On February 12, almost 2000 people gathered in the rain at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, before marching, in the sunshine, to Parliament House to demand an end to the federal government's racist "intervention" in the Northern Territory.
The protest, organised by the Sydney-based Aboriginal Rights
Coalition (ARC) and Aboriginal communities from all over Australia, was
the focus of a week of actions and meetings in Canberra, as Aboriginal,
Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous activists gathered to send a
message to the new Labor federal government that saying sorry was just
the first step.
On February 10, the new National Aboriginal Alliance (NAA) held its
second meeting. The alliance was formed last year in response to the
Howard government's NT "intervention".
Sol Bellear was chosen as president and Pat Eatock secretary. The
alliance intends to meet four times a year, and aims to build a new
national organisation for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
On February 11, more than 200 people attended workshops on the
implications of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,
and heard first-hand reports from communities in the NT affected by the
However, the main focus of the convergence on Canberra was the
protest in opposition to the intervention on February 12.
The march from
the Tent Embassy to the lawns of the new Parliament House was led by
the Chooky Dancers from Elcho Island, famous for their YouTube hit
version of "Zorba the Greek".
A sea of banners, placards and flags summed up the demands: immediate
review of the intervention, restoration of the Racial Discrimination
Act, implementation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples, and for governments to genuinely consult with aboriginal
communities and to accept Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs.
Speakers from around the country, including from the NT, outlined the
litany of injustices that Aboriginal Australia still suffers. From
areas affected by the intervention, dozens of speakers, including Walter
and Barbara Shaw from the Mt Nancy town camp in Alice Springs, exposed
the racist and counterproductive nature of the intervention. They noted
the lack of any mention of children in the legislation allowing the
intervention, and rejected the punitive and offensively paternalistic
measures that have been introduced.
They outlined the social problems resulting from the scrapping of
Community Development and Employment Programs (CDEP), and how fear of
new white business managers controlling their communities prevented two
more buses from the NT from attending the protest.
Most worrying are the effects of welfare quarantining — still being
implemented in new areas across the NT - and which are creating
potentially explosive situations.
Quarantining prevents people from using half of their welfare money
other than with "store cards" for specific stores such as Target or
Woolworths. However, as Barbara Shaw explained, food vouchers seldom
arrive on time and many people must travel up to 700 kilometres -
funding their own travel - to find the stores to use them and then end
up destitute and with little food.
Eatock from the ARC pointed out, "It's an apartheid system. We all
know what apartheid is, and that's what's happening to people living in
the Northern Territory."
As Bellear put it: "Well may we say 'God save the Queen', because
nothing will save this parliament if they don't pull out of the Northern
Territory". Bellear described welfare quarantining as being "like the
stolen wages all over again", adding: "We want an immediate pull-out."
A minute's silence was observed for the Stolen Generations.
New Zealand Maori Party MP Hone Harawira addressed the rally saying,
"I'm here because a success for indigenous rights anywhere is a success
for indigenous rights everywhere".
Australian Greens Senators Bob Brown and Rachel Siewert, and Democrat
Andrew Bartlett also spoke but the day belonged to the newly
invigorated Aboriginal Australians.
Les Malezer, chairperson of the Foundation for Aboriginal and
Islander Research Action, and organiser of the second meeting of the
NAA, said the convergence on Canberra
"is a voice for Aboriginal people on the Northern Territory intervention
and on the lack of remedies from the Labor government so far".
"We have a message for the new parliament. We want to be treated as
people with rights, not with contempt, as the Howard government treated
us. We want to be treated as people with the right to
self-determination, speaking with our own voice."
"The biggest concern is that we are not going to get anywhere unless
the government fully engages with Aboriginal people", he concluded.
Many reacted to the Rudd government's apology for the Stolen
Generations by arguing that if February 13 is to be remembered by future
generations as "Sorry Day", then February 12 should be remembered as
"Sovereignty Day" - the day when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people began to take back the initiative from a system that has excluded
and oppressed them for so long.
First published in Green Left Weekly, February 16, 2008.