Storm in a Vegemite jar

The latest item of Australiana to be making memes around the world is Vegemite. Specifically, a story about how Indigenous people in some remote communities are supposedly using the yeasty foodstuff to brew up moonshine.

It seems to have started with an article on 8 August in The Courier Mail – that ever-reliable bastion of quality journalism – but it hardly matters. Over the last 48 hours, the story has spread (see what I did there?) to places like the BBC, Mashable, The Huffington Post, Sky News, Yahoo, The Telegraph UK and many, many more.

So why has this taken off? The story isn’t even new, with reports of similar things occurring in remote North Queensland back in 2013. I guess people find it funny that something so innocuously ocker and ‘true blue’ Aussie as Vegemite might be used to make alcohol. But then so can apples, beetroot, ginger, bread and basically anything containing sugar. And hey, Australians really like a drink! LOL, right?

But there’s a whole other section to this story: that is, the part where the Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said that Vegemite was ‘the precursor to misery’ in many Indigenous communities. Not colonialism, or intervention, or the fact that the leader of the country thinks the attempt to maintain 30,000-year-old traditions on the home of your ancestors is a ‘lifestyle choice’, or that a significant proportion of the entire country just demonstrated that they don’t actually know what racism is. No, ‘the precursor to misery’ is Vegemite, and sales of it must thus be watched carefully.

Let’s just put that in perspective. In the last decade alone, remote Indigenous Australian communities have been subjected to military intervention, alcohol bans, pornography bans and restricted internet access (remember that internet filter we’ve been fighting for years? All computers provided by any organisation in controlled areas that received public funding had a mandatory internet filter installed as part of the Intervention). Plus welfare recipients in many communities had their income contingent on their kids attending school, and then restricted by the paternalistic Basics Card which allows purchases of particular goods only from particular retailers.

All of this, mind you, is apparently for their own good, in spite of the fact that communities were neither consulted nor their concerns addressed when they voiced them.

Even if it’s true that there are folks making their own booze out of something most people would only think of putting on their toast in the morning – and the jury is out on whether it’s even possible – the very fact of it occurring at all ought be telling us some pretty significant things. For example: blanket prohibition doesn’t work, and remote communities are in dire need of adequately funded and distributed health care, education, outreach, addiction services, and numerous other support networks delivered with cultural awareness, sensitivity and grassroots consultation.

But no. ‘What’s important,’ said our esteemed Prime Minister in response to all of this, ‘is that we ensure that remote communities, all communities, are being properly policed.’

Right. ‘Policed.’ There has been a 57 per cent rise in Indigenous incarceration in the last fifteen years. This time last year, 27 per cent of the imprisoned population was Indigenous despite Indigenous people making up a little over 2 per cent of the adult population in the country. Not a single police officer has ever been convicted for one Indigenous death in custody (there have been over 1400 of those since 1980). Just last week saw the anniversary of the death of a 22-year-old Indigenous woman after being jailed for the heinous crime of unpaid parking fines. I’d say there’s more than enough ‘policing’ happening.

So forgive me if I don’t find the Vegemite hooch story funny, or light, or even absurd. What is absurd is how badly we treat Indigenous Australians, and how easily our eyes slide over the evidence of it, even when it’s right there in front of us with a Vegemite label stuck on its forehead.


Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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