Opposition leader Tony Abbott and his co-thinkers are dead wrong. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, established by activists 40 years ago, is as relevant as it was then.
Early on January 26, Abbott told reporters he understood why the embassy was set up “all those years ago”, but said it was not relevant today.
“I think a lot has changed for the better since then,” he said. “I think the Indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian …
“I think a lot has changed since then, and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
The comments provoked an angry but non-violent protest (see footage here) later that day at a Canberra function attended by Abbott and Labor PM Julia Gillard just 100 metres from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy's 40th anniversary gathering.
The big business media went on a hysterical campaign about alleged “unAustralian mob violence”, “thuggery” and a “riot”. The ABC, the public broadcasting service, echoed the hysteria.
Australia’s right-wing radio shock jocks (some of whom have helped provoke real racist violence, like the 2005 Cronulla riot and its ugly “Australia Day” sequels) went ballistic about the “disrespect” shown to the PM and Abbott.
Respect? Just months ago, 2GB shock jock Alan Jones said the PM should be thrown out to sea in a chaff bag because we couldn’t have a “liar running the country”.
It was a sickening media orgy of hypocrisy that served to reinforce racism — so useful for Australia’s rich and powerful at this time of unprecedented global inequality and instability.
Aboriginal activist Barbara Shaw, who has been a leading voice in the fight against the racist Northern Territory intervention introduced by the former Howard Liberal government and extended by the Gillard Labor government, explained the continuing relevance of the Tent Embassy at a media conference after the protest:
“I think the rest of Australia needs to come out of the comfort zone and actually realise why we are here today. And that is because human rights breaches are against us every day of the week, 24/7. For how many years do we have to go on for us to be recognised as First Nations, as First Peoples of this country?
“They came at us with guns. Today they come at us with policies. We’ve had enough and this time you have to understand where we are coming from.
“This country had 200 years to get it right. We’ve only had 40 years to get it right and still today we are trying to get it right.
“Do you think anybody is listening to us?
“From time to time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have to come to these gatherings, as a collective, to stand up for what we believe in. What we believe in is our land, our culture, our traditions.
“No one is going to change us from who we are. We are born free, equal people of this country. We are the original Aboriginals of Australia. We are the first Australians.
“The government needs to understand that we are completely different to the boat people that came 200 years ago. There were people living here. We have got nowhere else to go. Our land is our home. The land belongs to us and we belong to the land.
“Aboriginal people have been struggling for years. Deaths in custody, the lack of housing and infrastructure, Stolen Generation, stolen wages for the hard work that Aboriginal men and women in this country have done. They built Australia on Aboriginal hands, blood.
“Stolen Generation, they are still taking children away today... displacing Aboriginal children away from their families...
“The high rate of unemployment that Aboriginal people face today, the high rate of incarceration. Did anybody take notice of the Royal Commission? We are still having deaths in custody today...
“Will we have to stand here in another 40 years and say the same thing? It has to stop now.
“We are a First World country and a multicultural society and us Aboriginal people are at the bottom of the ladder. We don't need the gatekeepers, the pet puppets, to talk for us. We know exactly what we want. We want our rights and we are going to enforce it.
“We have 46 articles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to say we have rights. Sovereignty has never been ceded in Australia, you need to recognise. Human rights are for everyone, everywhere and every day.”
The hard facts support Shaw’s argument.
• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a life expectancy of up to 17 years less than other people in Australia, says Oxfam.
• Babies born to Aboriginal mothers die at twice the rate of other Australian babies, and experience higher rates of preventable illness such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.
• There have been more than 400 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1980, one death in custody per month or more than 13 deaths per year. Less than a third of the 339 recommendations handed down in 1991 by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have been implemented.
• In December, Crikey.com’s Inga Ting said new Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data showed “the Aboriginal prisoner population increased by 1% in the year to June 2011 while the total prisoner population dropped by 2%”.
• Aboriginal people are 14.3 times more likely to be put in prison than non-indigenous Australians. One in four prisoners are Aboriginal. But they make up just 2.5% of Australia’s population. The number of imprisoned young Aborigines (between 10 and 17 years of age) increased by more than 20% in 2009-2010 compared to the previous year according to a report by the Productivity Commission and the average detention rate of young Aborigines is 25 time that of young non-Aborigines.
• The ABS says 31% of young Aboriginal people live in overcrowded housing. In remote areas, more than half (58%) of Aboriginal children and youth lived in an overcrowded household.
• The ABS also puts the “average real equivalised gross weekly household income for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (aged 18 years and over) at $508 a week, compared to $830 for non-indigenous people”.