From high school rebel to Socialist Alliance leader: Talking with Sam Watson

Veteran Aboriginal Campaigner

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Sam Watson. Photo by Alison Thorne.

Sam Watson headed the Socialist Alliance Senate in Queensland at the last Federal election. The ticket attracted a very credible 8,965 votes. After the elections, Alison Thorne, who headed the Victorian Senate ticket for Socialist Alliance, caught up with Sam Watson in Brisbane to discuss his 35-year history of political struggle, Watson’s hopes for the Socialist Alliance and why he is a socialist.

A family of fighters. Sam’s father is from the Birigubba nation and his mother’s people are from Munnenjarl tribe. He is proud of his family’s long history of struggle. Sam told me his grandfather’s story:  “At the turn of the century he was removed from his tribe, sold for five shillings to a white land owner and held in captivity for most of his young life. He worked in the fields and at night, he was chained up under the house and fed on a tin plate. When he was about 14 or 15, he ran away. Through his ingenuity and determination, he survived. Grandpop never knew how to take a backward step and he raised all his children to be exactly like him. He fought to be recognised and accepted as a man. That determination and commitment carried through to the next generation.”

Sam Watson’s parents were both strong fighters. As a young man, his father joined the army where he fought for better conditions. In the ’50s the family moved to Brisbane in search of better educational opportunities. Sam absorbed the spirit of resistance during his childhood. He recalls: “We lived in Housing Commission estates around outer Brisbane. People would come to our house looking for advice from Mum and Dad, who were both senior people within the Murri community. People involved in the 1957 Palm Island strike camped at our place. The white administrators and the police were looking for anyone who’d been involved in that struggle, which was one of the first Aboriginal industrial actions in Queensland’s history.”

Sixties ferment. Sam explains that against this background, it was “just natural” that he became politically involved. He first became active in  “a small cell of high school students” as part of the underground Students for Democratic Action. “One issue we took up was the rights of high school students. Teachers and principals could do anything. They even had girls lifting dresses so they could inspect underwear and boys had the length of our hair measured in the morning. If it was over your collar, the teachers could send you home until you had it cut. Teachers used corporal punishment to force their will.”

The student activists also challenged the White Australia Policy and questioned why Australia and the U.S. were involved in Vietnam. This soon brought them into contact with more seasoned campaigners. Sam remembers: “On Sunday mornings, people of like mind would gather in Centennial Park. My mates and I would listen to wonderful soap box speakers talk about different topics such as socialism, heroes of working class struggles and fighters from different parts of the world, like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.”

At age 15, Sam was involved in the successful campaign to pass the 1967 referendum: “In April 1967 the Australian electorate voted by a majority of 92.5% to change two critical clauses in the Constitution so that the Australian Federal government could have direct authority to act on behalf of Aboriginal people and that Aboriginal people could be counted in the national census. Prior to that, every year the Australian government would count sheep and cattle and tractors and cars, but they never bothered to count Aboriginal people.” From this campaign, Sam learned the power of building alliances: “We had no economic or political power. The only tools we had were our determination and vision and a close working connection with certain comrades from the labour movement, the church community and the student movement.”

The 1960s was a period of great political ferment. Sam was inspired by the Gurindji people who walked off the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. The Freedom Rides across Northern New South Wales, led by Charles Perkins, also had a powerful impact: “I was incredibly impressed with this Black man on television. He stood up to police and officials and argued with them in their own language. He refused to be intimidated, and that impressed me.”

Black control of Black affairs. In the 1970s Sam worked with Don Brodie, Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonucal), Dennis Walker and others to form the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Tribal Council. The Tribal Council was significant because it squarely addressed the issue of sovereignty. Sam explains why developing a culture of Indigenous decision-making was so crucial: “Each of our elders came off the missions and reserves. They came from a background where white administrators had absolute control over their lives. Aboriginal people were forbidden to own assets of more than one hundred pounds and couldn’t even enter hire purchase contracts without the authority of the white boss. They couldn’t leave the reserve without a pass. They couldn’t even marry without a permit from the white boss. Through the Tribal Council, Aboriginal people living in Brisbane cast that off. In our creed we welcomed support from our non-Indigenous comrades. We welcomed their advice. But we were the ones who would make the decisions: Black control of Black affairs.”

