follow his journey from Alice as he takes on jobs as a medical officer in remote communities in and between the Northern Territory, South Australian and Western Australian borders, as well as the Pilbara region. Working alongside Pitjantjatjara, Pintupi, Martu and Spinifex mob, amongst others, Scrimgeour found himself based in the medical office (which often turned out to be a 4WD car fitted with medical supplies) of communities such as Utopia, Kalka, Strelley, Kintore and Tjuntjuntjara. The average population of these communities ranged from less than 100 to around 300 people.
Remote as Ever divides each community experience into two parts: an overview of the history of said community and the rise of the Aboriginal-controlled healthcare movement there, and Scrimgeour’s own journey and involvement in that community during the late 1970s. While the author’s writing didn’t take me into the desired aromas, visceral senses and inward reflections of the desert’s impact, his historical summaries do have the very powerful effect of sounding almost like a record-player scratching itself as it plays the same tune on repeat. The tune goes: for as long as settlers have been around, Aboriginal people of the Western Desert have always been fighting for autonomy and independence from imposed colonial ways of living. Australian governments (state and federal) have either been supremely neglectful or paternalistically controlling in their ‘management’ of these communities’ affairs.
Scrimgeour cites examples that make the blood curl. These include the British nuclear weapons trials conducted repeatedly in the central desert throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, inevitably impacting as many as over 100 nomadic Aṉangu still living in Spinifex country; a young Rupert Murdoch’s lies about Aboriginal living conditions in Warburton in 1957, which contributed to the rejection of much-needed government funding for the community; and the rolling of army tanks into Alice Springs with the infamous Northern Territory Intervention in 2007. The reader’s frustration quickly builds at the continued ignorance and malintent of state institutions acting out what Scrimgeour rightly refers to as the ‘ongoing structure of colonisation’ (xiii emphasis added) in Australia—as opposed to a singular event laid distantly behind us in our forgotten and embarrassed past.
While references are not lacking when it comes to the desert homeland movement, there is not much detail on people’s lives on the ground once they do return to their ancestral and spiritual Countries. In fact, Aboriginal voices don’t appear much at all throughout the book. The author attributes this to the sad and important reality that ‘many of the protagonists have passed away and did not leave written records’ (xi). This is the bitter irony of this book: it is written by a non-Indigenous person who was given the Order of Australia in 2009 for his contributions to the healthcare of remote communities, yet many of the Aboriginal people Scrimgeour discusses working with and learning from, including nangkari (traditional healers) and Aboriginal nurses and medical officers, are now deceased. The achievements, strength and resilience of Aboriginal activists, teachers and healers go mostly unheard and uncelebrated by mainstream Australia as they and their Elders pass away at shockingly young ages in comparison to non-Indigenous people, due to higher levels of comorbidities (disease burden), social determinants such as lower levels of education and employment and a range of healthcare inequities (AIHW 2018).
For even bringing this simple fact alone to our attention, this book makes an important contribution. The key argument that Scrimgeour does an excellent job of pounding into our brains is that, for Aboriginal people, being on Country and having communities built on a foundation of self-determination at every level (the two concepts in fact reinforcing the other), directly improves their health and wellbeing. This is achieved both through the Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Organisations (ACCHOs), and the land and environmental management programs, notably ranger programs. Here, we see both self-determination and the homelands movement leading to remarkable outcomes for Aboriginal people’s health, such as better nutrition and fewer chronic disease diagnoses (Burgess, Johnston, et al). Beyond the visible health benefits, a community in control of its own affairs has also been shown to lead to stronger family authority, a growth in confidence and self-esteem, a recovery of one’s sense of purpose and more interest in education and educating others (Scrimgeour 190).
Scrimgeour’s final few chapters on Aboriginal-controlled healthcare, with his analysis of the threats posed to these processes of healing and empowering communities, are particularly fascinating. He explores the neoliberal capitalist arguments that emerged under Howard’s leadership in Australia in the 1990s (and in the rest of the world), how they were used to support the dismantling of the ACCHO movement, and in fact to disband remote communities altogether as part of what Scrimgeour argues was, in action, an attempt to return to the ‘assimilationist’ policies of the 1950s and ’60s. Thus, Aboriginal autonomy would be undermined, and Aboriginal people would be ‘re-integrated’ into the mainstream economy as ‘useful’ labour. The argument the government was making was that Aboriginal people being back on Country (the homelands movement) and overseeing their own affairs (self-determination) was in fact what was causing their own disfunction and poor health issues. This attack on the homelands movement was and is achieved through policies the state and federal governments have created without community consultation, such as the amalgamation of remote communities into regional councils (effectively removing opportunities for local decision-making through community councils); the Community Development Program (CDP), a form of financial punishment for Aboriginal people who, in simple terms, don’t work or turn up to work-related appointments, leading to increased poverty in those areas where it is implemented; and the current failure of Closing the Gap initiatives, which as of the most recent data (Closing the Gap Report July 2022) is unlikely to hit two-thirds of its targets to end systemic disadvantage for First Nations people.
In a book about self-determination, I cannot escape the need to relay the importance of this year for Indigenous autonomy. This year, Australians will be asked to vote on a referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, which will be a constitutionally enshrined national body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to speak to the federal parliament on issues that concern their communities. If successful, its constitutional protection will ensure a Voice for Indigenous Australians is permanent—unlike the very similar-in-concept Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which was easily demolished by our old friend John Howard during his reign of neoliberal terror in 2004 (The Age). While some people on the ground may doubt the likelihood of a Voice representing their needs, particularly for those living in remote and regional areas who, like the people mentioned in Remote as Ever, have justifiably felt unheard and attacked by policymakers for decades, I say this: the Voice is the concrete foundation of a house. Next comes truth-telling; next comes Treaty; next comes justice. But without the permanent foundation that a referendum promises, the house’s walls might just as well be matchsticks, and the next hostile government the big bad wolf who promises to blow them down.
Remote as Ever joins a chorus of other writings, from Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts alike, who make a plea for self-determination for Indigenous peoples, and a plea for change to our broader society and healthcare in general—and for this I applaud the author. There is much we can learn from Scrimgeour’s book, and, as he argues so powerfully, the solutions to the disfunction and inequity settler colonialism has caused in this country will not come from settlers, but from Indigenous people themselves.
2004.‘Howards puts ATSIC to death.’ The Age: National, April 16, 2004. https://www.theage.com.au/national/howard-puts-atsic-to-death-20040416-gdxoqw.html
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2022. Indigenous health and wellbeing. Australian Government. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/indigenous-health-and-wellbeing
Burgess, C. and Johnston, F., et al. 2009. ‘Healthy country, healthy people: The relationship between Indigenous health status and “caring for country”’. Medical Journal of Australia 190, 10: 562–72.
Luisa Mitchell is a Broome-born author with Whadjuk Ballardong Nyungar and European heritage, working as an arts producer and writer in Boorloo/Perth. Her work has been published in Fremantle Press’ Kimberley Stories (2012), and Centre for Stories’ journal Portside Review and anthology Under the Paving Stones, the Beach (2022). She was recently awarded an ASAL/Copyright Agency Writer’s Fellowship (2023).