It was freezing last night where I slept in my travels, below freezing in fact. In Bangerang country, home of the Yorta Yorta people, Mother Nature may have frozen the water in every dog’s bowl and garden hose, but she balanced the frigidity with a crystal blue sky and gleaming sun as it rose. The breeze has remained cool enough to nip at my heels, but even a white woman’s soul needs to commune with that of the earth sometimes, so here I’ll sit and absorb the chill, the birdsong, the glittering ripple on the lake.
There are many Kooris in this region, more than I ever saw in my youth in Melbourne. As with their Murri counterparts north of the state border, they have had to fight for the right to live and work on the land that once was theirs by deed of Dreams, rather than colonial title. John Batman, credited as Melbourne’s founding father, signed treaties with the Kulin nations who supposedly ceded ownership of the land from the Goulburn Valley to Port Phillip Bay. The treaty, one of the few ever recorded in the white settlement of Australia, was declared invalid due to what came to be known as terra nullius, paving the way for the unimpeded dispossession of the property of the people not only in the Kulin Nations, but throughout the rest of the Australian colonies.
With dispossession of the land came separation from spirit and lore. Indigenous law was supplanted with the British rule of law, but being neither counted in the census nor permitted to vote in many jurisdictions for many years, the European concept of law applied to the Aborigines was little more than a tool with which to corral and domesticate what most presumed to a be a sub-human species.
With the destruction of Aboriginal culture and its replacement with a white patriarchal hegemony came the subordination of not only the Indigenous people, but specifically women. Although Indigenous men may have been nominally paid (wages were generally held, possibly never paid), Indigenous women may not have ever been paid at all. In the vacuum of their own broken culture and lacking a system by which to live in the new dominant hierarchy, the Aborigines of this country were forced to turn gradually to the European concept of law, even though it afforded little if any protections or rights. In the years preceding the women’s suffragist movement, it is obvious the position to which the Indigenous woman was relegated.
With the referendum of 1967 came the final legal recognition of the rights of Aboriginal Australians to express their views, be heard and to expect equal treatment alongside the more recent non-Indigenous arrivals. And yet five years later, the lack of recognition and racism was still so noticeable that it resulted in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (ATE) on the lawns outside what is now known as Old Parliament House in the Australian Capital Territory. Ironically, it was a pair of Italian immigrants, Allessandro and Fabio Cavadini, who helped focus international attention on the plight of the Australian Aborigines through their films Ningla a-Na. The impetus behind Aboriginal rights was the significant differences in such measures such as child mortality rates, educational opportunities, healthcare and Indigenous incarceration.
In breaking up the ATE protest in 1972, Jenny Coe Munro describes how the ‘Federal Police’ separated the women so that they were at the periphery of the crowd. The group, so divided, was then broken apart and the women were assaulted and hauled away, before the police moved in on the men.
This NAIDOC week, as the last of the campaigns to raise awareness of Indigenous culture and rights are being played out with the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy providing the theme, we must ask ourselves, how far Australia has come in addressing the disparities between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the this country’s people? Has this country not only embedded more deeply the racism originally embodied by the Protectors of Aborigines, but driven a deeper wedge between men and women? With three women subjected to workplace harassment, indecent assault, battery and/or intimidation within the Australian Capital Territory that the Australian Federal Police (AFP), ACT Revenue Office (ACTRO) and Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC, formerly the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) have all refused to investigate in one or more cases, has not the cause of women, Indigenous women in particular been drawn back to the era before not only 1967, but prior to women’s suffragism? The racist and sexist approach used to break up the ATE in 1972 is being replicated again today in the treatment of Indigenous women in the ACT.
I am intensely frustrated and sickened that with the Australian Labour Party touting the achievement of this nation’s first female Prime Minister in Julia Gillard, that it is willing to allow these monumental injustices to go unaddressed. For Julia Gillard, this is a larger stain upon her character as Prime Minister than any of the myriad other issues that give me cause to question not only her credentials, but her moral code.
Now with the Stronger Futures Legislation passed, an extension of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (NTNERA, aka ‘the Intervention’), Australia has effectively re-established the apartheid system that operated under the Protectors of Aborigines until midway through the twentieth century. The quarantining of income, limitation of choice and restriction of movements, not to mention accountability to people with no connection to the people of the areas concerned, makes me embarrassed to see Australia seeking a seat on the UN Security Council, a position through which it would be able to export these marginalizing concepts of racism and sexism to other nations more efficiently than it already does.
The Eurpoean concept of law, manipulated to fit the intents of the majority, ignore the rights that were so hard fought for in the late 1960s. These are the very rights denied the former Commissioner for ACT Revenue (aka Pat), a member of the Wiradjuri people. They are the same rights denied Ms King, Lucinda McMillan and Angelique. It is the same rule of law that has been bent to accommodate the racism of the Inquisitor and all those who have supported him, be they the Australian Federal Police, Ernst & Young, the AHRC or the ACT Government itself. It is for this reason that the two issues of the sexist and racist patriarchy of the AFP, AHRC, territory, state and Commonwealth governments must be addressed not as separate issues, but as intertwined issues of marginalization used to pit men and women against each other and thereby destroy whatever vestiges of Aboriginal culture may remain.
Racism has been used by capitalists to pit working people — including working women — against each other by denying to people in non-white racial groups benefits and life opportunities available to whites, turning the former into a super-exploited labour force.
Kim Bullimore, Green Left Weekly, 4 August 2004.
In the past forty years, Australia has watched silently as the Intervention has been applied, the incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians has remained ridiculously high, this nation’s first peoples have continued to live in third world conditions in some regions and sexual assault, death threats and intimidation have been thrown at the feet of those whose forbears demanded nothing more than what they were constitutionally awarded in 1967. The fight for equality it seems, must be renewed, for if an Indigenous woman is not entitled to the same rights and protections as myself or any other non-Indigenous woman, then the intent of those visionary suffragists and activists who have preceded us has failed. Their banners, carried only part way to the apex of the dream of true equality, are ours to pick up and carry. As NAIDOC week closes, I implore each and every reader to speak up for the marginalized Aborigines in this country denied justice by the legislative, law enforcement and judicial agencies of this country.
|Will you sign the petition calling for a Royal Commission into the Australian Federal Police?|