Australia: Trade union solidarity with NT Aboriginal struggle

Made with Slideshow Embed Tool. Trade union brigade offer practical solidarity to the Ampilatwatja community. Photos by Tim Gooden.

By Emma Murphy, Ampilatwatja, Northern Territory

February 12, 2010 -- From February 1-14, in a remote part of Australia's Northern Territory (NT), a group of trade unionists and Aboriginal rights activists from Victoria, New South Wales and the NT joined forces with the Alyawarr people from Ampilatwatja community to help make history.

Many people around Australia have already been inspired by the Alyawarr people’s walk-off. On July 14, 2009, following a great tradition from Aboriginal struggles of the past century, they walked off their community and set up a protest camp.

Their community had been compulsorily “acquired” for five years by the Australian government, through powers granted to it through the NT Emergency Response legislation (the NT "intervention").

The welfare recipients of Ampilatwatja had their income “quarantined” — half their income replaced with a “basics card” that can only buy specified things at specified shops. This even applies to the aged pensioners who worked hard all their life, for rations and a little cash, opening up the country so the pastoral industry could exploit it.

With their pensions now quarantined, the elders felt they’d been returned to the rations days.

The NT intervention was supposedly about protecting children from abuse and neglect. One of the main factors contributing to child neglect — and the potential for child abuse — was the massive overcrowding experienced in most Aboriginal communities.

Two-and-a-half years after the intervention began, not one new house had been built for Aboriginal communities, despite the A$672 million the federal government has put aside for Aboriginal housing.

However, on February 8, the federal Labor government's Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced the completion of two houses in Wadeye, one of the small number of communities the government wants to make “hub towns”.

Under the government’s plan, all new housing and other infrastructure will be concentrated in these “hub towns”, the intention being to close down 73 smaller communities, separating the Indigenous people from their traditional lands.

For the people of Ampilatwatja, the final straw came in July last year when their community housing had fallen into such disrepair that sewage was leaking over the floors and the ground. Calls to the government department now in charge of what had been Aboriginal-run housing were falling on deaf ears.

So the people decided to walk out. “You can have the community”, they said to the government. “We don’t want it.”

Solidarity brigade

Last year, on an east coast speaking tour to raise awareness, Alyawarr spokesperson Richard Downs inspired trade unionists and others with his people’s struggle. He drew links to the great Gurindji and Pilbara people's struggles from last century, and reminded people of the important role unions played in them.

An idea was born. “Wouldn’t it be amazing”, a Wollongong unionist said, “if we — unionists and solidarity activists together with the community itself — could build a house where the government has failed?"

That idea became a reality. Unionists from the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), the Australian Workers Union and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, as well as activists and a film crew, took part in the protest house work brigade.

A pre-fabricated house had been donated. The community wanted the house finished in time to launch it on February 14, the day after the national day of action against the intervention.

Money was quickly raised, with several unions that weren’t sending members on the brigade sending money, including the National Tertiary Education Industry Union and the Maritime Union of Australia. The MUA also donated a generator to run the power tools, and it was all go.

“On Saturday, February 6 the last of 17 cubic metres of concrete was poured”, Tim Gooden, secretary of the Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council and brigade participant and well-known member of the Socialist Alliance, told Green Left Weekly. “There was lots of yelling and shouting and lots of photos taken because it was a major feat to get the concrete slab out and poured in four days by hand.

“The slab has steel plates set in it for the house to fit on and be welded to. The CFMEU bought the last building supplies needed in Alice, before we travelled for half a day north west. All the concrete had to be burrowed in to two small ‘brickie’s mixers’ and then taken out onto the slab.

“The mixers nearly did not arrive — the truck carrying them flipped on its side about 200km from the camp. No-one was hurt, but it delayed the start of the pour by half a day.”

Gooden said that half of the dozen unionists on the brigade were women, including three German construction workers who heard about the NT intervention while visiting Sydney. Twelve young men from the Ampilatwatja community joined the construction team. “Because it was so hot — about 40°C at 10 in the morning — and the water had to be bucketed in, we would start at 5 in the morning and finish at noon. After lunch, which was prepared by the Alice Springs team of Nat [Wasley] and Paddy [Gibson], we would head out with elders to the local water hole about an hour away to cool off and then return to start pouring again at 4pm.”

The team would work until dark then “sit with the community watch a film with a noisy generator [then] go to bed on the ground, which was still nearly 40 degrees at midnight, and start all over again the next day”.

Richard Downs told Green Left Weekly he was happy with how well the union brigade had been received by the community, and how well the participants had taken community concerns and priorities on board. “There was lots of engagement with the local community, young fellas helping out with the building”, he said.

The work team built other structures for the camp. The housing in Ampilatwatja has been neglected for years. The community had decided that two houses pegged for demolition should be taken down and reconstructed at the walk-off camp.

Two work teams — a men’s and a women’s — spent a few days relocating the structures so the old people at the camp had more comfortable shelters.

Unionists worked alongside community members to reclaim the houses that had been neglected by the government. The Government Business Manager (GBM), sent to “administer” the community as part of the intervention, wasn’t too impressed with it, but the elders and others in the community pointed out that they were supposed to be demolished anyway.

Pride and confidence boosted

Downs told GLW the walk-off camp had boosted the people’s pride and confidence. This was evident at a February 8 Ampilatwatja community meeting. The meeting was to discuss the store, which had historically been community owned, providing employment as well as profits to fund other community programs.

Under the intervention, the store was seized and handed over to new administrators. At the February 8 meeting, the community demanded it be handed back.

Work brigade participants sat alongside community members as they negotiated with the GBM, telling him that he had a fortnight to return the store to community control or they would all start shopping at a nearby community. The GBM eventually backed down and agreed.

