An Phoblacht: Racism and resistance in Australia

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This article first appeared in An Phoblacht, Ireland’s biggest selling political weekly newspaper. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with An Phoblacht's permission. An Phoblacht reflects views of Sinn Fein. For more information about An Phoblacht click HERE.

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By Emma Clancy

February 25, 2010 -- An Phoblacht -- When Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal people in February 2008, hopes were high that this indicated a new approach from the government in its relations with the country’s Indigenous people.

But Rudd, elected in November 2007 after 11 years of conservative, Thatcherite rule under John Howard, has continued many of his predecessor’s policies, which undermine the rights and wellbeing of Australia’s Indigenous people.

2007 marked the 40th anniversary of the national referendum that acknowledged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as citizens in their own land. Prior to 1967, Indigenous affairs had been assigned to the "flora and fauna" department of government – they were not even recognised as human beings.

An Aboriginal civil rights movement, supported by progressive non-Aboriginals, arose in the 1960s, inspired by the black civil rights movement in the United States. This movement was just the latest incarnation of resistance in the long history of struggle for Indigenous rights since Australia was invaded and established as a series of penal colonies by the British in 1788.

At the time of invasion, there were approximately 1 million Aboriginal people living in Australia; today there are 200,000. Indigenous people resisted colonisation, and their sovereignty of the land was never ceded. No treaty or agreement was ever negotiated. The British invented the myth of terra nullius – land without people – to justify their brutal annexation of the country.

Genocidal violence was carried out by the colonisers against the Indigenous people for many decades following invasion. In Tasmania in the early 1800s the entire Aboriginal population was killed, and massacres were carried out with impunity across the continent right up until the 1930s. Throughout the 19th century, whole populations were forced off their lands into missions, and their language and culture were banned.

Up until the 1970s, Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and communities, in order to "assimilate" what was labelled a "failed race" into the broader Australian population. These children, who numbered in the tens of thousands, are collectively known as the Stolen Generations. They were lied to about their heritage, and were often used as slave labour – as domestic servants, on cattle stations, or in state or church-run institutions. Many were physically and sexually abused.

Massive inequalities

Despite achieving formal equality, Aboriginal people remain the most oppressed and marginalised group in the country.

The absolute health crisis in Indigenous communities today is routinely described as a national disgrace – or "genocide by neglect". The life expectancy of Indigenous people is 17 years younger than the national average – one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. In 2006, Save the Children described conditions in impoverished black communities in Australia as “some of the worst we have seen in our work all around the world”.

Extreme racism persists at all levels of society and is institutionalised in the policing and justice system. While Aboriginal people make up 2% of the Australian population, they make up 26% of prisoners. Most Aboriginal women in jail are there for crimes of poverty, such as not paying fines. Deaths in custody continue.

In 1990 a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody produced a list of 339 recommendations to prevent deaths; but not a single one has been implemented. Since the report was produced more than 200 Aboriginal people have died in custody, usually through police violence, suicide and neglect.


A popular slogan of the Aboriginal rights movement is, “White Australia has a black history”. But this history is not taught in Australian schools. To acknowledge that the brutality of the past even occurred is to subscribe to “the black armband view of history”, according to John Howard and other conservative commentators.

On February 13, 2008, Rudd did what Howard refused to for his 11 years in power – he said sorry to the Stolen Generations. The apology was an important and necessary symbolic step forward and made a significant contribution to raising the level of awareness in Australian society of the wrongs that have been done to the country’s Indigenous people. But the rhetoric of reconciliation from the Labor government has unfortunately not been matched by actions.

The Aboriginal community welcomed the apology but have insisted that it’s meaningless if not accompanied by major changes in government policy, including providing compensation for the Stolen Generations and other victims of racist colonial policies; negotiating a treaty; massively increasing funding to deal with the crisis in Indigenous healthcare, education and housing; and reforming the policing and justice system to end institutionalised racism.


