Indigenous land is NOT for sale

Howardnomics versus traditional ownership

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The battle for land rights has been hard fought. Cilla Pryor was roughed up by the Queensland Police when protesting against the 1982 Commonwealth Games. Photo from Gay Foley’s History webpage.

The Howard Government has already announced its plans to attack working people through the combination of its anti-union laws and attacks on welfare. But unless faced with mass resistance, it won’t stop there. On its medium-term agenda it is dismantling Aboriginal land rights legislation in order to open up communally-owned land to unfettered corporate plunder. It has enlisted the services of co-opted Aboriginal “leaders” such as Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine to sell the plan in the guise of helping Indigenous people to own their own homes! Government Ministers continue to test the waters by dropping none-too-subtle hints that a major shakeup of communal title is imminent. Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association and Socialist Alliance Senate candidate for New South Wales at the last Federal election, puts the case that Indigenous land is not for sale!

Victory in the 1996 election gave John Winston Howard his long sought-after opportunity to introduce an economic and social agenda as savage as the Thatchernomics, Reaganomics and Rogernomics that had already decimated the UK, the U.S. and New Zealand.

Howard’s aim was to take billions from those at the bottom of the social ladder and transfer it to the multinationals and billionaires at the top. All welfare — other than corporate welfare — came under attack.

Howard has faithfully followed the approach of his predecessors.  He attacked welfare recipients, trade unionists and all those that he and his conservative backers saw as being on the fringes of a jingoistic White Australia.  

In a 2002 speech at Edith Cowan University, Indigenous Senator, Aden Ridgeway, spoke on Reconciliation.  In that speech he described the government as “a serial underachiever when it comes to reducing Indigenous disadvantage.”  He argued, “this is not surprising when you appreciate that it is driven by the conviction that better economic opportunities and individual initiative alone will deliver real equality between all Australians.” Despite the facts that Indigenous Australians are going backwards, the Howard Government continues its failed approach of attacking collectivity and recommending that Indigenous Australians embrace capitalist enterprise as the tested road to liberation!

A rotten record. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was especially loathed by the Howard Government. Set up by the Hawke Government in 1990, the concept of an elected body to properly and culturally represent Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders was a complete anathema to the racist state. ATSIC was seen as a threat, despite being a structure foisted upon Indigenous Australians with no real local and grassroots connections.

The abolition of ATSIC by the Coalition, aided and abetted by the Australian Labor Party (ALP), occurred late last year with the organisation being formally wound up on 30 June 2005.

Having exterminated ATSIC, the Howard agenda has now shifted the goal of undermining Land Rights for the Indigenes.

An Act with holes. Over nine years, the Howard Government has also spent many millions of taxpayer dollars fighting the just demands of the Stolen Generations in court.  It also attacked the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, which has allowed the traditional owners of stolen land to reclaim up to 40% of the Northern Territory.

Opinions about the NT Act are mixed. No matter how successful non-Aboriginal Territorians consider current arrangements, the Act is viewed by many Territory Aborigines as a sop, because it only allows “useless” land to be given back to communities.  The Act is too loose in its interpretation and has large holes, sometimes called “exceptions” which can be — and are — exploited by mining and pastoral interests.

The land that capitalist interests want and consider useful can be “excised” from the Act, much to the chagrin of organisations such as Central Land Council.  The fact that the media regularly reports instances of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory taking on powerful, vested interests to fight for a “fair dinkum deal” shows that resistance is far from quelled.

While some pastoral and mining companies have access to the traditional lands, the great bulk of the land which is less useful, remains firmly with the traditional owners for their community and cultural use.  This practice infuriates the Howard Government and its rightwing think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Bennelong Society, which has several Howard Ministers, past and present, serving on its board. Millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been given to these groups to develop strategies which would allow the rights of Indigenous Australians to be seriously watered down or completely dissolved.