The walk-off camp has provided a new focus for unions to engage with the Aboriginal rights movement. Kara Touchie, elected Indigenous representative on the ACTU executive, told GLW that Downs and Yuendumu leader Harry Nelson had inspired many unionists when they toured the east coast in 2009.

“Union officials were quite taken with what Richard and Harry were saying and realised it was time to re-engage [with the movement]. We wanted to know what practical ways we could support them. Coming to the walk-off camp, donating our labour, was one way … I think it's awesome that they're not waiting for the government”, she said.

The unions, she said, were keen to support the campaign, but they would take their lead from the walk-off camp and see what the Alyawarr people wanted unions to do. For Downs, that was the “icing on the cake. It gives me real heart … The unions are making a commitment to come on board”.

Adam Leeman, an AMWU and Socialist Alliance member from Sydney, told GLW: “This brigade has been a great inspiration — to see that the Ampilatwatja community is directly fighting against the intervention. But seeing the inspiration that this protest house has given the people round here — the confidence to take control — has made the experience even greater for me.”

On February 14, the house was launched with traditional Alyawarr songs and dancing as well as speakers including MUA Sydney branch secretary Paul McAleer. A bus load of Anangu from the APY lands in South Australia joined the celebrations.

Elder Banjo Morton told GLW: “That's the way we wanted it with the unions helping us. All different people working here together, helping us with the walk-off.”

[For more information about the walk-off, visit This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #826, February 17, 2010.]

Protest against the racist `NT Intervention'

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February, 13, 2010 -- The Sydney component of the national day of action against the racist Northern Territory Intervention, organised by the Stop The Intervention Collective Sydney began with a long march from the La Perouse Aboriginal community to Redfern. About 40 marched while 350 attended the rally and concert in Redfern. Photos by Peter Boyle (rally and concert) and Susan Price (march from La Perouse).

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sat, 02/27/2010 - 19:50


23 February 2010

Alyawarr elder Richard Downs spoke at the Prescribed Area People’s Alliance (PAPA) meeting in Alice Springs on February 12. Downs is a leader of the walkoff protest against the NT intervention at Ampilatwatja.

PAPA represents Aboriginal people who have had their lands forced on to government leases and half their welfare payments replaced with a Basics card under the intervention.

The speech below is abridged from text prepared by the Intervention Rollback Action Group

* * *

I want to thank the unions because last year Harry Nelson and I did a speaking tour right around the east coast and there [was a lot of support and there] were a lot of students and young people.

What a lot of them said was: “We hear [Aboriginal affairs minister] Jenny Macklin giving us all these stories about all these good things that are happening in the Northern Territory and then we hear all these individuals speaking up and coming over here and telling us what’s really happening, what the impacts are on the communities.”

The unions weren’t too sure also, but now they see it’s racism. It’s about human rights issues and discrimination, but they wanted to hear us mob out there telling the truth.

From there it just started to develop and Arthur from the Wollongong unions said: “Why don’t we build a protest house?” And from there we asked if we could do it.

Now it’s happening, and we’re getting the support. We were donated a house, we moved away from the controls and measures to where it’s about freedom, self-determination — us deciding how we’re gonna live and what we will establish there.

The unions are coming on really strong, because we talked about the Pilbara walkoff and how the unions wouldn’t load the ships because it was slave labor. People stood up and said we wanted wages.

And same with the Gurindji walk-off — the unions and public came on there too and supported it.

It’s only a short time again but we’re gonna do it. We’ve got all the unions coming on board. Not only the Aboriginal people and the unions but white people all around Australia — we are all on the same page.

Remember everything is in our favour. We’ve had the UN here. We’ve had Amnesty International. They’re all saying the same thing. [The intervention’s] a disgrace, it’s a human rights issue, it’s about disempowerment of Aboriginal people.

They’re taking everything we fought for over the past 40 years, our land rights, away. So there’s a lot of support out there. It’s when we all come together that things will happen.

Elections are coming up, they’re gonna be chasing … our people, offering money. How are we gonna tackle that? I know on our side we’re gonna say, “No — get rid of the intervention, abolish it and start again, but consult with people, the grassroots people”.

I want to focus on our people and get us taking the leadership. What we’re doing out there, it’s Mother Earth and it’s our way. So we’re walking through that one way now, unions are all coming on board.

Once the government at all levels, and same with our own Aboriginal leaders throughout Australia, once they see all of us coming together the tide is going to change because they don’t want to be left out.

We’ve got no choice, how long can we wait? I see it everywhere — our people are disempowered and oppressed.

But we all know Aboriginal people are going to throw that grog and dope away because our people need us and we’re going to show them the way. The government is only focused on those 20 hub towns.

But it's only 20 communities. What’s going to happen to the rest of them? Get ready when they set up these hub towns because they’re going to start shutting down your communities.

We have a big fight. But again we’re going to get rid of our anger and have a clear mind. You all know the Aboriginal way, how it’s done. We’ve got to go back to that again, that one way.

We’re different groups but we got this big movement going in the middle and we can all work together. Unions have got their differences, they fight, but they’re putting aside their differences. That can wait, we’ll argue our differences later.

This is much more important, it’s about human rights, deaths in custody and incarceration. The number of our people in prison is very high. It’s higher here than in apartheid South Africa. Something is wrong here.

While Australia and America are war-mongering around the world, creating refugees [that are] coming here trying to get a bit of peace, the government is turning them away.

They’ve stolen our country and pushed us away in reserves, missions and communities. And now they’re coming in there too. When are we gonna be left alone with freedom to make choices ourselves?

This is the way we’re going and from here it would be great to see which way we’re gonna go. It’s about getting the message out and shaming the government. Let’s get that message out overseas too.