New Internationalist

‘Democracy does not apply to Aboriginal people’

Web exclusive

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 Anderson, Aboriginal rights activist and former ambassador of the Embassy, talks to Christoph Behrends about past and current struggles – and the offering of a peace pact.

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
Photo by bixentro under a CC Licence

Comments on ‘Democracy does not apply to Aboriginal people’

Leave your comment







 

  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

  1. #1 Bob Durnan 26 Jan 12

    If you want a greatly distorted and incorrect picture of what is going on in the NT, then believe Behrends' interview with Anderson.
    Anderson simply doesn't know what has happened and is happening in the NT.
    Most Aboriginal people do not live in the NT. States like Queensland, NSW and Western Australia all have larger Aboriginal populations than the NT.
    It is difficult to magine what he is referring to when he claims that the NT ’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.’ It can't be mining, because ’the state’ does not operate mining in the NT; nor does it prevent negotiations between Aboriginal locals and the miners - in fact, it requires such negotiations by its laws.
    Furthermore, the ’suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act’ was largely reversed months ago. There was no invasion of Aboriginal communities by armed personnel, with or without tanks. (Some army reserves merely supplied some logistical support to medical teams by supplying them with transport and assistance with food, shelter and other logistics.)
    Anderson also claims that the NTER ’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.’ Both these assertions are complete hogwash, and they demonstrate clearly that not only does Anderson appear not to have visited the NT, at least in recent times, but that not only does he not bother to listen to the well publicised details about what is happening here, but is also quite prepared to pontificate and blow hot air about the NT and the Emergency Response.
    Bob Durnan
    Alice Springs NT

  2. #2 Maria Garcia Sineriz 31 Jan 12

    Human beings live an open battle against the planet. Human beings are herbivore by nature. Getting away from our diet has led us far from our conscience.
    In 2011 scientists classified humans in 3 types by their intestinal bacteria. Ruminococcus, Bacteriodes and Prevotella. They digest cellulose. These bacteria are found in the gut of ruminants.
    It is a matter of time a pandemic arrives, like Mad cows’ Disease or Avian Flu. It could happen that vegans were the only survivors. 3 billion domestic ruminants there were in 1994, not counting dogs, pigs, birds, rabbits and horses.
    Cows eat poultry manure, so do pigs. Chicken eat pig manure. They all eat fish. Fish eat them all.
    In case this was not enough, it is maintained that eating meat is unsustainable in an energy report by Greenpeace.
    There are 1 billion hungry people in the world, while billions of domesticated animals are fattened, tortured and killed with cruelty to feed the rich.

  3. #3 Sharon Hakimi, 04 Sep 13

    Your the best we got in this country right now, & we need you as a people! Thank you my children's great grand children will know your name, thanks heaps you give me inspiration.......

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Get our free fortnightly eNews

Multimedia

Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Recently in Web exclusives

All Web exclusives

Popular tags

All tags

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.

Subscribe