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The culture wars and petty feuds obscure the seriousness of indigenous education

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The recent public spat between Larissa Behrendt and Bess Price was deeply unfortunate. But it has brought the public's attention to a fracture within the Aboriginal community in relation to the Northern Territory Intervention. By virtue of Behrendt's appointment to a committee to review Indigenous higher education it also indirectly brought that subject to national prominence. Regrettably, the public's focus on those important issues is now being sidelined by (yet) another outbreak of the culture wars between the left and the right.

Behrendt's comments on Twitter in relation to Bess Price obviously cannot be defended. In her appearance on the ABC's Q &A program Price came across as sincere and informed. She spoke directly about Indigenous disadvantage in rural and remote communities and she identified a number of the benefits provided by the Northern Territory Intervention. Whilst many may disagree with Price's views on the Intervention it was inappropriate for Behrendt to then compare Price's Q & A appearance to an obscene subplot on a television program that she was watching. But Behrendt has since apologised.

There have been suggestions from some quarters that Behrendt should be removed from her appointment to the Indigenous Higher Education Committee. This is quite an over-reaction. Unless it can actually be shown that Behrendt would be biased against Aboriginals from rural and remote areas there are no legitimate grounds for her removal from the Committee. Her seeming dislike for an advocate of the Intervention, no matter how distastefully expressed, does not on its own amount to bias.


Over the past ten days The Australian has run a series of articles that have generally impugned Professor Behrendt. The Australian has published pieces by Marcia Langton,  Chris Kenny and Professor Gary Johns which have been critical of Behrendt and her Twitter remark. Miranda Devine also criticised Behrendt in the Herald Sun.

It is difficult to see what else Behrendt could have done other than to apologise – which she did.

Though remarks on Twitter are obviously public, it is worth pointing out that the original audience for the tweet was quite limited.

The Australian has also reported that Behrendt once sought to prevent a newsletter from publishing the work of Hannah McGlade.

Taking these two things into account it should be apparent that if all Behrendt has actually done wrong is to send one narky email and make one obnoxious Twitter remark, then she hasn't done anything really scandalous by the standards of Australian public life.

A recent article in The Australian, written by Keith Windschuttle, effectively questions Behrendt's credentials in relation to her studies at Harvard University. Windschuttle also points out that the late Roberta Sykes was important in 'showing her how she could also get into Harvard.' Never mind that there are in fact a large number of books written on that exact subject or that Harvard is a private university and is entitled to make its own admission decisions.


Behrendt has thus far maintained a fairly dignified silence on the matter.

It is very unclear as to why this whole saga has warranted such a prolonged degree of coverage from a national newspaper.

But Behrendt has had her defenders. Michael Brull wrote an opinion piece on the ABC's website The Drum in which he criticized Bess Price, the Bennelong Society and the Intervention.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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