Welcome to Australia

“It was fitting that Sydney, a sporting paradise, should be given the Olympic Games in the millennium year, 2000... When it came to the vote, no one mentioned those Australians excluded from Paradise and who were until recently its invisible people. This film is about that other Australia.”

John Pilger and director Alan Lowery returned to their homeland to make Welcome to Australia in 1999, a year before Sydney hosted the Olympic Games. Their searing indictment of the injustices experienced by the Aborigines, previously featured in The Secret Country (1985) and The Last Dream (1988), now turned to black athletes who had been denied places in the nation’s international teams, in a film inspired by Australian professor Collin Tatz’s book Obstacle Race – Aborigines in Sport.

Pilger compares this inequality to the old South Africa under apartheid and reports that there were no native Australians in the country’s 1956 Olympic squad. Wally McArthur had to move to Britain to find recognition as a professional athlete and Rugby League and football player.

Tatz, who in his book lists 1,200 outstanding Aboriginal athletes, of whom only five were given access to the equipment, training and facilities available to white Australians, tells Pilger: “They are people who have shown sometimes twice, sometimes three times, as much talent in order to rate a place.” They included sprinter Cathy Freeman, a gold medallist at the 1994 Olympics.

Pilger likens the case of Australian Rugby League player Eddie Murray, whose death in police custody he eported in The Last Dream, to that of Stephen Lawrence in Britain – and reveals that a 1997 exhumation had found his sternum to be smashed.

He also returns to the story of the “stolen generation”, those Aboriginal children of mixed parentage who were taken away from their mothers, and official recognition of the truth with the publication of a Human Rights Commission report, Bringing Them Home, along with the continuing prevalence of the eye disease trachoma among blacks and the shocking statistic that their life expectancy is 25 years less than whites.

Summing up, Pilger says: “Civilisations are judged by how they treat all their people, especially the most vulnerable, who are often the bravest... Why is it not possible for a nation’s leaders to behave honourably towards less than 2 per cent of the population?”

Welcome to Australia (Central Independent Television/Carlton UK), ITV1, 31 August 1999

Producer-director: Alan Lowery; co-producer: John Pilger (50 mins)

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library