In the past month state broadcaster ABC has been promoting television series titled Black As, an apparent reboot of the 2001 series, Bush Mechanics. It takes the SWPL viewer out of his comfortable urban setting and transports him to the real Australia, where Aborigines roam free on the dusty windswept plains of the outback.
The camera crew follows around a group of young Aboriginal men who find abandoned vehicles in remote parts of the country and perform crafty and illegal repairs to get them up and running and take them into their possession. The purpose of these 'bush mechanic' expeditions is unclear, beyond the enjoyment the men appear to take in the process. Why this is considered television requires understanding the assumptions that the ABC is trying to challenge by making the series.
Most newsworthy references to the Aboriginal Question revolve around the tired slogan "closing the gap". From the COAG website, this means:
close the gap in life expectancy within a generation (by 2031); halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018; ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities by 2013; halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children by 2018; halve the gap for Indigenous students in Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rates by 2020; and halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and other Australians by 2018.
Left out from the above list include the domestic violence, alcohol, drug and crime epidemics that continue to plague the Aboriginal population.
Broadly, equalising outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginals is the framework that government at all levels is committed to, despite grave concerns about recent evidence that suggests Aboriginal people are facing enormous pressure to lose their traditional culture in order to be successful in Australia.
Programmes such as Bush Mechanics serve as a relief valve for some of the guilt felt by progressive and enlightened ABC viewers who want to see Aborigines in a positive light, being Clevermen in their natural habitat. Serving as both a nature documentary and an invitation for viewers to celebrate the practical, adroit and good-humoured Indigenous man, 'Bush Mechanics' kills two birds with one stone.
Despite the likely possibility that these scenes are inspired by true stories and a LubeMobile van runs idle stage-left, the conservative's protestation about 'racism of low expectations' rings hollow to the wider audiences. The fact that Aborigines' best public performance, outside of rent-seeking for their misery, comprises acting out proto-Mad-Max car theft is a heart-warming and life-affirming tribute to the struggle of our first peoples with technology in the harshest of climates.
Since the urban middle class viewers have probably never changed their oil, let alone opened the hood of their car, I don't doubt that some people are genuinely impressed that there are people out there who can make engines spring to life, like magic. Rather than marvel at the creation of the engine itself, or the frontier of technology that is virtually the preserve of the white man, the ABC viewer is filled with a smug warm glow at watching Aborigines use hatchets to chop off a rusted roof and a doll's head to replace an oil cap.
I'm surprised that the Australian public is willing to allow this enormous human potentiality be pent up in outback misadventures, and not directed towards saving our economy or pioneering the next digital disruption. It's enough to cause one to ask, what role do these Clevermen have to play in Malcolm Turbull's new Innovation Economy? How can we address the problematic role of the white Australia in taking away the freedom to be who they are? How do we redress past wrongs and avoid and unfairly benefiting from the advanced technology developed before European settlement?
These are tough questions and I don't pretend to have the answers. It's a start of a conversation that we've been too afraid to have, for too long.