Five years ago, The Australian published a cartoon by Bill Leak at which some sectors of the public expressed outrage at what they ostensibly believed was a racist depiction of Aboriginal people. But even casual followers of current events at the time would have known Bill’s cartoon was not racist but only reflected reality then, as it still does – Aboriginal children are more likely to suffer neglect and abuse than non-Aboriginal children.

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As recently as Tuesday, a front-page story reported that in Western Australia, while some good work was being done to support Aboriginal families, more than half the children placed in care were Aboriginal.

For Bill’s persecutors, whom he referred to as the “offendarati”, it was another opportunity for them to do what they loved most – take offence, shout racism and be the centre of attention. Actually, it was an opportunity to do anything other than acknowledge that just maybe there was a problem with child abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities.

Any accusation of Bill being racist was and still is ridiculous. I know this because Bill and I spent much time talking about the problems facing Aboriginal people, and he was deeply concerned for their plight. In the past, he had done some excellent cartoons defending them, so it beggars belief that he be called racist.

At the time of the cartoon, the neglect of Aboriginal children was nothing new; it was a topic reported on many times before and continually so, responsibly today.

Consider a story by Nicolas Rothwell in which he wrote about the crisis in the Kimberley in 2011:

“Pack rape is the most frequent mode of initiation into sex for pretty girls. These episodes are so distressing they rarely come out, but they show, of course, for years afterwards in the troubled behaviour of teenagers.”

I can’t recall the outrage for this.

Three weeks after Bill’s cartoon appeared, Paige Taylor and Victoria Laurie wrote about Fitzroy Valley, “where children suffer among the world’s highest rates of brain damage caused by maternal drinking”. Where was the outrage?

Or consider an article by Taylor published nine days after Bill’s cartoon appeared, about WA’s Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre, where the children, mostly Indigenous, looked forward to Family Day each July – an event that was bigger than Christmas. However, that year, 2016, only 45 of the 80 families who had said they would come actually turned up. Where was the outrage?

Taylor went on to say, “Such is life at the Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre… where children learn they can depend on order in the system that incarcerates them, if not much elsewhere in their lives.” Where was the outrage?

A welfare officer at the centre was reported to have said: “The kids openly tell us, ‘When I went home, you know, I went home to nothing, mum was drinking, so-and-so was taking drugs’.” Where was the outrage?

So why did Bill’s cartoon attract so much opprobrium yet the stories mentioned did not? I believe it was because his cartoon grabbed the reader’s attention immediately, and what gets your attention gets you.

News articles, no matter how well written, need to be read by interested people for their content to be noticed. But a good cartoon can be seen from across the room and hit you in your eyes, and this is what Bill did best: hit you in the eyes. He was just doing his job, which he did so brilliantly.

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Dr Anthony Dillon is an academic with a PhD in Psychology and Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, and a nationally sought after commentator on Indigenous affairs. He identifies as both Aboriginal and Australian, and believes that the currently popular ideologies which portray Indigenous people merely as victims of history and White Australia (invasion and racism) should be challenged. [more]

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