Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2019

The Quiet Revolution, Boyer lectures 2012, by Marcia Langton

Every year, ABC Radio invites a public intellectual to give a series of lectures. Inaugurated in 1959 as ABC Lectures, they were renamed as the Boyer Lectures in 1961 as a memorial to Sir Richard Boyer, who as chairman of the ABC had led their introduction.  (You can see past programs and still listen to some of them, here.)

In 2012, Professor Marcia Langton, a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara people of Queensland, introduced the 53rd series of lectures with a statement that is probably still true today:

The emergence of an Aboriginal middle class in Australia in the last two to three decades has gone largely unnoticed. (p.31)

While she acknowledges that the numbers are small, they portend  an economic future for Aboriginal people unimaginable fifty years ago. Langton herself, she tells us later in the lectures, was born at a time when Indigenous people weren’t even counted in the census and were excluded through institutional forms of racial discrimination, from every opportunity for advancement.  Indeed, she notes that when in 1968 W.E.H. Stanner gave the Boyer Lectures, After the Dreaming, Black and White Australians, an anthropologist’s view —

— he gave credence, perhaps inadvertently, to the widely held assumption that Aboriginal life was incompatible with modern economic life.  Today, the expectation is quite the reverse. (p. 31)

Indeed it is, and Langton is at her most convincing in the case she makes for a remarkable change in northern Australia, where the Mabo case, and the Native Title Act have enabled opportunities in the mining industry on Indigenous land.  This has led to a surge in employment, home ownership, education and training plus the emergence of spin-off enterprises owned by Indigenous people.  She is quite right when she that these are not the images we see in the media where the focus is nearly always on poverty, disadvantage and violence.  Most Australians, she says, have no idea about the transformation of northern Australia…

But Langton has a combative stance, and she accompanies this good news story with a harsh critique of Left politics, claiming that they hang on to the idea of the ‘new noble savage’, with a preference for describing Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage through a romantic lens.  She is a fierce critic of their implicit support for welfare dependency and their campaigns against economic development on Aboriginal land.  Likewise, she has not a good word to say for government activity, which she dismisses as a roundabout of bureaucrats, agencies, websites, application forms and absurd meetings.  Most contentiously, perhaps, she takes on Tim Flannery as an advocate for the conservation of wilderness areas.  The word wilderness is consistently enclosed in inverted commas to indicate her rejection of the term: what is described by Flannery and others as ‘wilderness’ implies pristine land which has never been part of the economy.  Langton argues that it is no such thing: that these lands were an integral part of the Indigenous economy which was displaced by settlement.  Setting these places aside as sacrosanct National Parks, she says, denies their traditional owners the opportunity to make economic use of their land.

The critique of the left, and of Tim Flannery brought a strong response, from Left groups such as Friends of the Earth, the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, the Green Movement, aggrieved academics, and those who attacked her links with mining industries (here).  There is a strong defence of her position here.

All this is old news.  What is still relevant is Langton’s unease about the future, because she was writing as the mining boom began to falter in response to changes in Chinese demand.  Employment in northern Australia consists of three elements: tourism; conservation and land management and mining.  (I think the ADF is a key employer too, but that’s just an impression I have from my reading of Our Mob Served).  It would be more than just interesting to know how Indigenous economic participation has weathered the end of the mining boom; it seems to me that it’s a matter of social justice for Australians to know about this.  Perhaps I’ve missed a Quarterly Essay or a Four Corners report about it, and I’d welcome suggestions for further reading about this.

Author: Marcia Langton
Title: The Quiet Revolution, Indigenous people and the resources boom, (Boyer Lectures 2012)
Publisher: ABC Books, (Harper Collins), 2013, 175 pages
ISBN: 9780733331633
Source: Port Phillip Library


  1. Hello Lisa and engaged readers,

    Lisa, your critique of Dr. Marcia Langton’s The Quiet Revolution enlightened me to issues of class, environmental sustainability, and labor politics. I haven’t had the opportunity to read any writings by Dr. Langton yet, but I’ve listened to different podcasts and watched media clips featuring her. I appreciate Dr. Langton’s keen insight on issues of Aboriginal rights and establishing social justice for the disenfranchised populations not only in Australia but in other countries and regions around the world.

    When I think of middle-class Australian Aborigines, I think particularly of some academics and professional writers who use their positionality to bring awareness to empowering disadvantaged communities where poverty, illness, addiction, and limited or lack of education systems are working them.

