I had a very enjoyable few days in Darwin at the end of my field trip, including a profitable [for them!] time at Charles Darwin University’s bookshop. I got some readers in Nyoongar and a few other languages, a rather nice Garrwa ethnobotany book, Coersive Reconciliation, and Marry Ellen Jordan’s Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land, which I read on the way back. These books will appear on ozpapers soon.

Balanda is definitely written for a white, middle class highly urban audience by a white, middle class, highly urban writer without any experience of community life beyond her year at Maningrida.

This isn’t a new book – it was published in 2002 and got reviewed a bit at the time, mostly by white, middle class highly urban reviewers.

Jordan steps outside her experience; she’s quite a good writer and she knows how to put a story together. However, she has externalised her own assumptions about communities to a very limited extent. That makes it even more of a book more about her than directly about her experiences.

One example: Jordan is critical (implicitly in a few places, explicitly in others) of gambling in Maningrida. She essentially equates it with casino gambling in cities. Many people do this (I’ve had this same conversation many times over the last few months) and it makes sense to do so in a white, middle class urban (protestant) culture where gambling is a ‘waste of money’. However, there are two big differences between a card party on balanda boulevard and going to the Casino in Darwin: 1) community gambling is part of a larger exchange network; and 2) the money stays within the community and the winners are subject to many of the same sharing pressures that wage-earners are. That is, a good percentage of profits made from winning at cards are immediately absorbed back into the community by the people who lost money and others who have a kinship claim on the winner.

Another detail surprised me: Jordan argues that poverty at Maningrida isn’t a problem; there’s money around, because there’s not much to spend it on. That’s a weird thing to say, given the other things she says in the book. As she notes, most of the population is on ‘welfare’ of some sort, either CDEP, pensions, disability, or another scheme. Welfare cheques don’t go very far when you’re feeding big families at community stores. I would like to see a simple analysis of average per capita disposable income in a community like Maningrida. Presumably CAEPR or another organisation has done this.

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10 responses to “Balanda

  1. Disposable income = income less taxes. That’s extremely easy to calculate if you know income (which you roughly do if it’s essentially all ‘welfare’) and the tax code. Real disposable income = this corrected for a price index. That would be harder to calculate (assuming that the ABS doesn’t spend any time in remote communities calculating a CPI), and more interesting.

  2. I found the American quarterly interview questions for calculating the CPI but the Australian ones seem more difficult to find. We could estimate just using staples. Also, this is not relevant to calculating a CPI but my strong impression is that consumption patterns also differ markedly. For example, electricity in houses is metered and bought in $10 and $20 increments. if the card runs out, getting a new one doesn’t seem to be a particularly high priority.

  3. Actually that’s extremely relevant to calculating a CPI if you’re talking not about different patterns of payment over time but different consumption bundles (more food, less electricity than the average Australian city-dweller whose consumption basket essentially determines the weights associated with different expenditure categories in the CPI).

    The survey questions are used mostly for this, actually – to determine what people are consuming and what fraction of their expenditure this represents. Prices (and therefore how they change over time) are mostly collected directly from (surveyors checking prices in) stores.

    The ABS document about the calculation of the CPI is at
    and makes sure you realize that the Australian CPI is not intended for calculating geographical dispersion in prices. See 5.13-5.14.

  4. In case it’s of interest, here is a comment about buying staples from community stores. During 2007 I was with friends at acommunity, about 130Km away from Derby, Western Australia. There was much business being settled so I was asked to go to the store to get some food for lunch. I was handed $20. I got what I thought was reasonable (Bread, tinned meat, tomatoes, butter, milk and some biscuits). I did also add some luxuries like fresh fruit. From my knowledge of prices in Derby I expected the total to come to around $30-$35 and was prepared to ‘chuck in’ for the balance. I was unprepared to the total which was over $60.00.

    Apart from the initial shock, I was troubled because, as Claire says, the income is mainly welfare of some kind. I wondered how a family could survive if they relied on the community store. Maybe the store operators depend on the people’s ability to still capture ‘bush food’. Back in Derby I did a price comparison with similar goods in Woolworths supermarket and came out with a mark up on Woollies already marked up prices of 57%. What’s more disturbing is that the this particular store is run by a local Aboriginal family. If the Coronial inquest into deaths in the Kimberley is successful in its aim to establish a Royal Commission into Poverty in Australia, let’s hope it looks at situations such as this one.

  5. I’m not sure I see why this is ‘disturbing’. It’s no doubt expensive to transport food (particularly fresh food) to a store with limited sales volume, and the cost of operating the store has to be spread over fewer items sold. Whether 57% is the right markup is hard to say, of course – it seems high, but without actually checking the store’s budget, it’s difficult to tell.