The Tribal Council identified areas of community need and set up sub-groups to work on each issue. Sam Watson was the youngest portfolio holder, initially working on health and later employment and legal affairs. The council also ran social and sporting programs. With a tiny budget, the Tribal Council established many successful programs.

The council helped mobilise mass opposition to the Springbok Rugby Tour in 1971 and the horrors of the South African regime. It also played a key political role in challenging “The Acts” which still controlled the lives of many Indigenous Queenslanders. It launched a “Smash the Acts Campaign” highlighting the ongoing abuses. Sam recalls: “The Smash the Acts Campaign brought us into direct conflict with the Queensland government and subsequently with the Federal government. They promptly cut our funding and put us back on the street. After our funds were cut, a number of the older people went on to just doing community work for free.”

But Sam and Dennis Walker commenced a program of theoretical study: “After reading the work of people like Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, George Jackson and others, we decided to adapt the philosophy, program and ideology of the Black Panther Party to the Australian situation. In November 1971 we established the Brisbane chapter of the Australian Black Panther Party.”

The Black Panther Party set up a headquarters in Red Hill which became a magnet for young Indigenous people. Membership grew rapidly: “A lot of young, angry Blacks came to Brisbane off the missions trying to work out how we could engage with and defeat this system that was crushing us as a people and destroying our culture and our way of life.  

“We ran a breakfast program for children, straight out of the Panther book. Panther members would go out into the Black community and follow police. We would ensure that the police followed proper legal procedure and we would act as qualified witnesses for Aboriginal defendants. We also ran other programs to build community resistance. We achieved an enormous amount.”

In 1972, Sam left Brisbane and headed for Canberra, where the Aboriginal Tent Embassy had been established on January 26th, 1972. He arrived during the second week and stayed until the tents were torn down by the police in July 1972. Sam explained that the protest “captured the imagination of Aboriginal people who flocked to the Tent Embassy to play a part. That Aboriginal people could run a protest in which we declared that we were foreigners in our own land made such an impact on us.

“We met with Gough Whitlam, the leader of the opposition and he promised a new deal for Aboriginal people. When Whitlam was elected, large amounts of money was injected into community organisations. We set up programs right across the board for legal aid, health, housing, employment and education. We built these programs and we succeeded.”

Sam recalls the eight-year period after the dismissal of the Whitlam government as “a bleak time for Aboriginal people,” because Aboriginal programs were slashed to the bone by the Fraser government.

Consensus brings co-option. Yet the return of Labor did not bring a return to the earlier days of grassroots community control. The new Labor government, led by Bob Hawke, set in place a plan to tame the union movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement and the Aboriginal movement by fostering the development of a middle layer of leaders to mediate between itself and the masses.  Sam explains: “Hawke and Keating fostered working relationships with a Black élite which in no way represented the broader masses of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Entrenching this Black élite had everything to do with the formation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). We have replaced an inefficient and worthless white bureaucracy with an inefficient and  worthless Black bureaucracy. Throughout the ’90s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander political movements have been stymied by ATSIC. The Black political movement nationally is crying out for genuine leadership. We have no political leadership, because all of our great political leaders have either died off or been bought off.”

A contemporary leader. Sam says “I have tried to stay true to the lessons learned at the feet of my father and grandfather back in the 1950s.” Sam is currently the deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unit at the University of Queensland, an activist in the anti-corporate movement playing a key role in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting Action Network and a leader of Socialist Alliance.

Sam is delighted by what the Socialist Alliance achieved at the last Federal election and has great hopes for the future. “The Socialist Alliance is a new entity, and the party has captured the imagination of comrades right across the working class. In time, I really do believe that the Socialist Alliance will overtake the Greens and the Democrats to become the third force in Australian politics. We were only days away from being registered as a political party when Howard called his election. So we had to go into the Senate campaign without being recognised as a political party. We had no money. We had no media coverage. We had only the principles and beliefs on which we stood.