The key issue that Aborigines want the government to address is the ongoing "intervention" into remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory (NT), initiated in June 2007 by Howard and continued, even expanded, by Rudd.

The intervention, which includes sending the army and more police into these communities under the pretext of preventing child abuse, has been described by Aboriginal leaders as a "racist land grab".

Following the publication of the report Little Children Are Sacred in 2007, which documented the sexual abuse of children in remote Aboriginal communities in the NT, Howard passed the NT Emergency Response legislation in June 2007, unilaterally taking over more than 70 communities. Under the legislation, 50 per cent of welfare recipients’ payments are "quarantined" – replaced with food ration cards that can only be used at major supermarket chains. Alcohol is banned for all residents in the "intervened" communities.

Young people have to have compulsory medical examinations to check for signs of abuse. Child health workers have pointed out that these forced examinations are themselves a form of child abuse.

The issue of child abuse has been cynically exploited by both Howard and Rudd, but several reports on the impact of the intervention have shown that incidence of child abuse was no higher in Indigenous communities than in the broader Australian population and that the intervention has failed to reduce either child abuse or violence against women.

The Little Children report included 97 proposals to address social problems that can lead to abuse and neglect (including housing shortages, overcrowding, and lack of primary health-care programs) but none of these have been implemented by Howard or Rudd.

While police carry out "military-style" raids on remote NT communities, arresting hundreds of people for "alcohol offences", not a single new house or women’s shelter has been built, nor a single new social worker been put on the ground.

Land grab

The UN, Amnesty International and even Australian government-commissioned reports have all found that the intervention is a violation of the rights of Aboriginal people and that the legislation is inherently racist. To pass the legislation, the government had to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act. It also suspended the NT Land Rights Act.

Land ownership in the communities has been transferred from communal land councils to the federal government under five-year "leases", and there is now a push from the government to extend this to 40-year and even 99-year leases.

Thousands of people are fleeing "intervened" communities, resulting in more homelessness and overcrowding in the larger town camps and urban fringes. The voucher system has forced a huge population dispersion. People are being forced off their traditional land and away from their communities to redeem the vouchers.

The long battle for land rights – crucial for establishing Aboriginal self-determination – is being rolled back 40 years by this intervention. And it’s just a happy coincidence for the government and mining giants that 75 per cent of Australia’s uranium deposits are found in the NT, most of it on land now affected by the intervention.
Demanding an end to this new wave of dispossession, Aboriginal leaders have stated that, “Saying sorry means you won’t do it again”.

Protest leader: We won’t submit to the new paternalism

As part of the Northern Territory (NT) intervention in Australia, launched by former Prime Minister John Howard in 2007, the military and police were sent into remote Aboriginal communities under the pretext of preventing the sexual abuse of children.

While the government has since changed, with the election of the Labor Party under Kevin Rudd at the end of 2007, there have been no changes made to government policy, and the Indigenous people of the desert land have begun a remarkable and inspiring campaign of resistance.

As part of this, the Alyawarr people staged a walk-off from the Ampilatwatja community in the NT in July 2009. They walked beyond the boundary of the government lease forced onto their land, and back to their traditional homeland where they have set up a protest camp, saying they refuse to live under the government’s paternalistic control.

Alyawarr elder and walk-off protest leader Richard Downs (pictured) provided his first-hand view of the NT intervention in an interview earlier this month.

Image removed.“The situation since the start of the intervention back in 2007 has meant total disempowerment of the Indigenous people in the NT. Since the intervention, consultation and partnership projects have been abandoned.

"Aboriginal people now have no right to engage with the government at any level. The government makes no attempt to consult or engage Aboriginal organisations on any issue.

"This has taken us back 40 to 50 years.

"It has taken Aboriginal people that long to build up our organisations, to implement programs (totally underfunded by governments) and establish a working partnership with the government. We had some measure of control.

"But when those army tanks came to stay in our communities, we lost everything. Our offices were closed down. All have gone after decades spent building these organisations and associations. We’ve lost all of them.

