Activist Isabelle Coe and a traditional dancer take part in a scared fire ceremony.

Aboriginal protestors gathered to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy last Thursday, the majority of media coverage focused on a perceived threat of violence towards Prime Minister Julia Gillard, rather than on the group’s calls for representation and the recognition of sovereignty.

Michael Anderson, the last surviving founder of the Tent Embassy, stressed that the 1872 Pacific Islands Protection Act (which includes Australia) asserts Queen Victoria saying “I know not claim dominion or sovereignty over the Aboriginal people and their places or their leaders.” Mr Anderson continued by adding “the Government and the courts in this country haven’t got a high hope from now on, to take us on… because we will force these issues.”

Mr Anderson addressed the 1000-strong crowd, many of whom had gathered from interstate, on the subject of land rights, saying “we own this country; we’ve never given it away.

They’ve never beat us in war, they’ve never asked us to cede, they’ve forced us into situations, and look at us… we’re still standing, we’re still strong.”

One of the original Tent Embassy activists Paul Coe, spoke about the creation of Australia as a sovereign entity, contrary to Aboriginal people’s sovereign rights. “They never asked us. They never included Aboriginal people in what they were on about; we were excluded, marginalised, as if we didn’t exist… and unfortunately, that same process is still going on right now as we speak.”

Activist Michael Anderson in front a line of police.

The three-day-long program of events and workshops held at the Embassy were designed to celebrate the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists, but also to honour those who defended the Embassy and have since died. “Here in 2012 we gather at this very sacred site, to pay tribute to those generations of patriots, to those men and women who’ve stood for the struggle… our blood is on that ground. The cops came here and smashed us, and we stood there as one mob, and we got up again,” says Murri Activist Sam Watson.

Prominent activist Rosalie Kunoth-Monks stated that the Invasion Day ceremonies were emotionally taxing for many involved, after hearing a roll-call of names of the deceased members of the original Tent Embassy protests in 1972. “Today we’re reminiscing about the struggles that we’ve had and just listening to that and thinking of the plight of the First Australians… Australia Day still brings a lot of pain.”

Throughout the day, speakers from a cross section of nations and age groups spoke about a desire for self-determination and adequate national representation, with many referring to oft-quoted Indigenous public figures in Government as ‘gate-keepers’. Ms Kunoth Monks said: “the acknowledgement of black people as the first residents of this land is denied by our Government and it is a heartless, uncaring attitude by those that are supposed to be representing us.”

Elder Harry Nelson of Yuendumu, also brought attention to what he sees as a misrepresentation of his people, by those Aboriginal members on the advisory board with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, saying “I find it really disgusting and shameful that these advisors to the Minister have never been to these communities, never spoken to us or sat around in a circle, discussing our problems.

The only advice that they give the Minister, is what they read in the papers.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by members of the Aboriginal Provisional Government, who issued an Invasion Day statement, saying “in a democracy, it is the right of Indigenous peoples to select their own representatives.

In the last 16 years, the opportunity for Aboriginal people to have our say has been stage managed by government and its lackeys, and the agenda has been theirs, not ours.”

1972 Aboriginal protest flag.

Redfern community leader Lyall Munro stated that Northern Territory Intervention should also be on the lips and tongues of all Aboriginal people in this country and claims “we cannot be free in the south unless our people in the Territory are free.

“We have to attack this racist indoctrination of our people for the want of land… what is happening up there is disgraceful and defies all international conventions that this country has signed and ratified.”

Barbara Shaw of the Intervention Rollback Action Group in Alice Springs feels strongly about the impact of the Intervention on the lives of local Aboriginal people, saying “four years I’ve been fighting the Intervention, and then they announce they’re going to have another Intervention for ten years.

We’ve had an Intervention for 200 years… we know what we want for our people. When will enough be enough?”

On the subject of Tony Abbott’s earlier comments on the Tent Embassy, in which he stated activists should ‘move on’, Ms Shaw said: “he is a coward to say that behind closed doors to the media… politicians and their parties need to recognise and understand and acknowledge that people were here before them. And we’ve got nowhere else to go, we were here first and we’re here to stay.”

Isabelle Coe is the wife of the late Billy Craigie, another of the Tent Embassy’s original founders. She has devoted her life to working for Aboriginal sovereignty and recognition. Looking back on the birth of the Embassy, Ms Coe said: “the people that came here back then, we only came here for one thing, and that was tell to the government that this country belongs to Aboriginal people.