    The only obvious alternative mechanism is direct community control of the store (or direct governmental control), neither of which seems like a big improvement. The accounting would look different, but the end result would be the same – it’s costly to run a store in a remote community, and somebody has to pay that cost. Therefore, the only reason things would be ‘better off’ under such a situation is that more money would for some reason be flowing in (for example, if a government subsidized ‘manymak ngatha’ prices). (There could also, I guess, be savings if, say, the community decided to buy apples in bulk from Darwin, thereby gaining some economies of scale, if it could force everyone to eat apples somehow.)

    More generally, I have to wonder what possible long-term solutions there can be for communities economically dependent on welfare as the majority of income. The price of food seems like a relatively small issue relative to the fundamental lack of an economic basis for the existence of many remote communities. (For example, suppose like in the US the right to receive old-age social security payments was a function of your work history – would many remote communities even exist under such a system?)

  6. Re the 57%, put it this way. Teachers who order food from supermarkets in Darwin have their boxes delivered on the same transport that the store food comes on, and they don’t pay 57% more for it (assuming rough parity between Milinigmbi and the community Colleen is talking about – I haven’t been there but WA Kimberley communities tend to have about the same prices as Arnhem Land). The stores also tend to have lower wages costs than town stores, simply because there are CDEP positions for cashiers.

    I agree, this sort of position is unsustainable, and many communities (former missions and government depots) were never created with economic sustainability in mind in the first place. The missions, on the whole*, didn’t encourage it either, in fact most missions may have taught their ‘charges’ to read and write but the overall system can only be described as dependency assimilation: make ‘them’ like ‘us’, but without including crucial knowledge about how to participate in a monetary economy, like, um, handling money. Quarantining welfare payments just adds to that dependency.

    *or if they did, it was sort of communistic, e.g. work on growing tropical fruit and the profits go to the mission.

  7. I’d expect a much higher markup for community store food than Darwin-sent supermarket food since there are no additional retailing costs (waste, rent, wages, opportunity cost of holding inventory) for the Darwin-sent food.

  8. true, but the markup is on wholesale, and the cost of food in Darwin is already about 25% higher than, say, Canberra. Rent is free (as far as I know, stores don’t pay rent to communites), wages are lower for all but the managers (see CDEP point), waste is less because most of these stores get away with selling food past its used-by date, power etc costs are probably higher though.

  9. I’m a few years late with these comments, but couldn’t agree more with you Claire in relation to Jordan’s book, which was the original topic of your blog post. As someone who lived in Maningrida for the 11 years prior to Jordan’s arrival, it’s my view that Jordan’s account is best described as a partially fake memoir. Many of the details about events and people in the book are complete fabrications. There are many people who can confirm this. I checked some of the details with the other ‘characters’ she puts down as thoughtless and stupid oppressors of Aboriginal people and sure enough, all agree that the book is in many places, a work of fiction— conversations that never happened, blatantly incorrect facts or descriptions of events that never occurred e.g. the story of her ‘finding’ a cache of firearms, including a hand gun in a gun safe belonging to the previous occupant in the flat she occupied. That story is complete fiction. If you’re going to paint the white people as nasty red necks, painting them as gun nuts helps. This kind of embellishment of the truth continues throughout the book, but the average reader is not going to question such details. Scrutiny of the role of non-Aboriginal people in Aboriginal communities is welcome, but dishonesty in the process is not. Jordan fell out with so many people during her time in Maningrida, largely I guess, because of a rather holier-than-thou attitude that conveyed the message that she had sorted out the complexities of Maningrida race relations in record time. Experiences culturally alien to her inner-city Melbourne world view are exoticised or arrogantly dismissed as unacceptable to her sensibilites. As a result, the book is easy to dismiss as a sour-grapes attack, written in malice as revenge against people she could not meaningfully interact with or who expressed disappointment with her professional performance. It’s such a pity that all she has contributed to, is more reactionary myth making about race relations. If you wanted to recommend something in this genre as part of pre-field work reading, I suggest Seven Seasons in Aurukun by Paula Shaw as a more honest account of this kind of experience.

  10. Thanks for this Murray. I wonder what genre it falls into – it’s not really the memoir genre (“on my 40 years in the South Seas”), but she’s in it enough that it’s not totally in the same genre as the Broometime “expose” type book either (or that Cunnamulla film whose name I’m blanking on). I don’t know Shaw’s book, I’ll check it out.

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