"At first, there was shock and fear in the communities. It appeared to us that the Australian government was going to war with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. There were tanks and military personnel with guns.

"People were threatened by the federal police with guns and targeted with laser-sighted guns.

"We couldn’t understand why this was happening. We have nothing to fight with, we are a peaceful people. News of the violence spread like wildfire across the territory and people were really afraid of the army coming in. This fear of the military had people in its grip for nearly 18 months.

"Then people got over their fear. They have begun to stand up against the government policy of intervention by walking off the communities where we currently live. These communities were created by previous governments, as they have herded us into smaller and smaller spaces, away from our homelands.

"The current situation with the NT intervention is not working and should end. We want the territory and federal governments to engage and consult with us. The original 2007 Little Children Are Sacred report [documenting the sexual abuse of children in remote Aboriginal communities] that was prepared by Patricia Anderson and Rex Wild has recommendations we should put on the table.

"Part of the policy is the creation of 15 or 20 hub towns throughout the territory and the closing down of our traditional homelands. The hub towns will get all the new houses of the funds allocated in the intervention. These hub towns will mean the loss of over 73 communities.

"They will force people into these hub towns, creating ghettos. There are 73 language groups in the region. A mixture of different tongues means that some will die away completely. Once you lose the language, the culture, traditions and ceremonies are also lost. This strategy of the government is about ending the traditional customs of our people.

"The justification for the intervention was that sexual abuse of children was rife throughout the communities. This was a complete lie, like the “children overboard” lie. [In the lead-up to the 2004 federal election, John Howard had claimed that Middle Eastern refugees on the Tampa ship had “thrown their own children overboard” into the sea to try to pressure the Australian government into allowing them to enter Australia. It took several years for this to be exposed as absolutely untrue.]

"If you look at the 2007 Little Children Are Scared report, it clearly states that the sexual abuse of young Aboriginal girls and women is mostly committed by non-Aboriginal people living in the area.

"The report also stated that the sexual abuse of young girls and children is not a black issue, it’s a national issue. And the Australian Crime Commission confirms this. It was all lies – the federal government’s excuse to send in the military and take control of Aboriginal affairs.

"This is much clearer when you look at the issuing of [mining] exploration licences. In 2006, there were 180 exploration licences issued; in 2009 there were 400. What is of great interest to the government – and mining interests – are the huge deposits of uranium, gold, oil and iron ore on Aboriginal land.

"At first we did try to engage with the government representatives appointed to our communities as part of the intervention. We tried to work with them and give them advice about the communities, but they wouldn’t listen.

"That’s when we decided that we don’t want to be part of it. We thought: the country outside of the townships is our traditional homeland, we’ll move back out there.

"Our walk-off is aimed at the governments to show them that we can create a homeland. We will be focusing on building the communities with renewable energy and permaculture, where people will live off the land in a way where people are comfortable and happy.

"When we walked off, we had over 250 people with us. We said to the younger generation that they should stay in the community because of the children who need to go to school. They can support the old people by visiting regularly.

"We are now planning to build a new community in our traditional homeland. This action is about our self-determination. We want to show the government and the Australian people, black and white, that you don’t have to accept such paternalistic control. That you can set up a sustainable homeland with solar power, wind turbines and permaculture systems.

"This is going to happen at the protest camp as a statement on climate change, on moving away from fossil fuels and using clean energy.

"The government wants to lease the whole northern part of Australia, a pristine wilderness, to those who would rip it all out and pollute the waterways, the streams, the oceans and the air.

"That’s why it’s so important for all of us, Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people to come together and stop this happening.”

Trade union support

In mid-February, representatives from several trade unions, and solidarity activists, joined the Alyawarr people and built a "protest house" at the site of the walk-off camp near Ampilatwatja. The action was “to show the government it does not take over two years to build one house” and to demonstrate support for the walk-off protest and the refusal of the Alyawarr people to submit to the “new paternalism”.