In July, the Howard Government made yet another reactionary attack on Indigenous institutions. From July 1, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) lost its powers of Indigenous self-management. Two weeks later, a pre-dawn police raid on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, outside Canberra’s Old Parliament House, forcibly removed the historic shipping container which was the centrepiece of the embassy for three decades. While the State’s message was clear, this attack cannot kill such a powerful symbol of Indigenous sovereignty.
Solidarity derailed. Since his election in 1996, Prime Minister Howard has been gunning for the Aboriginal movement, as well as militant unionism, because of its potential to thwart the interests of his corporate masters. In the past seven years, there has been a crescendo of popular support for “reconciliation” between Australia’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, highlighted in the marches of millions in cities and towns across the country and again during ceremonies at Sydney’s Olympic Games in 2000. The power of this solidarity was just as palpable shortly after Howard’s election in Canberra, when a national march of unionists on Parliament ended up in demonstrators defending Aborigines from the Tent Embassy who were being threatened by Federal Police.
There are time-honoured methods of crushing dissent, and Howard has used them all — from appointing racists to the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs (firstly John Herron and now Philip Ruddock) to fostering a layer of Aboriginal movement “mission managers,” such as blame-yourselves-for-welfare-dependency advocates Noel Pearson and Richard Ah-met.
Demolition job. The most concerted onslaught has been saved for ATSIC. It’s not necessary to be a defender of ATSIC, a government agency, to recognise the racist nature of this attack. Despite its limitations, many Indigenous people have recognised the commission as their body of elected representatives and a pressure point on government to address survival issues, from deaths in custody to health and housing. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders die 20 years younger than non-Indigenous Australians, and their levels of ill health are 300% higher. Since its creation in 1989, ATSIC has been a thorn in the side of successive governments. Under the leadership of Geoff Clark and Ray Robinson, ATSIC demanded accountability from governments, for a change. Big business has also been targetted. Clark’s call for all mining in Australia to stop — until the Indigenous owners of the mineral resources are properly paid — thoroughly alarmed mining CEOs.
Payback time. ATSIC has been stripped of most of its budget and all of its independence. The money goes to a new body, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services, which reports to Ruddock. The witchhunting of Clark and Robinson — perceived too radical by the white bureaucracy — has been unrelenting. Robinson has been forced to resign over so-called “conflicts of interest” that for white politicians are everyday occurrences. Ruddock is threatening to sack Clark over $31,000 spent on a trip to Ireland. The hypocrisy alone — given the quarter of a million that taxpayers forked out last year for Ruddock’s international travels, not to mention the millions on Howard’s — is despicable. Worse is the shredding of all pretence of Aboriginal self-determination.
Unions must intervene. What is needed is the spirit of reconciliation to transform into an almighty defence of Aboriginal people’s right to claim back what was taken and shape their own destiny. Imagine a rainbow of people marching in our millions, arm in arm, demanding Aboriginal sovereignty. How about the union movement adding its might to demands that Canberra recognise and redress the Stolen Generations, repay all stolen wages with interest, and restore land rights to Australia’s traditional owners. This would be the beginning of a powerful movement capable of bringing down everything Howard stands for.