Eleven miles by ferry from Perth is Western Australia’s “premier tourist destination”. This is Rottnest Island, whose scabrous wild beauty and isolation evoked, for me, Robben Island in South Africa. Empires are never short of devil’s islands; what makes Rottnest different – indeed, what makes Australia different – is silence and denial on an epic scale.
“Five awesome reasons to visit!” the brochure says. These range from “family fun” to “historical Rottnest”. The island is described as “a guiding light, a defender of the peace”. In eight pages of prescribed family fun, there is just one word of truth – prison.
More than any other colonial society, Australia consigns its dirtiest secrets, past and present, to wilful ignorance or indifference. When I was at school in Sydney, standard texts all but dismissed the most enduring human entity on earth, the indigenous first Australians. “It was quite useless to treat them fairly,” the historian Stephen Roberts wrote, “since they were completely amoral and incapable of sincere and prolonged gratitude.” His acclaimed colleague Russel Ward was succinct: “We are civilised today and they are not.”
That Australia has since changed is not disputed. To measure this change, a visit to Western Australia is essential. The vast state – our richest – is home to the world’s biggest resources boom: iron ore, gold, nickel, oil, petroleum, gas. Profits are in the multiple billions. When the former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd tried to impose a modest tax, he was overthrown by his own party following a A$22m (£14.6m) propaganda campaign by the mining companies, whose mates in the media uphold the world’s first Murdocracy. “Assisted by Rio Tinto” reads the last line of an unctuous newspaper article on the boom’s benefits to black Australians.
At airports passengers are greeted by banners with pictures of smiling Aboriginal faces in hard hats, promoting the plunderers of their land. “This is our story,” says the slogan. It isn’t.
Barely a fraction of mining, oil and gas revenue has benefited Aboriginal communities, whose poverty is an enduring shock. In Roebourne, in the mineral-rich Pilbara, 80% of the children suffer from an ear infection called otitis media, which can cause partial deafness. Or they go blind from preventable trachoma. Or they die from Dickensian infections. That is their story…