Beyond Reconciliation: Fight for real justice for Aborigines

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The Sea of Hands: This constantly expanding sculpture represents the desire of the Australian majority to see justice for Indigenous Australians. Photo by Peter Murray.

On Sunday, December 3, 2000, six hundred thousand people came out for Melbourne’s Walk for Reconciliation. Perth also had its biggest-ever rally that day, ending a year of similarly spectacular actions. On May 28, Sydney’s Harbour Bridge was crowded with 500,000 marchers. Cities and towns across the country also set their own records — 50,000 turned out in Adelaide, 70,000 in Brisbane and a quarter of the population of Hobart. These spectacular actions gave notice to the Howard Government, big business and the rest of the world that working people stand with this continent’s original custodians.

Racist disgrace. Aborigines are 17 times more likely to be arrested than other Australians and receive harsher penalties for similar offences. In NSW, out of approximately 7500 in custody, 1500 are Aboriginal. Young Kooris are between 25% and 40% of the state’s juvenile detention centre detainees. Nationally, the arrest rate for Aboriginal women is 20 times higher than for other women. In the Northern Territory, the incarceration of Indigenous women, for the pettiest offences, has increased 223% since the introduction of mandatory sentencing. Aboriginal communities live in Third World conditions, without basic services and facilities, such as health clinics or running water. A recently-released international study, Children’s Rights: Equal Rights, reports that life expectancy for Aborigines is similar to levels experienced by non-Indigenous Australians a century ago — 60 percent of the Aboriginal population is under 25 years old.

What has the Howard Government done in the face of this shameful situation? It has extended systemic discrimination against Aborigines in jobs, education, health and housing. It has slashed the funds of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and targeted its leaders. John Howard sneers at anti-discrimination laws as “political correctness” — meanwhile shredding gains made by the Aboriginal movement over the past 30 years in health, housing, training, family welfare and juvenile detention schemes. The giant mining and agricultural corporations and government bureaucrats see reconciliation as a smoke screen which could allow them to maintain their generations-long crusade to wipe out Indigenous cultures.

Walking an extra mile together. The vast majority of people on this continent are sick of institutionalised racism. It injures not only its direct victims, but those in whose name it is perpetrated. Non-Indigenous Australians do not wish to be labelled as the Afrikaners of the Pacific. Maybe there are some who merely want the issue to go away, but millions are marching in the streets because they see it as the right thing to do. It is a correct response: only the collective will of the people, expressed in an unmistakable message of anti-racist solidarity, can force the government and its big business sponsors into ending the colonial war.

The reconciliation movement has mobilised millions of people motivated by a passion for justice. But reconciliation is a vague, “feel good” concept which does not address the fundamental issues of dispossession and its consequences. Indigenous people have asked many times: “What have we to reconcile? What did we do except defend what was ours and then suffer the consequences of our resistance and the theft of our country?” What indeed?

Reconciliation on the terms of the government and big business would be a sellout of an historic struggle. For more than seven generations, the original custodians of this continent have resisted every conceivable assault, from murder to rape to kidnapping and brainwashing. Marchers across the country have understood this, carrying banners, placards and statements demanding redress for past and present wrongs. The majority of Australians now favour a formal treaty with Indigenous nations. The task for the Indigenous rights movement is to maintain this momentum, leading the country in actually taking the crucial next step toward a just resolution for Aborigines.

Olympic highs and lows. The Sydney Olympics was a unique opportunity to expose the appalling treatment and living standards experienced by Indigenous peoples. “Burn, baby, burn” — the words of the late Indigenous fighter, Charles Perkins — expressed the intensity of the anger. Turning the Games into a stage for resistance would have emboldened the Aboriginal solidarity movement and linked it to the global revolt against capitalism.