“The Socialist Alliance fought a very strong campaign at the community level through rallies, meetings and leafleting. We fought on the refugee issue, we fought on Howard’s decision to align himself with Bush and Blair by sending Australian troops into Afghanistan.

“Kim Beazley decided to jump into bed with Howard, and that was to his ultimate detriment. The Australian Labor Party lost huge ground in the broader electorate and lost the faith of the working class. And now, under this new leadership of Simon Crean, we see the Labor Party trying to capture the middle ground by trying to distance itself from the working class movement and the trade union movement. That appals me. Some of my friends in the ALP have said that they were uncomfortable with the party line during the election. But they said nothing at the time. Indigenous people are deeply angry at the use of race by Howard, and at the ALP for getting on the bandwagon. I’ve said to the people I know in the ALP ‘don’t bother to offer an apology, because none can be offered for this behaviour, and none will be accepted.’ It’s a little like the Nuremberg defence — they were only following orders!”

Battles ahead. Sam knows there will be plenty to resist during the third term of the Howard government: “John Howard is committed to creating Australian womanhood in the image of his wife. Jeanette Howard stays at home and supports ‘her man.’ John Howard wants to drive women out of the workforce, and he is doing this in a number of ways. He is increasing the fees for child minding. He is making it more difficult for women from working class homes to take on careers that are rewarding and worthwhile. Howard is attacking the rights of women right across the community.

“We had the two waves of Peter Reith’s industrial legislation. Expect more! The Liberals want to wind back unfair dismissal laws and give employers open license to sack workers.

“Aboriginal people will suffer horrendously under Howard. He has already slashed 400 million dollars off the ATSIC budget. We are open and vulnerable to this government. This man has no vision for Indigenous people. He can’t find it in his heart to apologise to the Stolen Generations. The only thing that Howard can deliver to Indigenous people is nightmare after nightmare.

“The new government will continue to be a disaster for refugees. John Howard will soon run out of Pacific Island nations for his prison camps. He has raised the idea of outfitting an oceanliner to be a floating prison for refugees. This is macabre and monstrous.” Contrast the stance of the Howard government with that taken by Indigenous people:  “Traditional owners say to refugees you are welcome here. We have offered, on a number of occasions, to take refugees into tribal homelands, into our communities and into our families. We feel far more warmly and committed to refugees as human beings than we could ever feel towards the forces of John Howard.”

Why socialism? Sam explained that it was an easy decision for him to join the Socialist Alliance: “I would never become a member of the Liberals or the National Party, and after seeing what Kim Beazley, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke have done to buy off and disempower the existing Black leadership, I could never ever again become active in the Australian Labor Party. I destroyed my Labor Party ticket on the night [former Queensland Premier] Wayne Goss introduced his land rights legislation in the early 1990s and I will never ever again do anything to align myself with the Australian Labor Party.

“Socialist Alliance came forward as a bold new move to offer people like me a political alternative. We’re building a political movement on absolute commitment to principle — not on money, connections to corporate Australia or being championed by captains of industry.

“Socialist Alliance does not owe any political favours to any major interest group. We are one of the most dangerous political phenomena for conservative governments since 1901. We are determined to become a strong working class political force. We don’t do deals in backrooms. The Socialist Alliance is a politically active force in the community. We are out there in the streets. We’ve only been there for a short time, but we are going to be there for a very long time. The only way conservative forces will ever silence us will be to take us out of here in boxes.”

I was keen to find out from Sam what socialism has to offer Indigenous people. “Mate”, Sam laughed, “it was us who taught you about socialism! Indigenous liberation really can only be expressed or achieved through socialism. The Socialist Alliance political program addresses Indigenous people’s needs and aspirations. We can achieve land rights, we can achieve a treaty, we can achieve true political liberation only through socialism. I really don’t think it is a case of Socialist Alliance placing something as a pathway forward and asking Aboriginal people to follow that pathway. I really do believe as Socialist Alliance matures and forms its identity and character that it will become closer to the Aboriginal concept of socialism. Aboriginal traditional society was the most pure and perfect form of socialist society ever achieved on the planet.”

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