‘Democracy does not apply to Aboriginal people’

This year’s Australia Day, one of the world’s longest occupation protests turns 40. Activists of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra have been fighting for acknowledgement, sovereignty and self-determination of their peoples ever since.

Michael, you’ve been one of the initiators of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that has been residing in front of the Old Parliament House for 40 years. What comes to your mind when you think about 27 January 1972?

If you go back in history, there have been a lot of wars fought within this country. But Australia suppresses these facts

This day is still very clear in my mind. The day before, the Prime Minister stated they would lease land to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples instead of giving us land rights. As a consequence, we decided to put up a permanent camp in Canberra. Within our discussions we became aware that we need a political entity, an embassy, to gain sovereignty. It was a period of not knowing what the future would bring, but knowing what we wanted.

Was there also a feeling of anger?

Absolutely. It was the time when the Gurindji people walked off and went on strike in the Northern Territory because of the oppression. If you go back in history, there have been a lot of wars fought within this country. But Australia suppresses these facts. Land rights became the catch-cry and one of the key issues in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the first time that a part of the administration had been occupied. Historically, it has been an inspiration for a lot of later social movements, as you can see for example with the Occupy movement today.

Despite the Indigenous call for sovereignty becoming louder over the years, the issue about land rights is not resolved...

You know, we look at history from different angles. From our point of view, Australia has two sorts of societies: one occupying a land with force and through the minds of their ambassadors, and we, the rightful owners, trying to assert our rights.

In 1995 the National Heritage Trust listed the Aboriginal Tent Embassy as the ‘only location that represents Aboriginal Peoples in their political struggle’. Was that occasion important for the movement?

It was important that they recognized that we have a legitimation, and it also symbolized a milestone in Aboriginal affairs in Australia’s history.

About 12 years ago you stated that despite million-dollar programmes, Aboriginals are worse off today than in the 1950s and 1960s. Do you stick by that?

The [suspension of the] Racial Discrimination Act was an act of racial discrimination; it suspended the people’s right to negotiate anything related to their own country

I would repeat that statement. Socially our people are totally demoralized. If you look across Australia right now, we have an emerging number of poor and underprivileged people. In some regions more than 80 per cent are unemployed. They are welfare dependent and have to accept loss of income if they don’t bow to the rules of the government. That happens while they make billions and billions from mining on Aboriginal land. Just look at the Northern Territory, where most Aboriginals live, and its special conditions as federal territory. It is the only place in the world where a state directly operates an industry to gain communal assets, often without even allowing negotiations with Aboriginal locals. Democracy does not apply to Aboriginal people, let us put it that way.

Just recently, the Australian administration presented its plan to continue and expand the Northern Territory Emergency Response, often referred to as ‘intervention’, under the title ‘Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory’. In short, the programme aims at better services for Aboriginal communities while tightening governmental control mechanisms. What do you criticize about it?

There are a number of issues we dismiss. One is: the Racial Discrimination Act, a national convention to prohibit discrimination, was suspended. Apart from the psychological harassment to people when the military moved in with army tanks, the intervention prohibited people from claiming any land on the native title in the Northern Territory. It also prevents Aboriginal people from having any rights to negotiate with mining companies. Not only was it an act of racial discrimination, it also suspended the people’s right to negotiate anything related to their own country. It’s quite insane.

Nevertheless, there is also support for the programmes, even within the Aboriginal community.

The people who speak in favour of these programmes are a minority. Often they are dependent on the government’s services. But if you are going to the grassroots community and to the outskirts and talk to the people there you get a different impression.

What will be the major challenges for Australia’s society and its government concerning indigenous affairs in the coming years?

Alongside our claims for compensation and restitution, we want self-determination as a people. That will allow us to find our own economic and social advancement in society. But as part of that we also want to make a peace pact with the government so we can become a united Australia. Otherwise, we will be an Australia with two separated societies living on one public land.

Photo by bixentro under a CC Licence