Flat White

Closing the Rock and the problems of progressive paternalism

24 March 2020

12:08 PM

24 March 2020

12:08 PM

You may have been too busy in a supermarket queue last Saturday to read the remarks of former head ranger at Uluru, Greg Elliot, saying last years band on climbing the Rock was a colossal mistake.

How can something all of a sudden become sacred when it wasn’t sacred in the past?,” he asked in The Weekend Australia Or it wasn’t deemed to be as sacred so no one could go there?” 

Elliot is not alone in expressing that opinion. The geologist, Marc Hendrickx wrote in 2018: 

In 1973, as part of land rights discussions, the federal government recognised Paddy Uluru as the legitimate, principal owner of Uluru. Paddy Uluru was a fully initiated Anangu man familiar with all the local laws and customs. His views about tourists climbing the Rock were summed up in an interview with Erwin Chlanda of the Alice Springs News which quotes him saying, “if tourists are stupid enough to climb the Rock, they’re welcome to it” and “the physical act of climbing was of no cultural interest”. 

So, let’s be clear. This was never an issue of violating a sacred religious site. Because the testimony of former Aboriginal elders is that they simply didn’t care. No, this was an exercise in identity politics. But sadly, it’s the Aboriginal people themselves who have the most to lose. As Hendrickx goes on to point out 

Discouraging climbing has substantially reduced the viability of the park to the tune of about 70,000 visitors per annum over the last ten years, compared to the previous ten years. Given an average of about $1000 per person, this comes at a cost to the Northern Territory economy of at least $70 million per annum. 

Elliot likewise agrees. He’s reported as suggesting that rather than banning it they charge people just like they do in the Sydney Bridge Climb. According to The Daily Telegraph, this is a contract that is worth $50 million dollars over twenty years! Surely climbing the world’s single biggest boulder could attract a similar fee? 

But it’s not just the revenue of simply scaling the rock that is lost in the climbing ban. It’s also the tourist income that could have been generated through the surrounding motels and associated hospitality services. 

Ultimately the whole thing reeks of what I refer to as ‘progressive paternalism’. Ironically, a colonialist mentality that pressures Aboriginal people into doing what others think is best for them, while at the same time taking away their moral agency to be responsible financial stewards. 

It’s a cultural tragedy and massive financial setback for the Aboriginal people themselves, especially when Paddy Uluru, the traditional owner, believed there was no religious desecration in the act of climbing the rock. In the end, coronavirus is not the greatest threat to their local enterprises but woke politicians who treat them as nothing other than victims. 

Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.

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