That it didn’t happen is testimony to deep divisions in the Sydney community, which dissipated opposition to an already powerful anti-protest coalition. The Federal and NSW Governments threatened to use the big stick — draconian police powers coupled with threats of armed troops on the streets. SOCOG (the Games organising committee) and corporate sponsors were more subtle. Reconciliation was central to the opening and closing sessions of the Games, and hundreds of community leaders — who otherwise might have been involved in protest organising — were persuaded to participate in the spectacle.

The Games did provide some unforgettable images of Indigenous triumph and solidarity. Almost everyone in the country shared Cathy Freeman’s joy and relief after she won the 400m final. And who didn’t join in the thunderous cheers when, at the closing ceremony, Midnight Oil stepped onto the stage in suits emblazoned with “Sorry” and sang their pro-land rights anthem, Beds are Burning? Who didn’t enjoy John Howard’s discomfort as Yothu Yindi, accompanied by a chorus of 110,000, belted out Treaty to a global audience?

The symbolism was indeed powerful, but a few hours of pageantry is no substitute for grassroots struggle, and no antidote to 213 years of oppression.

United in struggle. The rise of the modern movement for Indigenous liberation has coincided almost exactly with the period of neoliberal economic policy that has touched every poor and oppressed person on the planet. Economic Rationalism, so-called, has been the guiding principle for every Australian government since 1972, and the effects on working people have been devastating. The right to unemployment benefits as compensation for being out of work was diluted and finally abolished in the early ’90s. Work for the dole, which replaced the benefit system, is now to be extended to single parents and at least some disabled pensioners.

Indigenous people know all about indentured servitude. Until 1967, forced labour for rations was the only way many maintained contact with their land. Then they were kicked off to starve — until some bureaucrat came up with a race-based work for the dole scheme in the mid 1970s. It’s currently not acceptable to conscript people to labour schemes on the basis of race. Rather, to maintain profitability, all of us can now be pressed into sweated labourschemes for a wage that is less than subsistence level. Opposing this cruel system is one struggle which binds Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together.

Working class women have another point of unity with Indigenous struggle. Cuts to childcare are further pushing women out of the workforce — and back into the home. Here, they service the capitalist system, looking after its labour force, unpaid. In 1997, the market value of women’s household work was $AUD237 billion. Poor women, burdened by the patriarchal nuclear family, are natural allies of Indigenous nations, because they, too, know all about unpaid labour.

There are many other points of similarity in the struggles of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The Goods and Services Tax is driving down our living standards. Years of attacks on working conditions mean that there is a whole layer of injured workers and workers in a declining state of health — all to boost super-profits for a few dozen monstrous corporations. Inflation is on the rise, fuelled by currency speculation, government handouts to business and the manipulation of oil prices by the big oil companies.

Stolen lands, stolen labour, stolen lives — these are the three pillars of Australian capitalism. Every working class person has a stake in achieving justice for Aborigines, because justice means empowerment, and empowerment of Indigenous nations means a real weakening of the corporate Establishment which afflicts us all. The world is beginning to rise up against all capitalist injustices, and the movement to win justice for the Indigenous nations of Australia is part of that uprising.

Land never ceded. Sovereignty must be the centrepiece of any settlement. Howard understands this perfectly, which is why he argues that “to talk about one part of Australia making a treaty with another part is to accept that we are in effect two nations.” Actually, Australia is made up of many Indigenous nations which have never signed away their rights to the colonial settler state.

The movement for reconciliation points to a new mood of popular support for Indigenous people, and offers a very real opportunity to negotiate a lasting settlement. It’s time to formally recognise this continent’s Indigenous nations through a treaty enshrining full land rights, the right to secession, and the duty of the Australian State and big business to pay compensation for illegally seized land, attempted genocide and decades of slave labour.

Beyond reconciliation lies acknowledgment of the ancient and continuing land ownership of Indigenous nations, reparations for past crimes, and abolition of the racist inequities in health, education, housing and employment. Beyond reconciliation lies the struggle for justice for Aborigines and for all of those bound together in the struggle for a country — and a world — free of all oppression.

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