I hope I don’t have to stay here for another 40 years.”

The Australian has been criticised by award-winning Journalist Brian Johnstone in a column for Tracker magazine, for what he called the “media frenzy” surrounding their reporting of alleged starvation of children on South Australia’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. As Johnstone states, a significant amount of facts and voices have yet to be reported on in the mainstream media’s version of events.

On the 2nd of September of this year, The Australian published an article entitled Aborigines ‘starving’, which reported on the Red Cross delivering food aid to “impoverished people living in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia’s far north”. This was an “exclusive” report quoting “two of the nation’s most respected Aboriginal leaders,” Noel Pearson and Mick Gooda, demanding a “dramatic federal government intervention to quarantine welfare payments and allow families to buy food in troubled remote communities in South Australia.”

On the 10th of September The Australian ran a larger story named Children Should Not Go Hungry which claimed the “revelations of social dislocation and children going hungry,” in the APY Lands are “disturbing and require urgent attention”. It noted that some commentators were “calling for Intervention-style measures to ensure families’ incomes are managed so that enough money is kept aside to feed the children. A stand-off between federal and state governments is not good enough. Action is needed now”.

Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands

Since then, 67 related articles have been published in The Australian (in print and online), that have many similar themes with those stories published prior to, and during, the Northern Territory Intervention. That is, a preoccupation with the welfare of children, a disproportionately large amount of sources in favour of Government intervention, a lack of engagement with Indigenous people living in the communities in question, and a willingness to support the notion of an ‘emergency situation’ in which the Government must intervene, prior to consultation with Aboriginal communities.

Because of its status as the nation’s legitimised national newspaper, The Australian’s continual reporting on the APY Lands story serves as a valuable case study in a wider investigation of news frames that, when viewed as a whole, seem to value the characteristics of a ‘moral panic’ involving children, and thus support the notion of a ‘obligation’ to intervene, practically and symbolically, into the lives of (almost entirely un-quoted) Aboriginal Australians.

By gathering all news stories on the APY Lands produced in the last few months by The Australian, one can immediately see a number of reoccurring themes. The concept of a ‘moral emergency’; a concern for the welfare of children; a willingness to ‘intervene’, whether it be in terms of what local Indigenous people should eat, where they should shop and how their welfare money should be quarantined (rather than if it should be quarantined); the failure of the S.A Labour Government to stop this hunger, and by extension the call for Government staff to resign; the recited opinion of a few Indigenous public figures who are usually supporters of Government intervention and income management; and lastly, the opinion of state and federal opposition members like Tony Abbott, who are calling for the immediate compulsory quarantining of all welfare payments, as well as supporting the Government’s proposal of docking the welfare payments for all parents whose children don’t turn up to school.

The lack of consultation with Indigenous peoples actually from this area, or ‘on the ground’, is significantly minimal.

South Australia Aboriginal Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi

As Johnstone’s analysis reveals, while this “disaster” was being heavily reported on, the Nganampa Health Council, a health organisation owned and operated by the local Anangu people of the APY region, issued a press release headed Facts wrong on APY food problems. It said “The statements from various NGOs, some Aboriginal spokespersons and national media organisations claiming widespread severe malnutrition amongst children on the APY Lands are simply wrong,” said Mr John Singer, Director of Nganampa Health Council. “Certainly poverty is a major problem on the APY Lands but it is complex and uneven in its effects. This does mean that some parents have problems in consistently providing healthy food for their families, but our health service data shows that despite this poverty there has been marked improvement in the growth and nutrition of children on the Lands.”

“An emergency response to poverty is not what is needed. What is needed are sustainable ways to reduce poverty” he added. Two days later, the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia issued their own media statement, supporting the facts and views expressed by the Nganampa Health Council.

Both statements have to date, been completely ignored by The Australian, when reporting on the APY Lands story. In fact, the Nganampa Health Council were so desperate to get their side of the story out, that they ended up taking out a paid advertisement, at their own expense, in The Australian and the Murdoch-owned Adelaide Advertiser, to run their press release in full.

As the Nganampa Health Council media release states, Indigenous disadvantage on the APY Lands has been an issue for decades, as it has been all over Australia. As Johnstone’s piece highlights however, there is something disconcerting about our national newspaper publishing 67 articles in the last 61 days, on an issue that they’ve largely ignored up until now, and all while barely consulting anyone living on the region in question.

As Brian Johnstone stated “The media furor over starvation in the APY Lands neglected the Aboriginal people who have been dealing with the problem for decades’.

