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Monday, January 30, 2012

Aboriginal Embassy - Ancient history or current affairs?

The recent "so-called" riot by Aboriginal Tent Embassy supporters in front of a restaurant in which Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were dining has been milked by the media and politicians.  Yet again, the voices calling for justice for indigenous people have been overwhelmed by the clamour for political point scoring.

Firstly, it was not a "riot".  It was a protest. People clap hands, shout and generally make a noise at a protest rally.  That was all that this was.  The security staff over-reacted by dragging the Prime Minister and practically frog-marching Abbott to the Prime Minister's car.  The "riot" did not break any laws.  The media staffer who gave a heads-up to a representative of the Tent Embassy has also not done anything wrong.  He reported to her what was said on the radio - a public medium.  The PM and Abbott were in a public restaurant not far from the Tent Embassy.

So let's "move on" from the political posturing and look at the reason why there is an Aboriginal Tent Embassy.  Abbott claims that it is time for the tent embassy to move on.  That would be fine, if the issues that prompted it to be established in the first place, had actually been resolved.

How many Australians know of, or care about, the injustice that was forced onto Aborigines for nearly two centuries and which continues to this day?

During Australia Day there was the usual "patriotic" claims such as "This is Australia, we eat meat, we drink beer, we speak English".  Of course, we speak English.  What else would we speak? After all, the original languages of this land were deemed illegal.  In fact, throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century it was illegal for aborigines to practice their culture and to speak their language; they couldn't even marry without the permission of the government.

The Australian government forced aborigines from their tribal lands and into settlements where they were forced to mix with dozens of tribes, some of whom were not from their area, in fact, some were Pacific or Torres Strait Islanders. It should be pointed out at this stage, that aborigines have very complex kinship laws. Traditionally, aboriginal tribes tended to mix with 2 or 3 other tribes in their neighbouring areas.  In order to maintain the purity of the blood-line they had complex laws governing who could marry whom. The forced removal literally destroyed the kinship customs that had been practiced for millenia and destroyed the very essence, the very spirit of these tribes.

To complete the destruction of aboriginal culture and to further the humiliation, aborigines were classified under the Flora and Fauna Act.  In the 19th century they were equated, by law, with animals and were not counted in the census until 1967.  At the turn of the 20th century, it was an accepted practice to hunt and shoot aborigines, with little or no repercussions.  Do you still wonder why there is a Tent Embassy? Do you wonder why they burnt the Australian flag on Australia Day? A flag which symbolises ethnic and cultural cleansing.

Ethnic cleansing? Is that too harsh?  In the 1930s, under the Aborigine Act, aborigines could apply to "cease being aboriginal" so that they could claim the same rights as white people.  Culturally banned, equated with animals, considered unable to care for themselves; thousands of years of history ignored and erased. Many of them were subject to rape by white land-owners. And then came the stolen generation. The forced removal of children from their parents in the name of protecting the aborigines from immoral influences in tribal communities.  However, A.O. Neville, the Western Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines, stated the real reason for the removal of the children, when he wrote in the West Australian in 1930: "eliminate the full-blood and permit the white admixture to half-castes and eventually the race will become white".

Aborigines were forced to abide by British and then Australian law, whilst being unable to practice their own laws or culture.    The Tent Embassy has been wanting a treaty with the Australian government in order to move on from the ethnic & cultural cleansing that aborigines suffered.

In the 1980's a number of people from Palm Island successfully sued the Queensland government for wages that had been held in trust for decades.  This case took over 10 years to be resolved and each complainant was offered $7,000.  It wasn't until 1999, that the Queensland government introduced the "Underpayment of Award Wages Process" to address the underpayment of indigenous wages and then in 2002 the Queensland government introduced the "Indigenous Wages and Savings Reparations Offer" which provided between $2,000 and $4,000 to workers depending on the age.  How many white Australians would work in order for their wages to be held by the government for 70 years and to be reimbursed $7,000?

In the 1990's two landmark decisions were handed down which finally over-turned the concept of terra nullius, the idea that the land had been uninhabited when European settlers arrived.  These two cases resulted in the Mabo and Wik decisions granting land rights for indigenous peoples.

The apology from the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007 was a momentous occasion and the first time that the Australian government had publicly acknowledged the damage that was done to an entire race of people.

The apology is just words.  Without action it is almost meaningless.  The subsequent speech by the Opposition reiterated why the Tent Embassy is still relevant.  The Opposition's speech in response to Rudd's apology merely continued blaming aborigines for their own plight and refusing to accept the impact that the government has had and in many ways, continues to have, on aboriginal people.

Many indigenous people are still living in abject poverty, with poor health, low levels of education and limited job opportunities.  Indigenous people are over-represented in jails and have sadly constituted the largest percentage of deaths in custody.  Aborigines are often arrested or jailed for crimes that white people would never be charged for, particularly issues related to behaviour or misdemeanors.

There have been some gains made in reconciliation, but there is still a long way to go.  There is a need for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.  It is refreshing that the national school curriculum will now include aboriginal history.  There is a need for people to speak up and educate Australians in aboriginal history and affairs.  Most importantly, Australians need to understand that these issues are not ancient history, they are still being played out in the courts and in the lives of thousands of aborigines throughout Australia.

It isn't time for aborigines to move on.  It's time for white Australia to let go - to let go of the prejudices, the racism, the ignorance that many have towards aborigines and aboriginal current affairs.

Rather than making mileage for personal or political agendas over the Australia Day protest, we need to listen, understand and be part of the reconciliation process.

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