    I became aware of Dr.Langton’s 2018 publication, Welcome to Country. I don’t know if Dr. Langton ever considered writing a memoir about her life, social justice activism and academic work. It would make an interesting read.

    Take care everyone.



    • Hi Sonia, just to take up one point from your comment: Langton includes within the middle class, (as most Australians would) employed Indigenous people who’ve finished school but not necessarily gone to university. I’ve taken the book back to the library now, but I think she also included other indicators like home ownership. So while university educated Indigenous people often have a high profile (as she does) many middle class Indigenous people are living ordinary lives in the suburbs like the rest of us do.
      She references a TV series called Redfern Now (created by Blackfella Films, who also made the recent Total Control starring Deborah Mailman) as an example of this, and if you can get hold of it, I can recommend it. It’s very good indeed.


  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  3. I served for a few years on the board of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (Vic) Inc. I was a strong supporter of native title as a key to indigenous small business, employment and escape from inter-generational welfare dependence. We met at the Brotherhood of St. Laurence in Fitzroy. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much support from the welfare industry, which relied on having indigenous people as permanent clients. I eventually left in frustration.


    • Well, there’s a certain irony in your meeting place. Native Title and whatever benefits it brings is all very well for Indigenous people who can prove that they are part of the community that holds title, but for many urban Indigenous people such as those in Fitzroy, their dispossession of their land means they cannot prove continuous occupation, the issues are entirely different. They can’t access any of those potential benefits.
      If there’s one thing we know about Indigenous Australians is that there’s no one size-fits-all…


  4. Oh darn it – it just happened again, and I had only just opened this post, ie it wasn’t sitting here for a long time. I don’t think I can bear to write it all out again. When it said the comment could not be posted, I clicked the back arrow, the comment was there but flashed off almost immediately, and then your post was shown to me, with my Word Press account comment box replaced by a comment box for someone new to your blog. This is what happened last time – and is different to the times when the comment stays and I just have to post it again. I’m heartbroken because I thought carefully about what I wrote.

    I will just say that I have met and worked with “middle class” indigenous people in Canberra. And I have seen examples of indigenous people living “middle class” lives in the Top End, many also actively involved in their culture. There’s a growing number of indigenous enterprises up there too, many of course in the travel and hospitality industry.

    The other point I wrote about was the “Wilderness” issue. What I wrote was very eloquent (I think – haha) but it’s gone!! My main point though was that these language issues reveal just how culture-specific our language is. When something like this is raised, the onus is on us, I believe, to listen – not counterattack them or defend ourselves or feel our feathers ruffled – and use it as an opportunity to move our mutual understanding forward.


    • Oh how frustrating! I wish we knew why this disappearing comment problem happens!
      I think you are right about the language issue… this is where reading fiction and non-fiction works by Indigenous people is such a benefit, I learn so much about the diversity of Indigenous experience and opinion from the books I read…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t point you to any further reading (except Tracker, who wasn’t fond of Langton) but I just want to say about the mining boom. IT NEVER STOPPED. mining is at record levels and has been for a decade. All that ceased was mining construction. Miners rape our land, for minimal royalties, use transfer payments to avoid tax (China buys most of its iron ore from SINGAPORE, not Australia) and are eliminating employment as quickly as they can with high levels of automation.


    • I had a feeling you would know what’s going on, from direct observation.
      My view about mining apart from all the environmental considerations is that it is inherently dangerous, and the more its dangerous aspects are automated, the better. But the rest of it, it was just as stupid not to have an effective mining tax as it was not to have an effective carbon reduction scheme, and what else is there to say other than that it was a lost opportunity.
      I’ve read Tracker. He wasn’t fond of anybody who didn’t see the world the way he did, or so it seemed to me.


      • I knew you had read Tracker and weren’t a fan. Sorry for shouting. The “end of the mining boom” gets me worked up. BHP Rio Gina Andrew not to mention all the gold and coal miners would like us all to think there’s nothing going on up there where no-one can see, but they’re raking it in. The spot price for iron ore today is $85/tonne and has been in the $100s. The miners’ average cost at wharf is $20-30/tonne even Forrest’s, which is the lowest quality.


        • No worries, Bill…
          But (in terms of Langton’s argument) if what’s stopped is construction, maybe that’s where some of the Indigenous jobs are/were?


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