Over the weekend of 28-30 November, more than 400 women from across Australia came to Deakin University, outside Melbourne, for the 6th Women and Labour Conference. Aboriginal land rights was the prominent issue of this national gathering, reflecting the past 12 months of a growing groundswell against racism in this country.
In towns and cities across the continent, people have been turning out in their thousands against One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, who scapegoats Aboriginal people – as well as Asians, single mothers and unions – for the escalating hardship faced by working people. Massive protest has also been building against the Howards government’s efforts to overturn the historic High Court Mabo and Wik decisions, which recognise (with restrictions) Aboriginal Nations’ rights to their lands. Just three days before the conference, 3,000 people had rallied in Canberra among a “Sea of Hands” – 100,000 brightly coloured plastic hands, signifying broad grassroots support for native title rights – on the lawn of federal Parliament to demonstrate against Howard’s Native Title Amendment Bill which, if passed, would revoke Indigenous land rights.
In 1996, the High Court ruled in favour of the Wik people – traditional owners of Cape York in northern Australia – holding that native title and pastoralist leases can co-exist. The part of the ruling that says pastoralist property rights prevail when the two are in dispute didn’t stop the pastoralist and mining industries from going ballistic. Already smarting from the 1992 Mabo recognition of certain forms of traditional ownership, the corporate magnates have gone in for the kill – the abolition of Aboriginal rights to claim back their land.
The conference opened with a welcome by the Wathaurong people, who are the traditional owners of the land on which the university stands. It closed with Stephanie Gilbert, an Indigenous women and a student at Deakin. In at least three of the nine keynote panels, the relationship of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia was the crucial issue.
In her address about women working on the land, Charles Sturt University academic Margaret Alston talked about the impact of Wik on rural Australian communities. Alston described the rural women’s disquiet at being under intense pressure by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) to fight for the industry’s hardline position. To take a more conciliatory view, she said, is to be branded a “traitor” – and many rural people, especially women, are deeply disturbed by this. They are also distressed and angered at being stereotyped as greedy, rich and uncaring.
Margaret painted a picture of powerful interests dictating the script, using the real problems of ordinary rural people to turn them against Wik. The scenario is familiar: rural services are dismantled, schools and hospitals are shut down, jobs are lost, business is ruined, shops closed, this cycle continues.
But women aren’t accepting this. Camilla Cowley, a pastoralist speaking at a workshop presented by Defenders of Native Title (DONT), is an inspiring example. Cowley told how she and her husband were presented a claim on their land by the Gunggari people. They panicked, and her husband rushed off to the meeting organised by the NFF. He came back devastated. It was worse even than they had thought. According to the NFF, they would lose everything!
Camilla went to the next meeting that was called, almost totally committed to defending her land at any cost. She asked why none of the Gunggari people had been invited to attend. “Because,” she was told, “they might be disruptive!” This answer, and a measure of doubt already in her mind, sent her in a different direction. She went down the street to the local Land Title Office – there she met the Gunggari.
Camilla was the first pastoralist to sit down and hear their story. It blew apart the NFF’s lies and opened up a new world for her. Why had she never heard of them or met them, these people who claimed her land as their ancestral land? Because they had been driven off it fifty years before and forbidden to return!
She told the conference workshop of their dispossession, the theft of their children and their enduring connection to the land – encapsulating two centuries of systemic oppression and Aboriginal people’s proud resistance.
Cowley had come face-to-face with the State-sanctioned kidnap of Aboriginal children – the genocidal horrors of which are only now being publicly documented. She met two Gunggari women: a mother and her daughter who had been taken as a baby fifty years earlier. In order to stay with the child, the whole group left their land. But the sacrifice didn’t work: the government still took the child, and the Gunggari wouldn’t find her until she was an adult. Cowley re-told the women’s story and spoke of the tears and rage that stay with them.
What drives the NFF and Howard government’s campaign of disinformation, and extinguishment is profit for major corporate interests. Non-Indigenous working class Australians – whom Howard calls the “little battlers” – are being told that Wik will rob them of their backyards. The workshop, however, discussed information about the pastoral leaseholders, who stand to gain from Howard’s bill. It’s the corporate bosses and politicians, like Don McDonalds, federal President of the National Party, whose family is worth $50 million. It’s Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer, and richest woman, Janet Holmes a Court; it’s the huge mining group, BHP and the finance giant, AMP. It’s that other well-known “battler,” the Sultan of Brunei!
Convincing working people that it’s in their interest to fight Aboriginal people over land is the job of the corporatised media industry – owned, incidentally, by big pastoralist leaseholders like Packer. War over property is getting hotter, and the level of discrimination is a good gauge of this. The tactic of inventing scapegoats in order to pit the oppressed against each other is an old one. Here, racism is the bosses’ weapon.
But they underestimate women. Millennia of male supremacy have kept us dispossessed. Unlike Holmes a Court, most of us don’t have the capital for leaseholds or company shares. We make up the growing majority of the workforce, whose labour produces the wealth of Packer et al and whose taxes subsidise them. Racism and homophobia add to the combinations of oppression that women endure. So we’re wise to scapegoating. We tend to stand with the scapegoated.
The panels at the Women & Labour Conference reinforced Wik as a feminist issue. They showed how non-Indigenous rural people are hurting badly from a crisis-ridden system, which is becoming increasingly brutal. The profiteers are attempting to use small farmers to incite mass panic in Australia – a panic fuelled by misinformation. This would reinforce the lie that “battlers” would be deprived of their livelihoods and cover up the simple truth that the wealthy stand to lose big money.
At the conference’s closing plenary, feminist lawyer and writer Jocelynne Scutt presented a motion which was resoundingly endorsed. It expressed solidarity with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers and affirmed our commitment to the Aboriginal struggle for land rights. In this resolution, the conference demonstrated the understanding that the struggles of women and Indigenous people are inseparable. In fighting for Aboriginal rights, women of all races are fighting for everyone. As Aboriginal educator Lilla Watson said: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because you recognise that your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”