What has changed in 40 years?
January 26 marked the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. The establishment of the Tent Embassy in 1972 represented an historic watershed in the Indigenous struggle for self-determination.
The mainstream account of history teaches that it was the 1967 referendum that finally afforded rights and equality to Aboriginal people. This, however, was not the experience of Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker) said after the referendum: “Looking back, the only major improvement has been the 93% ‘Yes’ vote of the referendum of May 1967; but this improvement did not benefit the black Australians though it eased the guilty conscience of white Australians in this country and overseas.”
Racism and exploitation remained widespread after 1967. In many areas Aboriginal workers were still being paid as little as 50% of the minimum wage. Police brutality, incarcerations and deaths in custody continued as common occurrences. The living standards of Aboriginal people remained drastically below those of the non-indigenous population. The reforms promised by the 1967 referendum were not forthcoming.
Frustration at the lack of real change increasingly led to a more militant mood amongst Aboriginal activists.
Throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, groups of young Aboriginal activists started organising in the urban centres of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Inspired by international upheavals, anti-colonial national liberation struggles and the American Black Power movement, this new generation of activists was eager to directly confront their own subjugation.
Angry and politically astute, the Aboriginal ‘Black Power’ movement established itself through successful campaigns such as forming the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service and playing a prominent role in the anti-Apartheid protests. Most significantly, these young militants demanded control over their own affairs and fought for Aboriginal leadership of the various Aboriginal rights organisations.
The culmination of this upswing in Aboriginal militancy came in early 1972. On January 25th, the eve of Australia Day (i.e. ‘Invasion Day’), then Prime Minister William McMahon announced the Government’s main Aboriginal Affairs policy.
Hoping to cut across the growing confidence of Aboriginal people, McMahon offered up hollow promises that could not even scratch the surface of Aboriginal aspirations for genuine land rights and self-determination. The response from the young Aboriginal Black Power movement, to the horror of McMahon and the rest of the Australian ruling elite, was to travel to Canberra that day to confront the issue head on.
As Aboriginal historian and protest participant Gary Foley recalls:
“Upon arrival in Canberra early on the morning of 27th January 1972 the Koori [Aboriginal] men pitched a beach umbrella on the lawns outside Parliament House and proclaimed the site the office of the “Aboriginal Embassy”. They declared that Prime Minister McMahon’s statement the day before had effectively relegated indigenous people to the status of ‘aliens in our own land’, thus as aliens ‘we would have an embassy of our own’.”
This protest, through its boldness and ingenuity (and sheer luck of finding a loophole in ACT camping laws) shamed the racists in Government and captured the attention of millions of people. For first time in such dramatic fashion Aboriginal grievances were being expressed to a mass audience articulately and without pretense from the mouths of Aboriginal people themselves.
It was this protest and the dramatic events that followed that forced the issue of land rights and Aboriginal self-determination into the political mainstream.
The 40th Anniversary protest last month highlighted that in the four decades that have passed since the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected on Parliament lawns, not a lot has fundamentally changed.
While the same issues remain in Aboriginal communities, non-solutions like re-wording the constitution are still being used to direct attention away from real problems.
The approach of the political establishment today is to continue to dispossess, socially and economically isolate, and victim-blame Aboriginal people while big business interests plunder the land. This can be no clearer than in the case of bipartisan support for the Northern Territory Intervention, a ruse concocted to force Aboriginal communities off valuable, mineral rich land.
In a country like Australia where mining interests dictate political outcomes, the struggle for land rights and self determination needs to go beyond the current system of private ownership. A socialist society built on genuine democracy and collective ownership is the only system able to ensure Aboriginal self-determination whilst ending unnecessary destruction of land for profit.
By Mel Gregson