Review of ‘The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus’ by Peter Sutton

01st December 2010

Peter Sutton

Politics of Suffering book coverThe Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus by Peter Sutton. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2009, xii+268 pp., ISBN 9780522856361.

Reviewed by Luke Godwin

Central Queensland Cultural Heritage Management, 16 Moren Street, Rockhampton Qld 4700, Australia

For various reasons I found writing this review to be a real challenge. Firstly, the book is not about archaeology much at all, although it draws on some (very limited) archaeological data in discussing one issue. But mostly, the challenge derived from the issues covered and what has proved to be a controversial line of argument. That the book was published at much the same time as the Northern Territory intervention was gaining a head of steam only served to heighten that controversy.

Before going into the issues, it is important to contextualise these by reviewing the author’s credentials. Peter Sutton is one of the most highly-regarded anthropologists in Australia – well, perhaps less so after he published this book. He started his research as a linguist undertaking salvage work in northern and central Queensland in the late 1960s (interestingly, this becomes a point of contention with others who have reviewed his book). Then, he was one of the bunch of anthropologists drawn together in the early 1970s at The University of Queensland, who undertook research in Cape York. It was the quality of this pool of work that underwrote successful Native Title claims in the mid-1990s, and Sutton was at the forefront of this. Seen by the Queensland Government as dangerous radicals who were stirring up Aborigines with incendiary ideas about land rights, Sutton and his colleagues attracted the attention of the infamous Special Branch. During the 1970s and 1980s, Sutton was a major player as a researcher and expert witness in a large number of successful land rights claims in the Northern Territory. In doing so, he often worked as a consultant rather than being based in the academy, although he regularly has been granted professorial status with research grants (again, earning a living as a consultant has also provided ammunition to various critics). He has published constantly, taking the fight on occasion to those who he considered were proffering flawed and misinformed views about native land tenure that were detrimental to Aboriginal interests. The National Native Title Tribunal has commissioned him to provide a range of materials to assist others in managing Native Title. All this is not simply to sing Sutton’s praises, rather it is to demonstrate that we are not dealing with someone who has surfaced from some neo-conservative think tank dedicated to correcting liberal leftist wrongs as part of the recent ‘history wars’. Here we have someone who has devoted a large chunk of his life to a cause which has not always been fashionable or sexy, and who has had an exemplary career in that area.

It is precisely this impressive commitment and capacity over a long career that makes the messages contained in this book so challenging to so many but demand that we consider them with circumspection, mulling over the argument with care. They cannot be dismissed as the writings of someone determined to blunt the charge of the land rights liberals, waiting until the time seems ripe to launch a salvo. In fact, this book had its genesis long before either the demise of ATSIC or the intervention. It came about from a lecture delivered in 2000, and a lecture, by the by, that enjoyed the support of others not noted for their antipathy to social justice agendas.

The main tenant of Sutton’s argument is that the emphasis on land rights and other social justice projects as the remedy for a range of problems that beset Aboriginal communities has been at the expense of things that the broader community expects and takes for granted: the right to live your life free of fear, with safety and security guaranteed for all, as well as access to a reasonable standard of healthcare and physical well-being. Sutton has followed an emotionally painful course to arrive at this conclusion. He has watched as communities of which he has been an intimate member have spiralled into increasing levels of physical and sexual violence, ill-health and conditions of abject poverty, paradoxically at the same time they have been granted increasing levels of autonomy and land ownership. Sutton presents some compelling evidence in this regard. He has, for instance, by virtue of his great experience and knowledge brought a forensic eye to the question, assembling a range of historical data to demonstrate, for instance, that the rate of homicide in various communities has increased alarmingly from both times of missions and before that as well, and that the causes of this are far more complex than previously thought. Why, he asks, have land rights as part of a broader social justice project, to which he has so demonstrably committed himself for 40 years, not delivered the expected outcomes?

The answer for Sutton lies in various areas. These include the misguided expectations of the liberals who championed land rights and other related issues. Thus, bureaucracies that, in their desire to promote respect for Indigenous culture, seek to accommodate traditional health practices at the same time and in addition to Western medicine, based as it is on the scientifically provable germ model, are countenancing a process that is probably entirely counter-productive to a modern health care system. Sutton also marshals data that suggest it simply may be an unreasonable expectation to seek First World health outcomes in remote communities and outstations where conditions that would allow such an outcome simply do not exist and are unlikely ever to do so.

But in what is the most controversial, and perhaps unexpected, line of argument, and one Sutton recognised would cause considerable ire, he suggests that the cause of many problems lies within Aboriginal culture itself, or the interplay of that traditional culture with new conditions. While clearly effective in first colonising and then occupying every part of Australia, there are elements of a generally highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle that simply cannot be accommodated in the sedentary residential patterns that dominate pretty much everywhere. For instance, methods of non-judicial dispute resolution in which physical self-redress was normal but often regulated by fission of a group simply do not work in a sedentary residential community. Practices such as ‘cruelling’ may have been important in the past but now may only exacerbate the problem. These are but a few examples: there are many more throughout the book.

