Life at the Top

The Chaser’s ‘Life at the Top’ skits were my favourite part of the most recent series. They featured a group of Aboriginal Australians, probably in middle age or elderly, sitting around in a bush setting discussing issues pertinent to the (then upcoming) 2010 Australian election. Watch the first video and then I’ll explain why I loved it so much.

The video opens with the peppy jingle that opens and closes each skit, building a cheery picture of ‘Life at the Top’ (referring to the ‘Top End’ of the continent). An image of a single tree with yellow sun behind, red ground below appears, conjuring up a digitally re-mastered version of the Aboriginal flag, itself a symbol with great meaning for indigenous Australians. The tree brings to mind ‘the subaltern’ who, unconcerned with issues like work and productivity that much of western civilization slavishly obsesses over (think the protestant work ethic), instead has an altogether different set of priorities – perhaps gathering and socialising under a tree.

An establishing shot shows us the bush the gathered indigenous Australians are within and that they are sitting in a circle. Subtitles are added for the benefit of viewers not familiar with the language they are speaking in, and the first words, “Did you see the Great Debate?” are a juxtaposition that confounds out expectations. The Aboriginal language is made comprehensible, and is demystified. Any expectations or prejudices are blasted away instantly by the banality and normalcy of their conversation.

“Yeah, all those irrelevant questions about refugees and the economy.”

“They should let online Journos ask about the real issues… like Lindsay Lohan.”

“Or MasterChef.”

“Or Paul the Octopus.”

“Surely people aren’t sick of hearing about the octopus yet.”

The banal continues, and the Aboriginal elders are treated lovingly and respectfully just like everyone else; a too often rare occurrence on Australian television, where they often fall into stereotypes.

“I didn’t see the debate. Did they ask about indigenous affairs?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It was a serious debate.”

The punch line sends a wry smile spreading across the face of everyone who acknowledges the great debt we owe to the first Australians – The Chaser are pointing out the travesty in the situation. The state of indigenous affairs in Australia really is beyond shameful. I have no new or special insights into the issue, but the facts speak for themselves. Here’s some choice quotes from the Wikipedia summary page for contemporary issues facing indigenous Australians:

  • “According to the United Nations, the quality of life of Aboriginal people is the second worst of the planet.”
  • “[Indigenous] Students as a group leave school earlier, and live with a lower standard of education, compared with their peers.”
  • “Indigenous Australians as a group generally experience high unemployment compared to the national average.”
  • “Due to lack of access to medical facilities, Indigenous Australians were twice as likely to report their health as fair/poor and one-and-a-half times more likely to have a disability or long-term health condition…”
  • “Indigenous Australians are jailed five times more often than black males in South Africa under apartheid.”
  • “Many Indigenous communities suffer from a range of health, social and legal problems associated with substance abuse of both legal and illegal drugs.”

As a result of colonialism and white settlement, Indigenous Australians have historically been treated poorly, been subject to the worst kinds of racism and in some cases were outright massacred, having been considered little better than animals. It is a stain that is all too often hidden from what Australian’s themselves usually like to think of as their otherwise immaculate nation.

The temptation for those of us who neither wish to ignore, nor to trivialise the plight of Australia’s first inhabitants, is to consider them helpless victims of circumstance – but this is almost as bad the institutionalised racism that sees their concerns brushed aside on a national scale.

Which is why, in the above skit, when one asks whether indigenous affairs were considered by the two prospective leaders of Australia, they are quickly brushed off. It’s a complex bit of comedy and the writing is extremely well done. The quality continues in the second episode in the series. In it, the deal the Government has made with Telstra (the national semi-privatized telco) to deliver fibre-optic broadband to 93% of Australia is greeted with plaudits.

“Faster internet speeds should be the nation’s top priority.”

The line reminds viewers that, far from being helpless victims, Aboriginal Australians probably hold, and are just as entitled to, a view about the nation’s future and direction as any other citizen. Whether faster internet is actually a concern for these inhabitants of the Top End is not the point, but rather that inhabitants of the bush are not to be forgotten or ignored merely for their distance from a capital city.

As an aside, I actually think internet speed could well be an important issue for them – internet in rural Australia is often impossible to get, and creakingly slow when available. See Hungry Beast’s humorous Carrier Pigeon vs. Car vs. rural Internet Speed test in which the carrier pigeon and the car both prove a faster method of transferring 700mb of data than the internet. Yes, really.