Every piece of land granted to Aboriginal communities is the result of struggle as land claims are bitterly resisted by Australian governments, miners, pastoralists and the racist Right. Some parcels of less useful land are occasionally granted to communities. But it seems even these limited wins are more than the Howard Government can tolerate.

Spin doctors at work. The Howard Government is currently in the preparation phase of softening up community opinion. Out comes the secret English. Suddenly there’s a rush of concern for our people living on the traditional lands. Their living standards are poor, and social problems abound, we are told. This is all true. But the government offers to “save them” by separating them from their culture, and their traditional use of land is nothing but old-style paternalism. As Chris Graham from National Indigenous Times editorialised, “the simple fact is that Aboriginal communities are ‘dirt poor’ because governments made them that way. To infer anything else is utterly ridiculous. But to claim Aboriginal people are land rich and that’s what is holding them back, is beyond the pale.”

Some Aboriginal “leaders” are working hand in glove with the Howard Government.  Noel Pearson, from the Cape York Land Council, and ALP Vice-President and member of the hand-picked puppet National Indigenous Council, Warren Mundine, have both spoken broadly in favour of Howard’s land privatisation agenda.  They agree that the land should be “capitalised” to assist Indigenous people out of poverty and eradicate the other social ills plaguing communities.

Predictably, Howard has put his own interpretation upon their statements and gone much further.  Several years ago, Helen Hughes and Jenness Warrin, both ideologues with CIS, stated that the perceived connection between “cultural rights” and Land Rights was merely a construct of feel-good socialists and other bleeding hearts.  After 217 years of invasion, their argument went, there are no Aboriginal cultural rights apart from artworks and music. In their view, all cultural rights and connection to the land were expunged by the events of history.

Now the government is proposing that traditional culture and law are “impediments” that  allow Aborigines to be asset rich but dirt poor. The answer, according to the Howard Government, is to allow the division of communal land so that individual ownership becomes possible.  Then, using the land as collateral, Indigenous people can borrow from banks to build houses or become entrepreneurs. The fact that for the majority of communities, such borrowings just would not be financially viable has done nothing to dint the Federal Government’s enthusiasm for this concept.

Warren Mundine is now arguing that the land should not be sold outright, but leased for periods of up to 99 years. Despite this modification, his approach still blames Indigenous communities for the level of disadvantage.

Whatever the argument — outright sale or long-term lease —  the schemes being floated are nothing but a massive land grab by the government on behalf of the miners, pastoralists, tourist promoters and others who will use the land for profit, without any respect or care for it.

The corporations will always put profit first. For example, it was recently reported that mining company, Santos, had found a site in Queensland that could be interpreted as a site of an Aboriginal massacre.  They kept this important information to themselves for over nine months without respecting the cultural needs of the traditional owners to know about the find. This cover-up enabled them to continue their mineral exploration.  Where is the respect for the land or the original inhabitants of the land?

Not for sale! Indigenous people’s 160,000 year collective ownership of traditional lands — or rather the land’s ownership of Indigenous people as a collective — is not, and must never be, for sale.

While our self-appointed “leaders” collude with the Howard Government, the correct path is shown by the Kokatha Women of South Australia. At a meeting with the Aboriginal Affairs Department last April, they expressed hope that culturally significant land would be protected.

The State Government is planning to protect 500,000 hectares from mining, but the Kokatha Women want the entire Yellabirna region protected.  Kokatha spokeswoman, Sheena Coleman, said the Department had agreed to include her people in the decision-making process on further protection of the area. “The time has come for us to take care of the land, because when the land is destroyed there will be nothing,” she said.  “The land is part of our soul, and we have to take the responsibility to preserve and maintain the environment because our future is reliant on what the land produces.”

Howardnomics is driven only by the bottom line. So we need to rebuild a land rights movement to get this message to the Federal Government in a way which cannot be ignored.

My Kokatha sisters speak much wisdom. Let’s ensure they are heard!

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