For Eva Cox’s recent “The Media Release Jenny Macklin Should’ve Written on the N.T Intervention“, which coincides with the release of the Government’s “Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory” report, click: here.

Amnesty International's report into Indigenous homelands.

Amnesty International Chief Salil Shetty recently met with MP Jenny Macklin and opposition MPs in Canberra to demand an end to the Northern Territory’s Growth Towns policy, which encourages the removal of Indigenous people from their traditional homelands into regional hub towns.

After spending 12 days touring the country and meeting local spokespeople and community members living under the N.T Intervention in the Utopia region, Shetty said shocked at what he saw.

“I can’t believe I’m actually in one of the richest countries in the world and you have people, Aboriginal communities here who are living in conditions which are really almost inhumane,” adding “I think it’s quite shocking that you can have this level of poverty and this level of lack of basic facilities.”

Shetty’s visit coincided with last month’s release of Amnesty International’s report The land holds us: Aboriginal Peoples’ right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory, which recommends urgent political and financial support for homelands and details the ways in which current Government policies undermine the basic rights of Aboriginal people who wish to stay on their homelands, as well as directly ignoring aspects of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Government is currently funding the creation of 20 major growth towns or “mega shires”, which receive almost $800 million in housing, while on remote communities and homelands, no new houses are built and the minimum standard of repairs are maintained.

As Community Leader and Utopia resident Rosalie Kunoth Monks told Salil Shetty, that her people want to stay on the land, but are forced to deal with overcrowding, and lack of access to basic facilities like electricity and water. She believes the Government policy is about forced assimilation and the acquisition of land for mining.

“It’s not that they’re coming here with bulldozers or getting the army to move us it’s that they’re trying to starve us out of our home,” she said.

“They won’t support us becoming sustainable in our own right.

“If you’re made to feel a second class humanity, if it’s not ethnic cleansing please let me know what it is.”

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People James Anaya has echoed the report by Amnesty, saying the “health of Indigenous people living on homelands is significantly better than those living in larger communities.”

Amnesty International Chief Salil Shetty. Photo: Matt Writtle

As well as maintaining a spiritual and cultural connection to their country, Amnesty International have also supported the voices of many Indigenous Elders who oppose the policy, saying that homelands communities also retain some measure of community control and agency, quoting many examples of strong self-governance models.

“I think there is a fundamental problem. I think at one level the government doesn’t fully understand how central the relationships Aboriginal people have with land,” Shetty said.

“It’s not just the physical aspect. It’s a cultural aspect, it’s their identity, it’s their spirit, and it’s their ancestors.”

A 2005 research paper entitled Healthy Country: Healthy People? Exploring the Health Benefits of Indigenous Land Resource Management shows that Indigenous Australians living on their traditional homelands are significantly healthier and live a lot longer.

Further research conducted by Amnesty International Australia has also shown that homelands can be economically sustainable, forming a central part of the N.T tourism industry and contributing almost 6 percent of the Territory’s economy.

Paddy Gibson some impacts of the N.T Intervention.

Sail Shetty has said that during their discussion, Jenny Macklin admitted that homelands communities were one of the most disadvantaged in Australia, saying

“She has given us a commitment, from the guarantee that these homeland communities will not be pushed out of their land, and that they will get their requisite funding, with a clear plan and budget in the coming months,” he said.

“We have offered to work closely with them, to support and help them, and, at the same time, we will be holding them to account.”

Barbara Shaw, resident of Mt Nancy town camp in Alice Springs, on the effects of the Intervention.

For Professor John Altman’s discussion of the destruction of traditional homelands in The Conversation, click: here.

A recent protest held in Bankstown demanded an end to next year’s nation-wide trial of compulsory income management, which will see $4500 spent on each individual per annum, under the Northern Territory-style system.

The Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups organised the rally of over 100 local figures and supporters, in order to send a clear message to Federal Government, that income management will stigmatise already vulnerable members of the community by quarantining 50-70 percent of their welfare payments on the BasicsCard.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon on income management in Bankstown

Bankstown is one of five trial sites that are set to receive income management, in which recipients, mostly migrant and refugee groups, must shop for food and other ‘necessary items’, using a separate queue at Government-approved stores, namely Woolworths and Coles.

