The condition of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (Indigenous people) is an open sore in the body of Australian capitalism.
Last month’s 700-page Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report, commissioned by the Federal government, is the latest in a never-ending series of such reports which looks at the issue and exposes how Indigenous people live in this country.
Despite the apology of Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generations, and despite (or partially because of!) the ‘Intervention’ of Howard and Rudd, things have gone backwards not forwards according to the findings. It shows that income for Indigenous men is only 44.2 per cent of that of non-Indigenous men, and 75.7 per cent for Indigenous women.
The level of need assistance for Indigenous people with a disability and chronic disease is twice that of white people. The imprisonment rate for Indigenous women increased by 46 per cent this decade and by 27 per cent for indigenous men.
Indigenous people in general are 13 times more likely to end up in jail, while victims of domestic violence were hospitalized at a rate 34 times higher than non-Aboriginal people.
The report, which measures and compares 50 indicators of disadvantage, found there had been no improvement in 80 per cent of the economic and social categories. While the gap between the indigenous and non-indigenous workforce has remained steady, there have been no improvements in indigenous literacy and numeracy.
The Socialist Party does not support the black capitalism perspective of Noel Pearson. However his comments on the release of this report were spot on:
“(Government reaction to the report) was a Groundhog Day of official consternation….I see it time and time again: politicians and senior bureaucrats who have goodwill but for whom indigenous policy comes into view for fleeting periods and soon disappears out of sight, out of mind. So this week the abuse of indigenous children comes fleetingly to the attention of our Prime Minister and the premiers; next week it will recede into bureaucratic oblivion.”
The historic roots of Indigenous oppression
After being defeated in the American War of Independence, Britain had to find other places to dump its unwanted convicts. Australia was its chosen site, with its added benefits of being a harbour for its whaling ships and a military base to protect its trading interests in the region.
When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, renewed trade allowed cheaper Spanish and Silesian wool to undercut the British-produced product. In response the British encouraged wool production in Australia on a massive scale. White society came into conflict with the Indigenous population – whites needed land for sheep and regarded the native animals the Indigenous people relied on for meat as a nuisance. What followed was a war of conquest against the Indigenous population. They were seen as pests and worthy of extermination by the white settlers.
This process was replicated everywhere European colonialism came into conflict with hunting and gathering societies who were deemed unsuitable for incorporation into a local working class.
Marxist historian Hannah Middleton explained that “if the Aborigines did not die from one of the introduced diseases or were not shot, then they could be tricked with bags of flour laced with poison and destroyed in that way. Massacres were common place, one at Myall Creek in 1838 saw 28 Indigenous people “casually taken from the hut of friendly stockman, tied up with ropes and then slaughtered in the bush”.
Wool production, Australia’s first local industry, was based on massacre and bloodshed. In 1788 there were 300,000 Indigenous people in Australia, this declined to 67,000 by 1901. This decimation by bullet and disease went parallel with a demonisation and racist vilification of Indigenous people that continues in some quarters to this day.
Aboriginal people and the working class
Gradually during the 20th century, the Indigenous population was drawn into the working class, especially because of the ongoing labour shortage due to migration restrictions in the period before the Second World War.
The labour shortage during the war fast-tracked this process. As with any new section of the working class, Aboriginal workers became militant and with the support of militant trade unionists, especially from the Communist Party, they involved themselves in some major strike action.
The militant Pilbara strike after the war lasted three years as Aboriginal workers on sheep stations demanded a 30 shilling minimum wage. The High Court eventually ruled in favour of the right of these workers to organise, elect representatives and consequently they won some wage rises.
Other strikes followed, especially in the radical 1960s, and this influenced a change of policy by the ruling class. All the major parties supported citizenship for Aboriginal people and this won 92 per cent support in the 1967 referendum.
The much celebrated Wave Hill strike of Indigenous workers against the capitalist agricultural giant Vestey led to a famous victory. However, on a capitalist basis, this victory was responded to by the bosses through the sacking of workers and their replacement with greater mechanisation on the massive cattle stations.
The opportunity was there for a unity of militant Indigenous workers with the radicalised layers of ‘white’ workers, women and students in this period of offensive struggle. Layers of urban Indigenous youth began to be influenced by the Black Panthers in the US and other international struggles such as the anti-imperialist struggle of the Vietnamese people.
Ruling class change of strategy
The ruling class could see that the old methods of repression would no longer suffice. Militant Indigenous suburbs like Redfern in inner-city Sydney were depopulated with families being sent out to new public housing estates in the western and south western suburbs – with no more than a couple of Indigenous families per street. The Labor Party played a key role in this manoeuvre.
