In May 2005, indigenous activists met at Trades Hall in Melbourne and called for mass protests aimed at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. This represents an exceptional opportunity to publicly highlight the plight of Aboriginal Australia. Prominent Aboriginal activist Gary Foley told the crowd, ‘Native title is not land rights, reconciliation is not justice and the struggle for Indigenous rights in Australia continues’.
The Howard government has launched attacks on Aboriginal people, quietly supported by the ALP opposition. These include the abolition of ATSIC, cuts to services, and a push for privatisation of commonly owned Aboriginal land and its sale to developers like the Macquarie Bank. These policies are part of a broader neo-liberal agenda pursued by the federal Coalition government, the ALP state governments, and all capitalist governments worldwide.
In 1965 civil rights leader Malcolm X said that “You can’t have capitalism without racism”. Today that statement is being proved over and again, in starker and more blatant terms, in both America and the rest of the world. In Australia Howard used racism to win the 2001 ‘Tampa’ election and again in 2003 to generate support for the invasion of Iraq. His muted response to the Cronulla riots was in the same vein.
Racist ideas have the effect of dividing workers instead of uniting them and therefore are objectively in the interests of right-wing politicians and bosses.
Racism is not the goal of capitalism, but a by-product of its search for profits. Historically, racism has been central to the capitalist strategy of dividing working class opposition. Capitalism in Australia had an extra or added racist component (compared to other advanced capitalist countries) because of its origin in the attempted annihilation of the Aboriginal people and, later, the White Australia Policy.
Change in capitalist policy towards Aboriginal people
This atmosphere of fear mongering and racism has, not surprisingly, made its impact on Aboriginal Australia, where we have seen a strategical shift in capitalist policy.
Since the late 1960s, the ruling class have attempted to create a thin layer of black middle class to act as a buffer between official society and the mass of impoverished Aboriginal people. This went parallel with the disbursement of militant Aboriginal communities in areas like Redfern in Sydney and Fitzroy and Collingwood in Melbourne.
A mini-industry of white and black bureaucrats was established with Federal and State Aboriginal government departments and ATSIC. The continued Third World existence faced by many indigenous people shows how ineffective these agencies have been.
Today, in the era of capitalist globalisation and the rapid movement of capital, all governments operating on the basis of capitalism have to play to the same tune. To attract capital investment, governments cut tax and spending and privatise. For Aboriginal Australia, this equates to government policies promoting privatisation of land, dismantling of services, and an ideology of individual ambition rather than collective action to achieve change.
Capitalism offers nothing for the mass of Aboriginal people
The facts fly in the face of capitalism offering a way out for black Australia. Indigenous Australians continue to suffer from the worst health conditions in Australia. An August 2003 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that a newborn Aboriginal boy can be expected to live to 56 years, and a newborn girl to 63. Contrasted with the Australian national averages of 77 and 82 respectively, the enormous extent of the crisis becomes clear. The report showed that Aboriginal babies were twice as likely to be born underweight compared with non-Aboriginal children.
Nationally, Aboriginal people constitute approximately 20 percent of the total prison population, but they make up just 2.4 percent of the total Australian population. Aboriginal children are eight times more likely to be in child protection systems than non-Aboriginal children.
Blame the victim and ‘Mutual Obligation’
In spite of such shocking statistics, however, the Howard government and the ALP Opposition’s approach has been one of shifting the blame. Health Minister Tony Abbott has continually insinuated that poor standards of Aboriginal health have more to do with culture and parenting than with the long history of oppression and racism. At a state level, the ALP NSW and WA governments have carried out similar polices.
In 2004, for example, less than one week after Aboriginal leaders hailed a new ‘era of optimism’ following a well-covered meeting between the PM and Michael Long, the government revealed a deal which linked Federal Government funding for petrol bowsers to a demand that children wash their faces twice daily and families keep their homes free of rubbish.
Patrick Dodson, ‘the father of reconciliation’, said it “smacks so much of the old days when the superintendents of missions lined people up and checked whether they’d cleaned their teeth or put their rubbish bins out at the right angle.”
Instead of increasing resources aimed at long-term jobs growth and social security for indigenous communities, Howard’s government use benign-sounding policies of ‘mutual obligation’ to bring indigenous people to heel, by forcing them into low-wage jobs, ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes and small businesses. ‘Passive welfare is over,’ said Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone.
Stepped up attacks
Now, however, we are witnessing a step up in these attacks. In preparation for this, the already undemocratic and nepotistic ATSIC – which distributed what meager crumbs the government fed the body – was disbanded and replaced by the even less democratic handpicked National Indigenous Council (NIC). This has cleared the way for the increasingly certain privatisation of native title (by allowing individuals to ‘own’ title), foreshadowing a second round of land theft.
Physical repression has increased after the Redfern, Palm Island, and most recently, the Dubbo riots, where police used special powers, which they gained in the aftermath of Cronulla. A Townsville MP has called for all Indigenous people to be shifted from Palm Island to the mainland for ‘reintegration’. The list is endless. There were even raids on independent Aboriginal newspaper National Indigenous Times after leaked Cabinet briefings were published (which the Financial Review also published, although they were not raided).
The latest counter-reform is for the privatisation of commonly owned land. The Macquarie Bank has been in the forefront of buying up much of this land on coastal NSW to develop. Only a very small percentage of Aboriginal people will benefit from this.
The Howard government and their big-business friends have signalled a renewed attack on almost every quarter of Australian society, from construction workers to nurses and teachers, from Muslims to the Indigenous population. The attacks against one section of working people will soon be used against other section. The only way forward is to show united opposition to all of his neo-liberal policies and replace racism and fear-mongering with workers unity and solidarity. Capitalism breeds racism and oppression – only socialism guarantees class unity and jobs and resources for Aboriginal people.
By Will Kaplan