Speaking at the rally was Alice Springs Campaigner Barbara Shaw, who has lived under the Intervention since its inception. “The thing that I hate about going shopping with my BasicsCard, and I see it on everyone else’s faces too, is the treatment and attitudes of the shop assistants and other customers” said Shaw, “I’ve witnessed shop keepers putting away food that might be vital for a family, without asking, if customers don’t have enough on their BasicsCard. It’s shameful the way we have to put up with that. But if we respond, they just get rude.”

Barbara Shaw on living under the Intervention.

Members of the Not in Bankstown, Not Anywhere coalition fear that this kind of treatment will spread from being targeted solely at Indigenous communities under the Northern Territory Emergency Response, to the 20,000 new Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who are deemed socially disadvantaged by the Government. As some commentators have noted however, Bankstown is statistically less disadvantaged then many nearby areas.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, who also spoke to the crowd in Paul Keating Park, labelled the continuation and spread of the Intervention’s policy of income management “the rottenest policy that this government has come up with” adding that the $117.5 million scheme is “money that should be going on creating jobs and creating social services that are so badly needed in this area.”

Protesters against compulsory income management in Bankstown. Photo: Tamara Dean.

Bankstown Elder Aunty Carol Carter expressed her anger over the continued Intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, saying “They’re removing people from their country where they’re comfortable and pushing them into communities in town, where they’ve got problems with alcohol. If they want to see drunken violence, they should go to Kings Cross and they’ll see that every Friday and Saturday night.”

Aunty Carol was one of many people at the protest who voiced opposition to the Government plan, stating it was discriminatory and demeaning. “How dare they tell us what food stuffs to buy” she said, “The Government should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. They started it, and it will stop here in Bankstown.”

Paddy Gibson on the effects of the Basicscard.

Executive Director of the Arab Council of Australia and Bankstown resident Randa Kattan, will travel back to Alice Springs with local Barbara Shaw, to support Indigenous leaders in opposing income management and to speak to residents about the effects of being on the BasicsCard.

For a related in-depth article on the protest in Bankstown, click: here.

An expert panel set up by the Australian Government to gage public support for the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, will spend the next few months finalising its recommendations.

Although 75 percent of Australians already support some kind of constitutional reform, ideas on the practical effects that constitutional change would bring to the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more contested, with some commentators noting the disparity between existing legislation and the realities of government policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention, (Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007), which defy the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

After holding public forums across the country and accepting public submissions, the expert panel will now suggest changes to the Constitution of Australia and the Government will then decide whether or not to propose these to the nation in the form of a referendum. This will not be a simple procedure. Only eight out of forty four referendum questions in Australia’s history have been agreed to.

Members of the expert panel for constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples.

At present, the Constitution includes racially discriminatory laws that allow states to forbid people of “any race” from voting in elections, and also allows the government to make discriminatory laws for “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

Some believe that legislation like the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 have only so much power, while these laws are still in place. In 2007, the Australian Government suspended this act in order to begin the ongoing Northern Territory Intervention, which saw the compulsory acquisition of previously Aboriginal-owned land, the take-over of Aboriginal service providers, mandatory sexual-health checks for Aboriginal children, the prohibition of alcohol consumption and distribution, and the quarantining of 50 percent of social services payments, that individuals work for, onto a ‘BasicsCard’ which can only be spent on food in two supermarket chains located in larger regional areas.

Uncle Don, an elder from the Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council in Western Sydney says, “When you look at Aboriginal Affairs in Australia, this Constitution is still a racist Constitution…You are living in our circle, but the ‘northern hemisphere-city’ of your thinking is back up there”.

Uncle Don and Jeff McMullen Discuss Constitutional Reform.

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians may take the form of a ‘statement of recognition’ or ‘statement of values’ to be inserted into a preamble or in the body of the Constitution; the power to make regional agreements with particular Indigenous groups; or it may involve the repeal or amendment of one or both of the racially discriminatory laws.

Some panel experts such as MP Ken Wyatt have said they support Indigenous recognition in the form of a preamble. Although under the exercise of ‘non-judicial provision’, a preamble alone would have no legal bearing. Dr Jeff McMullen, a Journalist and Aboriginal Rights Campaigner, feels that constitutional reform may not affect Australia’s policies anymore than current laws do, “Under our law and under International law, Aboriginal people have the legal right to self-determination. And yet over four years of the Northern Territory Intervention, we have clearly broken that trust. We have ignored our own laws”.

Jeff McMullen discusses constitutional reform.

