In mid-June the Labor Party and the Liberals passed the Native Title Amendment bill, changing the law to give mining companies greater access to Aboriginal land. The change is partly to benefit the mining company Adani, which is trying to establish the Carmichael coal mine on the ancestral land of the Wangan and Jagalingou people.
This should give pause to the popular calls for an Aboriginal Treaty. We have argued before that, under capitalism, no such treaty will be respected. Treaties, like Native Title law, can be torn up when capitalism demands it. Existing Native Title law has always been subverted by big business, with mining companies paying what they call “f- off” money to Indigenous representatives. And in the Carmichael dispute, observers have raised the possibility of the government ‘compulsorily acquiring’ the land for Adani regardless of what happens.
Two weeks before this bill passed the Senate, hundreds of Indigenous people from across the country met at Uluru. They met to discuss the Recognise campaign’s proposal to change the way they are treated in the constitution. Despite having over $25 million of government funding by one estimate, the Recognise campaign has failed to convince a majority of Indigenous people of its merits.
The Uluru meeting stressed the concept of Indigenous sovereignty, which is used to refer to the independent, recognised authority of a nation over its own affairs. Sovereignty is seen as a way to self-determination and a pre-requisite for a treaty. But sovereignty has never guaranteed democratic rights to communities. Sovereign nations have always been subject to invasion and war. And treaties overseas have not protected the indigenous people of other countries from facing the same disasters that face the Aboriginal community.
So what strategy is needed to win Indigenous rights?
History shows us that the answer lies in class struggle. Where indigenous groups have won greater rights, it has not been the existence of a treaty that made the difference, but the militancy of people’s movements fighting against the ruling class.
The Māori are often used as an example of an indigenous group who have won significant victories and are seen as enjoying greater rights than many other indigenous people. But these victories came from militant struggle, not from a treaty.
The Treaty of Waitangi, between British colonists and Māori, has been systematically ignored except where it signed land over to the British. One former New Zealand prime minister has said that the biggest factor stopping the government from eliminating the special seats that are set aside for Māori in parliament is the fear of “hikois from hell” – a hikoi being a protest march.
While these comments show that the ruling class fear militant struggle, they also highlight that – under capitalism – these struggles will always have to be re-fought, over and over again. The Māori community are continually faced with the burdens of racism, poverty and exploitation. There will be no lasting solution, unless the capitalist system is replaced with a democratic socialist system that guarantees the right to self-determination.
The bottom line is that an Indigenous protest movement is needed, one that unites with other working class and oppressed people. Indigenous people have a history of being part of militant working class struggles: the Pilbara strike, the Wave Hill walk-off, the surge of activism in the 1970s that was partly inspired by the openly socialist Black Panthers, to name a few.
Rather than spending its energy on a push for an ineffective treaty – no more a guarantee of change than what the Recognise campaign offers – a militant movement could fight for and win concrete victories: the end of the Northern Territory Intervention and of racist welfare quarantining, real support for remote communities, and a program of jobs, homes and services for all.
A struggle around these demands has the potential to draw in the trade union movement and other working class communities that would benefit from such gains. There is enormous potential for support from non-Indigenous workers if the right approach is taken. For example, tens of thousands of people attended Invasion Day rallies this year and tens of thousands more have protested against attacks on remote communities.
As the dispute over the Carmichael coal mine shows, it is the capitalist system that demands Indigenous dispossession. Indigenous rights have only been won by challenging this system through mass struggle. Ultimately, only democratic socialism can offer an end to oppression and exploitation and true self-determination for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers alike.
By David Elliott