Land Rights became a new demand. The Socialist Party supports Land Rights as a basic democratic demand, but alone it is not a solution to the problems of horrific living and working conditions facing Indigenous people, because under capitalism real power and wealth remains in the hands of a rich minority. Black capitalism and Land Rights were easier for the ruling class to deal with than a militant black proletariat drawing links with the non-Indigenous working class.
First introduced by the Whitlam Labor government and supported later by the Fraser Coalition government in the 1970s, sections of non-urban Indigenous people won freehold rights over swathes of land. This went side-by-side with the introduction of the Community Development Economic Programme which was an early form of work-for-the-dole, later to be spread to the non-Indigenous population.
Thirty years on, Land Rights and its watered down version, Native Title, has not improved the conditions of life for Indigenous Australia in remote communities, let alone in town camps or urban Indigenous people. This has been proven by numerous reports, of which the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage is merely the latest.
New attacks in 21st century
Now even Land Rights and Native Title is too much for modern capitalism to accept. They no longer face a politically-active and increasingly militant Indigenous population. Instead they face a global financial crisis and a mining sector desperate to get their hands on new opportunities on Indigenous land.
Howard’s Northern Territory Intervention at root was an attempt to drive indigenous people from whole swathes of rural Australia into smaller compounds where they face restrictions on how they can spend their income. The Rudd Labor government, while making minor changes, has in fact continued and widened this ‘intervention’. As with every new turn of capitalism, it has gone side-by-side with a propaganda campaign, claiming their attack on Indigenous people is really an attempt to protect children from abuse.
The Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage reports that the gap between Indigenous and non- Indigenous people on ‘substantiated child abuse and neglect’ has increased from 4 to 6 times from 1999-200 to 2007-08. Most of the media has reported this as ‘substantiated child abuse’, ignoring the ‘neglect’. Deep inside the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report, a graph shows that in fact the sexual abuse component of ‘substantiated child abuse and neglect’, while still horrific, has not increased over this time and in fact is equal to the figures for the non-Indigenous population!
Socialism and Indigenous people
Unless challenged, capitalism and its parties and politicians will continue to undermine the very limited reforms won through struggle by Indigenous people in the past. The Socialist Party opposes the NT Intervention, we support Land Rights, along with a massive increase in spending on health, housing, education and job creation for Indigenous people. In Melbourne we have stood with Indigenous people against attempts to witch-hunt them out of one of their meeting places in the city.
However, as long as capitalism remains indigenous people will be treated as a Third World minority within an advanced western society. Their oppression helps drive down conditions for all workers and helps divide the working class.
Socialists argue for unity between Indigenous and non- Indigenous workers and ordinary people around a joint programme of defence of democratic demands such as Land Rights and for a decent health, education, housing and job opportunities for all.
Socialist Party fights to defend public space for Indigenous people
Last month Yarra Council’s Finance Committee met at Richmond Town Hall, Melbourne. Officers recommended the introduction of a local law to ban public drinking in the municipality – a demand of some Smith Street traders.
The traders want to get rid of Indigenous people from the street and have used this proposed law as the best mechanism. They have been supported by the local Labor MP Richard Wynne (who is also Minister for Aboriginal Affairs!) and the three Labor Councillors in Yarra (Barbour, Garrett and Funder).
The Melbourne Times, which came out on the morning of the meeting, quoted Green Mayor Amanda Stone speaking in favour of the local law.
The law will allow ‘public drinking’ if you are enjoying a $6.50 Stella Artois on chairs on the footpath outside the Kent St bar on Smith Street, but ban you drinking a beer 50 metres down the road outside the TAB or the ANZ bank (where Indigenous people and their supporters regularly meet). The proposed local law discriminates against poor people and black people.
The Socialist Party mobilised interested parties on the night and some Aboriginal folk and community legal service workers attended and spoke forcibly against the local law.
Under pressure the Greens cracked and moved an amendment to the recommendation, to limit the local law to between 11pm and 7am. I said I opposed the local law in totality – a similar law (used 24/7) is totally ineffectual in the City of Melbourne in terms of stopping public drinking.
The real issue is anti-social behaviour – which the Socialist Party obviously opposes – and the police have a raft of measures already to deal with anti-social behaviour, they don’t need another local law to do it. Just as in the Northern Territory ‘law and order’ is no solution to the social and health issues that capitalism has created.
By Stephen Jolly