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Melbourne Report 16-10-09

Movement Against Australian Federal Government's Racist

Intervention Gains Momentum at Public Meeting in Fitzroy

An inspiring call to action and unity was heard at a public meeting held on Friday, 16 October in Fitzroy, Melbourne, on the traditional land of the Wurundjeri people. The meeting took place at the Melbourne Aboriginal Youth Sport and Recreation Centre (MAYSAR) and was attended by more than 200 people, including a contingent of 70 students who had travelled from Geelong. It was the conclusion of the Melbourne leg of a national speaking tour which saw Aboriginal leaders deliver a series of speeches, demonstrations, forums and meetings with community groups, trade unions and university campus groups.

The speaking tour is one of a range of protest actions and other forms of resistance that have echoed nationwide in response to the Australian federal government's Northern Territory Emergency Response. The nationally co-ordinated project is the first event of its scope to have emerged against the Government's actions and saw the speakers spreading their message to a diverse range of community members, urging groups to stand in solidarity with their Northern Territory brothers and sisters. The engaging orators were Richard Downs, spokesperson of the Alyawarr people, Harry Nelson, senior Walpiri elder, both from the Northern Territory, and Victorian indigenous activist Robbie Thorpe.

After an emotional welcoming by elders of the traditional owners of the land, first to speak was Downs. A traditional leader of his people, Downs had been living and working in Western Australia but was called back to his community in response to the crisis that has directly resulted from the NTER measures. Almost two years after the Intervention was initiated by the Howard government, the Ampilatwatja's community was not seeing improvements in health and community wellbeing. Conditions had in fact worsened with an unattended sewerage leak the least of their problems. Like so many other indigenous communities in the NT, the Ampilatwatja's community were forced to suffer the imposition of a Government Business Manager. Indigenous spokespeople say such Government Business Managers (GBMs) do not listen to them or co-operate, but instead pursue objectives determined by far-away government bureaucrats without consultation or democratic controls.

The Ampilatwatja community became fed up with the deteriorating situation in their community and the refusal of the Rudd government to genuinely consult with them about the measures. In frustration, they staged a walk-off in protest, and set up a camp three kilometres away from their original settlement. Since the Federal Government - which has spent $672 million on Aboriginal housing projects in 2 years and has still not built a single new dwelling - has shown an inability to actually deliver any positive changes, the Ampilatwatja community decided to do so themselves and are now attempting to create a sustainable community on their new site. They are currently in the process of establishing a permaculture.

Downs' engaging but informal speaking style and enlightened philosophical views saw him convincingly linking the indigenous folk's struggle with the environmental movement. He told non-Aboriginal Australians at the meeting that as their ancestors are buried in the soil, that they are now as part of the land as the indigenous people and they therefore have a responsibility to see that the land is cared for and lived on sustainably. He urged people to unite and demonstrate that the impositions of the Federal Government are not the will of the voting public.

Downs told of the meetings with trade unions, confirming that every union consulted had pledged support for the protest movement upon hearing just how bad the Federal Government's intervention has been, something many had been unaware of. One of the unions spoken to was the journalist divison of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance whose journalist members are responsible for reporting on issues in the public interest. Downs invoked memory of the legendary Pilbara walk off which began in 1946. During the historic strike - which lasted three years - trade unions stood in solidarity with indigenous pastoral workers who were being paid only in rations of food and clothing. Downs argued that just like that historic fight, only through a groundswell of grass-roots support through community networks like trade unions and student groups, can the truth be heard and a fight for justice be successful.

Downs also talked about some of the NTER measures that have affected all Aboriginal communities, including the income-management scheme. Under this scheme, welfare payments are quarantined, transferring half of all payments into a Basics card, which can only be used at certain stores and only on food, clothing and medical supplies. Measures like this - which target a specific group based on their ethnic identity - are a violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Rudd government formally endorsed on April 3 this year. Downs pointed out that an apartheid situation is emerging at some supermarkets with Basics card-only queues, effectively forcing segregation upon indigenous people.

Harry Nelson was the second to speak at the meeting, and he was even finer form than he had been at a forum for students and staff of Monash University's Clayton Campus the previous day. He gave huge thanks to local indigenous elders for welcoming them, to members of the public in attendance, the students and the young who Nelson said it was particularly heartening to see in such numbers, and to members of the Melbourne Anti-Intervention Collective and Black Rights Action Group who had organised the evening's meeting. Nelson spoke about the Federal Government's attempts to force indigenous communities to give up their land leases for 40 years in return for desperately needed money, which he said amounted to little more than bribery. He said that the land is more important to his people than money and communities like his have refused to be bribed into signing away their land rights. He added that just like they had defied the attempted land grabs, they will continue to defy the intervention in its entirety and fight as part of a building protest movement.

Last of the key speakers was Thorpe, who brought the underlying themes to the fore, delivering an impassioned and moving discourse on the entrenched racism in Australia. He recounted the positive moves towards self-determination that so many indigenous communities around the country had been making in previous decades, such as the establishment of community-run preventative health clinics. Thorpe told of how these organisations had been overrun by ATSIC based on a government model when that body was established by the Hawke Labor government, overturning the hard work that indigenous communities had invested in developing their own initiatives. He spoke of the injustice of the Terra Nullius claim which was the basis of the British claim to ownership of the land before it was overturned in the 1992 Mabo decision. And he lamented the fact that Australia is the only Commonwealth nation without a treaty with its indigenous people. Thorpe also reminded the audience of the recent visit to the Northern Territory by UN rapporteur and Human Rights academic James Anaya who declared the Intervention as "overtly discriminatory" and criticised an entrenched racism in Australia's treatment of its indigenous peoples.

Self-determination for Aboriginal communities was the overriding message in Thorpe's electrifying vitriol and his fiery oration roused the energies of the crowd. Rounds of raucous applause were heard throughout Thorpe's stirring performance, as they were in all of the men's speeches. More intense anger was expressed during a later Q&A session and in response Downs gave a truly compassionate declaration on the need to find positive ways to express the energy and anger people feel, and to not let bitterness destroy the unity and togetherness that is going to be necessary to win the burgeoning struggle. It was the height of Downs' remarkable sensitivity and reason and the crowd responded with warmth and more applause.

Announcements were made by a number of other members of various activist and community groups, advising the public how to direct their outrage and inspiration into productive and constructive activities. People were urged to attend the weekly meetings of the Mebourne Anti-Intervention Collective, on Mondays at 6.30pm at MAYSAR. It was announced that a major national series of protests will be staged on February 13 to mark the second anniversary of the questionable 'apology' delivered by Kevin Rudd.

Also announced were weekly meetings of the Latin American Solidarity Network which are held at Trades Hall on Tuesdays at 7pm. The latter group is planning an Indigenous Solidarity Conference in Alice Springs in April 2010 to be attended by indigenous peoples from Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and West Papua among other places. The conference has been set for Alice Springs in recognition of the fact that there is a major injustice occurring in indigenous rights in that region. Donations were also called for and attendees at the meeting enthusiastically placed what they could into two bowls that were passed around, to help raise money for the Ampilatwatja community in re-establishing their community free from interference.

Ben Convey, 16/10/2009


Reproduced with the kind permission of Ben Convey