More on Australia - this time an article on Aboriginal Australians by an activist

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Thu Aug 21 23:46:13 MDT 2003

  I know this article is rather long, but it is not freely available as far
as I am aware and I hope Lou will excuse my posting it as is.  Mansell is
from Tasmania - and he has always been on the radical fringes of the
Aboriginal movement.  He was particularly targeted by the media because he
is articulate.

His article accurately plots the decline and fall of a movement. The
Aboriginal Torres Strait Islanders Commission has recently had its Head ,
Geoff Clark, sacked.

Why the decline in Aboriginal politics?  Mansell doesn't really give a
convincing answer.  I myself believe in the old line that when the working
class retreat id defeat then all the movements are in trouble.  I suppose
that is somewhat essentialist but it makes sense of the world to me.




  There was a time when Gary Foley's call to hit the streets ran a chill
Down  your back. When Paul Coe told us we were a sovereign people, not
a  minority, we all believed him. And when Marcia Langton addressed a
rally  against the back-drop of colourful Aboriginal flags of protest,
her  denouncement of racism against Aboriginal people stirred us to a rage.

  That was all in the past. Now the streets are silent. The rage seems
to  have subsided.   There is still plenty to protest about. Domination of
Aborigines by whites  is as institutionalised now as ever it was. The Yorta
Yorta were told they  have no land rights. Aboriginal customary laws are
still ignored. And so on.

  Our response is remarkable. The Howard government watered down
native  title. Howard refused to apologise to the stolen generations, was
cool to  reconciliation and his Ministers openly call for a welfare
response to  Aboriginal issues. Foley/Coe/Langton would once have been
outraged and  rallied the Aboriginal nation. Now the Cape York leadership,
on hands and  knees, begs Howard to stay on so we can be further neglected
by his  policies. What went wrong?

  It seems to have begun in the late 1980's. The Aboriginal demands were
not  just for land and self determination. Greater access to education and
jobs  in the public service were also part of the black movement's plank.
The  problem was that those who marched in the streets because they had
nothing  to lose now had jobs and access to universities, and did not want
to risk  losing the gains. The Aboriginal protest movement had lost many
from its  ranks.

  The political base remained though, among the hundreds of Aboriginal
legal and health services, land councils and other community
organisations.These  loose knit localised bodies fed into national grass
roots structures like the National Aboriginal Child Care, Federation of
Land Councils and National Aboriginal Legal Services.  The local political
base became
  national, and gradually international, with Shorty O'Neill, Paul Coe and
Burnum Burnum informing the world of the Aboriginal plight.

  Federal governments turned their attention to what they perceived as
an  uncontrollable political movement. ATSIC was installed. Sold on the
grounds  it represented a new, fully funded and independent national
Aboriginal and Islander body, the then Labour federal government committed
to listen to the voice of ATSIC. In one fell swoop government undermined
the community  structures, de-politicised Aboriginal affairs and
reconstituted black aggression as an advisory body.

  ATSIC could never have filled the void of political leadership. It was
too close to government. ATSIC was preoccupied with its monopoly of
Aboriginal funding. ATSIC was starved of the talent that existed in
community  organisations who chose to stay on rather than enter ATSIC, for
to do so would have jeopardised the local organisations ability to survive.

  By the time Mabo came along the writing was on the wall, but none saw
it.  National community groups had disappeared and ATSIC, totally engrossed
in  administration, had no idea what to do. It took a national meeting at
Eva  Valley in 1993 to organise a political group to represent Aborigines.
It  should have been obvious this procedure was too costly and cumbersome
to be relied on all the time.

  When John Howard brought the conservative agenda to prominence in 1996,
Aboriginal affairs was targeted by the Coalition for open hostility.
Reconciliation Chairman Pat Dodson was moved on, as was his brother Mick
from the Social Justice Commission. Lois O'Donohue was replaced as ATSIC
head, and after Noel Pearson called the Howard crew "racist scum", he too
was shown the door. This was the clean out of perceived ALP cronies,
and  the message was firmly picked up by a nervous ATSIC which, in order to
save ts own neck, began sacrificing Aboriginal organisations. Who would now
represent Aborigines?

  Now, Minister Wilson Tuckey can seemingly move at will against
the  Aboriginal tent embassy. The greatest symbol of Aboriginal resistance,
and  reminder to Australian governments of the ugly side to years of
neglect,is again under threat. ATSIC's response was to grant funds to a
Brisbane  conglomerate to review the tent embassy.

  It is true that more jobs, better education, better housing and at long
last a reduction in the number of deaths in custody, are real advances.But
there is more to it than that. In fact, while Aborigines can say we have
advanced socially the same cannot be said for our political or economic
development. Even our analytical skills have dropped. The more Aborigines
enter the parliaments, the stronger is Australia's claim to legitimacy. And
with legitimacy flows Aboriginal subservience. And the improved access has
not produced a single activist! The universities tend to spit out
"programmed" Aborigines.

  Aboriginal organisations are now run by technicians, not activists. Where
once funding was "compensation", it is now readily taken as "public"
monies. Popularity has replaced political direction. No longer is strategy
based on Aboriginal rights but on how to impress middle Australia. This has
allowed the Aboriginal protest movement to be captured, harnessed and
driven wherever public opinion takes it. Having lost all sense of political
independence, we resort to blaming community people for getting the dole
for free as the source of our woes.

  Showing signs of resistance, making a stand, establishing a reform agenda
are part and parcel of Aboriginal political development.  Yet we have to
rely on Cathy Freeman, proudly holding her people's flag aloft against all
protocols, to symbolise our rejection of having to be jacky-jacky
Australians. The single, most dynamic young Aboriginal leader Murandoo
Yanner, has been sidelined by white law.

  Poor old ATSIC. When the Minister split ATSIC's functions in two there
was nary a whimper from the highly paid ATSIC Commissioners. Now that
Ruddock  is picking off ATSIC's leaders, ATSIC is silent. Not a protest.
Not a sign of resistance. If ATSIC cannot show some sign of activism then
it is time for the body to go, and something better put in its place.

  We are shadows of what Joe McGuiness, Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo once
epitomised. Indigenous television shies away from politics. ATSIC
subsidised the multi-million dollar AFL to display Aboriginal culture at
its games. Aboriginal leaders want us to be good Australians. The better we
imitate white people, the more successful we are seen to be. If Charles
Perkins were alive to repeat his Freedom Rides, he would mostly likely be
condemned by his own people for upsetting the apple cart.

  Where once the Australian flag was seen by the Aboriginal protest
movement as representing white domination, now ATSIC proudly displays it
beside the  indigenous flags in all its offices. The Aboriginal flag that
symbolised  the black struggle lost much of its meaning when it was officially
  recognised under white law.

  Suddenly, the Aboriginal movement had become acceptable.

Dr Gary MacLennan
Film & Television Discipline
Creative Industries Faculty
Gardens Point Campus
Brisbane 4001

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