“White people should be able to watch Hitler ‘Downfall’ parodies without having to wait. It’s a basic human right.”

We may laugh, but a certain standard of internet access (often set at 1Mbps – faster than many connections still) has been enshrined as a human right a number of European nations. The mentioning of internet access as a human right, however, brings to mind the fact that so many other, more integral human rights of indigenous Australian’s are so easily brushed aside. The former Howard Government’s “Northern Territory Intervention” in which indigenous Australian’s relying on state welfare are treated like children – having everything from their finances to their food shopping managed for them – would not be tolerated if it were foisted upon a community of whitefella’s for the simple fact that it impinges on basic human rights and freedoms. And that’s not to mention the dignity that is stripped from them by having giant warning signs at the entry to their communities warning that “alcohol and pornography” are banned. What must it do to a person to have to live with that outside their home?

[Edit: Nick S. writes in to say “It’s a little-known fact but “income management” has recently been imposed on the Northern Territory’s “whitefellas”, with plans by both ALP and Coalition to extend it to “disadvantaged” communities nationwide. See e.g.’Major Welfare Reforms Support Vulnerable Australians‘ and ‘Abbott backs ALP welfare management bill‘.]

“Thank God the government has finally got it’s priorities in order.”

The delicious irony here is almost self-evident, but when it comes to indigenous affairs, suffice to say it’s nowhere near a top-priority issue for either of the major political parties in Australia. Nor is it on the national agenda of the mainstream media. The Chaser, broadcasting to an audience 1.41 million Australians in their first week, have probably done more to raise awareness than any news outlet.

Each episode is bookended with the peppy “Life at the Top” musical jingle. Let’s watch Episode 3 of “Life at the Top” before continuing. This episode continues the theme of travesty (for more on the distinction between travesty and straight satire, see Ian Bogost’s blog), and while all episodes are cleverly and carefully played for laughs, this one cuts more directly at the issues.

“I think there should be more funding for the arts in this country.”

“Absolutely. Our culture is our identity.”

“We need a healthy film industry to tell important Australian stories like ‘The Wog Boy 2; The Kings of Mykonos’.”

“It is vital that the full ‘Wog Boy’ story is preserved and passed down to future generations of Australians.”

The conversation again exposes triviality and lack of depth in Australian political and cultural priorities, this time using the Australian film industry to make their point. The original ‘Wog Boy’ film was a rather shallow, up-beat affair about the common European immigrant experience (in this case in particular, a Greek ‘Wog Boy’), and the skit leaves vast tracts of room open to suggest that the Australian film industry could look at the wealth of Australian Aboriginal storytelling. Frankly, it has barely even begun to do so.

“Nick Giannopoulos speaks for us all.”

For a people group so often left with no one to speak for them in national politics, this line stands out in particular as “travesty” and elicits laughs of recognition.

The final episode of the season, episode 4, is below, and deals most explicitly with Aboriginal Affairs and the issues facing our first Australians.

“I hear the Labor Party might still win the election.”

“Really? Are Labor good?”

“Very good. They have an excellent track record on indigenous affairs.”

“What have they done?”

“They said ‘sorry’ to us once.”


“Three years ago.”

“And what about since then?”

“Lots of things. Every week they remind us that they once said ‘sorry’ to us three years ago.”

“If Labor hadn’t apologised we wouldn’t have the standard of living that we all enjoy today.”

“Yeah, we can only hope Labor gets back in.”

The national apology to the Stolen Generation in early 2008 was indeed a high water mark and, many hoped, the first step toward better social outcomes for Indigenous Australians. In this clip, the Chaser team, through the mouths of these Aboriginal Elders, remind us that there is so much still to be done, and that still none of the parties are mightily concerned with them (The Liberal Party fails to rate a mention – it’s former leader was the one who instigated the horrible “intervention” after all).

Aboriginal Affairs are not exactly high on the national agenda right now (are they ever???), and for various reasons. But I feel The Chaser, known for being provocative to the point of offense on occasion, have done loads for the cause with these skits, all while avoiding being either patronising or racist. Indigenous Australian’s are still Australian through-and-through and should be afforded all the same consideration they would be if they were white skinned, urban dwelling voters in a marginal electorate.

Australia is currently in a situation that remains extremely charged with political potential. Is it too much to hope Aboriginal Australians get a bit more consideration afterwards? If any of the pollies have been watching Yes We Canberra, there may be a better chance of that now than before.