The obvious consequence of this line of thinking is that, if Sutton is correct, then it is Aboriginal communities themselves that are going to have to determine just what it is they really want, understanding that some compromise is clearly required: security and healthy life may well demand the abandonment of some traditional cultural practices. For Sutton, it will be impossible to achieve parity with the mainstream community in key areas such as health and personal safety while holding fast to traditional practices as well as to recently granted rights, such as unfettered access to alcohol, which can radically promote problems. This is simply irreconcilable with the desired outcomes. This is a hugely controversial position and Sutton has been attacked for daring to put the argument.

For me, two particular questions emerge: is Sutton blaming the victim and, in arguing that some elements of Aboriginal law and custom are unsustainable in contemporary settings and will need to be set aside if other outcomes are to be achieved, is this as the basis for another attack on Native Title, among other things?

When the book was published, the Australian Anthropological Society (AAS) listserver was alive with commentary. The book generated sufficient clamour for an entire session of the 2009 AAS annual conference to be devoted to exploring the issues he raised, as well as Sutton’s own attitudes and motivations. Has a book in Australian archaeology generated this sort of heat, or warranted this sort of attention? Possibly the early debates around intensification approached it in the polarisation of the participants, if not the ultimate seriousness of the topic? Some of the commentary has assumed quite a virulently personal form. There are plenty who consider that Sutton is blaming the victim. Worse, they see him as an active element of some nefarious ‘Government project’, intimately linked to the forces arrayed against Aboriginal people, seeking to disempower them and to wind back the clock on progress made over the last 40 years. On occasion, Sutton was virtually accused of having sold out to the paying customer, with his status as a consultant standing as some sort of proof that he, and presumably his opinions, was for sale like some anthropological Alan Jones. Similarly, his early career as a linguist was cited as if in some way indicating that he was not a real anthropologist, and so presumably his insights and arguments were tainted or flawed. In contrast, those with whom Sutton takes issue in his book are treated fairly if tellingly subjected to a rigorous critique of their logic. Of course, it is perhaps the case that I, as a consultant, and thus up for sale, have been captured by the very same project, and either naively cannot see this or simply refuse to remove my project-purchased blinkers.

I am not sure that Sutton’s arguments can be reduced simply to ‘blaming the victim’. He certainly argues that whatever has passed for policy and practice is significantly to blame for the morass in which communities find themselves. But in making the argument regarding fundamentally flawed and failing policy, he is surely also making the point that policy-makers need to confront and modify their own thinking, not attribute failure elsewhere. Does this mean he supports each and every element of the intervention? I do not know, although Sutton makes few bones that finding a way to provide a reasonable level of safety for the weakest in a society requires a major, perhaps radical, move away from the situation as it is. The support he enjoys in this from people such as Marcia Langton is not to be lightly dismissed. If he suggests that the Aboriginal community itself needs to take up the challenge and find new ways of managing and confronting various challenges, then he is not alone. Noel Pearson, among others, has been prominent in exploring this point with some elegance and in detail for years. There is nothing in Sutton’s book that leads me to a view that he considers people should be left to their own devices with the Government withdrawing resources, or alternatively that the Government, in providing resources, is obliged to deprive Aboriginal communities of some or any role in delivery of a revised programme of policy and services.

Sutton certainly does, of course, consider that there is a need to strike a very different balance between priorities of the social justice agenda and the delivery of basic community services, and that there may be a strong, possibly unpleasant, palliative to be taken in all this which may have to be administered by the State. That others have suggested that the State was the cause of the problem in the first place and therefore questioned how can they be trusted to fix up the mess, or that they have some other agenda in all this simply begs another question: if not the State, then are they seriously suggesting that non-government organisations, mining companies, a paternalist squattocracy and religious organisations will be able to step up to the plate and provide the resources to solve the problems? Or is there some other, so far undescribed, model in the offing? Perhaps the communities alone and in isolation!

As to the legal consequences of any of the shifts in cultural practice that Sutton sees as important in creating the more secure and healthy society that any reasonable person would want for anyone, only time will tell. Will the cultural changes eventuate in the first place? And what interpretation will a court place on any apparent willingness to jettison certain practices that may no longer adequately service the needs of a community confronting new modes of lifestyle. The capacity for courts to understand the evolution of any society in the context of Native Title is one that needs to be tested. There is enough to suggest that a rock¬like intransigence, impervious to subtle and nuanced arguments addressing issues of this sort, should not be presumed (Sutton also explores the issue of a dual legal system of traditional law and Western jurisprudence operating in tandem or parallel).

While there was a shrill and discordant response from some, Sutton has found his supporters as well, and these include people who could hardly be lumped into some stereotypical neo-conservative backlash. If some neo-cons hasten to bend Sutton’s arguments to their own purposes, is he to blame for this? It was the failure either to see, or in seeing a determination to set to one side or ignore what were unfortunate distractions from the main agenda (and which would in any case be remedied by completion of the land rights project) that contributed to things getting to where they are. Should we just keep quiet for the sake of some greater game? Or is someone saying there is nothing to fix and just keep on rollin’? Or is there opposition to change because of a deep attachment to ‘the other’ and an aversion to its’ possible dilution – an attachment to ‘the sanctity of cultural difference’ (p.15) as Sutton puts it? That would be a truly unhappy situation: Aboriginal people perhaps being held back to satisfy the academic interests or psychological urges of others.