Nicole Watson is a Lawyer and Research Fellow at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning who believes the creation of an Australian Bill of Rights or a Treaty would afford Indigenous peoples, and other Australians, appropriate legal protection without the risk that their human rights may be undermined. She states that constitutional recognition may be a “gesture that does not go far enough towards recognising our sovereignty. It does not restore the rights that were taken away by the Howard Government’s amendments to the Native Title Act of 1976. It’s a piecemeal gesture”.

Australia was reviewed this year under the United Nations Human Rights Council, leading the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, to state, “I would urge a fundamental rethink of the measures being taken under the Northern Territory Emergency Response. There should be a major effort to ensure not just consultation with the communities concerned in any future measures, but also their consent and active participation.”

Indigenous performers opening Parliament. Picture: Ray Strange

As Nicole Watson says, “It is disingenuous to even have this constitutional recognition dialogue while we have the Northern Territory Intervention in place. How can you talk about ‘nation-building’ when you have one part of the nation effectively subject to apartheid?”

Unless a proposed Bill of Rights was entered into the Constitution, it too could be easily overwritten by the Government. Chris Graham, Managing Editor of Tracker Magazine says that positive outcomes could potentially be reached through constitutional reform, saying “If they go far enough, constitutional recognition will afford Aboriginal people some more human rights, however, so would a treaty.”

Australia is the only colonised nation that has never signed a treaty with its Indigenous Peoples, and the only Western nation without a Bill of Rights.

Uncle Don and Jeff McMullen Discuss the acquisition of Aboriginal land and financing the NT Intervention.

For SBS World News Australia’s related story on constitutional change click: here.

Freedom Riders Curators Matt Poll and Katie Yuill

Today marks the end of Freedom Riders: Art & Activism 1960’s to Now, a two-month-long art exhibition at the University of Sydney Art Gallery, curated by Matt Poll and Katie Yuill.

The exhibition, which celebrates both the history of Aboriginal activism in New South Wales and the work of some of the states leading Indigenous artists, takes as its inspiration a powerful portrait of Dr Charles Perkins by the artist Robert Campbell Jnr. Both the artist, who has a number of works in the exhibition, and his subject are today regarded as groundbreaking in their exposition of Indigenous inequalities. As Robert Campbell Jnr states, “I am painting to show people – Aboriginal people, and even the whites – what truths took place in my lifetime: for example, being fenced off at the pictures; the dog-tag system. I am telling the stories, the struggle of Aboriginal people, tribal and others, through my life”.

Portrait of Charles Perkins, by Robert Campbell Jnr

The well-received exhibition opened to a full house on the 3rd of July with many of the artists in attendance. Its aim was to pay tribute to what Professor Ann Curthoys, an original ‘freedom rider’  calls the “enduring legacy” of the 1965 Freedom Ride, organised by a group of University of Sydney students, including Charles Perkins, who went on to be the first Indigenous graduate of the University and a prominent leader of the Aboriginal rights movement. As Ann Curthoys states, students like Charles Perkins and Gary Williams, a Gumbaynggir man “helped unite two emerging forces that were beginning to change Australian society; the Aboriginal rights movement and student radicalism”.

Barred From the Baths, By Robert Campbell Jnr 1968

domestic lean-to, by Johnathon Jones 2008

Also bearing witness to the Freedom Ride of 1965 and the climate of segregation and exclusion that the student demonstrations were against, is the installation of the documentary film Blood Brothers- Freedom Ride, made by Rachel Perkins and Ned Landers. The inclusion of the film in the exhibition brings together the artworks not only conceptually, but also as politically informed artistic statements on the practical conditions and struggles of Indigenous people, then and now.

Adam Hill’s K9 vs. bloodline on the breadline, for example, speaks of the artist’s concerns for the contemporary struggle of both rural and urban Indigenous peoples in regards to the discriminatory behaviour of police and the Northern Territory Intervention specifically, saying the painting ”was produced in opposition to the racist John Howard’s [Northern Territory] Intervention implementation”. Adam Hill describes his painting, one of the most emotionally charged in the Freedom Riders exhibition, as one of “urban payback”, saying the image is “from the heart – mine and from the heart of Redfern, an ode to TJ [Hickey] and all local mob who in the course of Redfern history have gone unrecognised officially while the officials become more official. Redfern is the police punching bag of NSW”.

K9 vs. bloodline on the breadline, by Adam Hill 2008


Read a related story on the very recent resignation of Curator Hetti Perkins from the AGNSW due to the “sidelining” of Indigenous Art: here.

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