The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back

“As children, we were given to understand that we were merely innocent bystanders to the slow and natural death of an ancient people, the First Australians, rather than the inheritors of a history every bit as rapacious as that of the United States, Latin America, Africa.”

John Pilger’s second British film about his homeland, The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back, was inspired by director Alec Morgan’s 1983 Australian documentary Lousy Little Sixpence, which tells the story of the “stolen generation”, Aboriginal children of mixed parentage who were taken away from their mothers and put away in institutions or used as bonded labour. In The Secret Country, Pilger also recounts the experiences of Aborigines since whites arrived in the 18th century and how many are living in poverty and poor health.

He finds them still dying from preventable, infectious diseases, including leprosy and trachoma – which causes blindness – and some not surviving beyond middle age. Many black Australians live in tin shelters and they have one of the highest prison populations in the world, for crimes relating to homelessness, alcoholism and unemployment. Pilger also meets two “stolen generation” victims, Bobby Randall and Vince Forrester.

He recalls massacres of Aborigines following Captain Cook’s arrival in Botany Bay in 1770 and their war of resistance. Today, he says, there is a new fightback and some Aborigines are rising to public prominence and taking jobs once the preserve of whites. However, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s pledge of legislation allowing Aborigines to control rights on their own land has been abandoned following lobbying from mining companies.

Pilger concludes: “It seems to me that, until a committed policy of reconciliation, of real nationhood, is offered to the First Australians, those who came recently can never claim their own.”

The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back (Central Independent Television), ITV, 21 May 1985

Producer-director: Alan Lowery (53 mins)

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library