All this is not to say that there are not some very thoughtful critiques of Sutton. These explore and challenge some important elements of his argument. Among the best that I have found are those by Trigger (2009) and Dombrowski (2010). Each has considered Sutton in some depth, and is able to recognise the strength and truth in some of his observations and arguments. At the same time they clearly identify some significant weaknesses in his arguments. They observe that some of his arguments lead to cul de sacs, or fail to move to the deeper level of analysis that some of his commentary demands if we are to truly understand and find answers to some of the drivers and motivations that require redress. For those who want to get a useful corrective to some of Sutton’s arguments, these two, and there probably are others, are recommended. For any amount of exposure to what we might call less rounded commentary, go to anything by Lattas in postings to the AAS listserver.

For the immediate appeal to an archaeologist, what is available? Well, Sutton cites data collected by Stephen Webb on skeletal pathologies to demonstrate that the archaeological evidence of skull fractures puts the incidence of this injury in pre-European Aboriginal Australia at the very highest end of a worldwide survey of its incidence. He follows this with historical evidence and then into the modern, and the recent availability of alcohol in many communities, and the vast disparity in hospitalisation rates of Aboriginal women with those of the broader population, and a huge increase in rates of homicide in various communities to make a compelling case that whatever the past, there is something very wrong with this picture right now, and that it could well derive from a dangerous mix of traditional attitudes to violence married with uncontrolled access to large amounts of booze. That alcohol management plans, some government-imposed but others brokered within a particular community, have started to turn around the truly awful statistics associated with this demonstrates that in this instance, at least, Sutton’s analysis and suggested solutions may not be too wide of the mark.

Sutton also provides some interesting data relating to marriage patterns in the context of discussing customary law. He notes that, in Australia, a rate of mixed marriages (one Aboriginal and one non-Aboriginal partner) of 46% in 1986 had risen to 71.5% in 2006. In major urban centres such as Sydney the figures for both genders are in excess of 80%. Sutton argues that the behavioural shift that this indicates is ‘why the construction of Aboriginal identity is decreasingly founded on cultural differences or differences of appearance, and increasingly founded on assertions of an ethnicity based on past ancestry, family history and present recognition’ (p.158). He goes on to state that there is ‘an inevitable homogenising effect on how people look and live … [but] this is not resulting in a diminution of Indigenous identification … 87% of the children of interracial unions were identified as Aboriginal’ (p.159). Only in remote Australia are the figures significantly different and greatly lower. Sutton proffers the view that customary law and practice is, in such circumstances, likely to already be ‘on the way out’ (p.159) if not gone already: this ‘one major structural and cultural factor, at least, works firmly against maintenance or revival of customary law’ (pp.159). This observation, of course, brings into some focus an obvious (but by no means absolute) dichotomy in cultural heritage management: the extreme emphasis on archaeology in urban and regional areas for both (generally) white professionals and Aboriginal people, and the far greater emphasis on anthropological/ethnographic inquiries in remote Australia. It also does provide some context for, and a way of reconciling, for instance, curious and paradoxical experiences many managers may have had. By way of example, in one recent experience on a project in a closely settled region I was told, I believe in all seriousness, that it was culturally appropriate to undertake an archaeological excavation, of course using standard approaches rooted in a Western scientific discipline, while in the next breath being advised that videoing the exercise would, however, be inappropriate. The questions Sutton’s observation raises in relation to significance assessment, for instance, might attract attention from managers and legislators.

Turning elsewhere, I also really enjoyed the lovely descriptions that Sutton provides of the relationships between various anthropologists and their primary Aboriginal informants. It is a real insight into anthropological method and fieldwork that a dry textbook rendition could not hope to convey. That Sutton then uses this as a springboard to consider the much larger issue of national reconciliation is an interesting example of his working from the particular to the general in some cases.

The book is beautifully written which, of course, can be a great way to mask some of the limits of thesis and thinking. But this is an important book that deserves to be read and reread and pondered and critiqued by any thinking Australian concerned with what is happening in Aboriginal communities. If it seems I have not formed an opinion around all this it is because I have not. But I suspect that the end of consensus, with the possibility that different, possibly competing, models could be trialled and assessed and refined, with a little less confident certainty of the efficacy of any one approach from the start, and a little less one size suits all, could be no bad thing. Whether the policy wonks could cope with such an approach remains to be seen.


Dombrowski, K. 2010 The white hand of capitalism and the end of indigenism as we know it: Review of ‘The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus’ by Peter Sutton. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 21:129-140.

Trigger, D. 2009 Sustaining fictions: Challenging the politics of embarrassment: Review of ‘The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus’ by Peter Sutton. Australian Book Review 316:42-43.

Luke Godwin
Review of 'The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus' by Peter Sutton
Dec 2010
Book Reviews
You must be a member to download the attachment ( Login / Sign up )