More than 200 people gathered at the Yirara College in Alice Springs over July 6-9 for a conference entitled Defending Indigenous Rights: Land, Law, Culture Convergence.
The convergence brought together Aboriginal communities affected by the Northern Territory intervention to speak and coordinate with anti-intervention and Aboriginal rights groups from around the country.
The NT intervention was set up by the then-Howard government in July 2007. It weakened Aboriginal control on traditional lands, and put 50% of Indigenous people’s welfare payments on a Basics Card in targeted Aboriginal communities. Money on Basics Cards can be spent only on food, clothing and medical supplies.
Despite heavy rain, people travelled from many surrounding Aboriginal communities and there were representatives of various language groups. Some came from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, as well as Muckaty and Arabunna country in central South Australia. There were representatives from the Arrente, Walpiri, and Alyawarr language groups.
Aboriginal community leaders such as Harry Nelson, Murray George, Barb Shaw, Uncle Kevin Buzzacott and Richard Downs — along with many others — addressed and facilitated forums covering the full scope of attacks on Aboriginal people, their land, culture and language.
They were joined by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from every state in Australia. People heard the facts of the intervention from those affected, and discussed the government’s lies and ignorance about the challenges faced by Aboriginal people in the NT.
The convergence discussed the ban on Aboriginal languages in schools, attacks on Aboriginal employment and working conditions, destructive uranium mining and nuclear waste dumping, as well as income quarantining and other discriminatory measures .
Speakers explained that the intervention has been a lie from the start.
Town camp community leader Barb Shaw, from and the Alice Springs Intervention Rollback Action Group, told the gathering that by hearing from people under the intervention: “You’ll see the difference between the stories, our stories, of people affected on the ground, and what the government says in going on.”
Former National Indigenous Times editor Chris Graham was asked to presents the results of his investigation into a Lateline program aired in May 2006. The program used fabricated sources and false information to exaggerate child sexual abuse in the Aboriginal township of Mutitjulu.
Graham said: “This story is the story that sparked the intervention. We know how dishonest the intervention is, but the story that sparked it is even more dishonest.”
David Brockman and Leticia Patterson from the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association said the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people and communities had gone backwards since the intervention.
“The fact is, this was used as an election issue to override the rights of people”, Brockman said.
A women’s meeting at the convergence adopted a statement that called for the “law that takes away our human rights as Indigenous peoples of this country” to be repealed and for Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin to resign.
It rejected the lie that the purpose of the intervention was to protect women and feed children: “Women are suffering, we’re worse off here now than we were ever before.”
Richard Downs, spokesperson for the Alyawarr people who walked off their community in protest against the intervention, was one of the organisers of the convergence. He told Green Left Weekly opposition was growing among both Aboriginal people and the public.
“The anger and the passion, once they found out the evidence and the impact of the intervention, and the reasoning behind it, what kicked it off, the lies and the deceit”, he said. “It’s mounting up.”
The gathering also passed a range of resolutions and statements to be used in the campaign, with a particular focus on drawing in unions.
One resolution was on the campaign to save bilingual education, and called on the Australian Education Union to support teachers who defy the federal government’s ban on using Aboriginal languages in class time. The statement declared: “Stop the erosion of our languages.”
It passed a resolution in support of “Jobs with Justice”, a campaign fighting for real jobs and real wages for Aboriginal people in the NT.
The resolution called for support from trade unions, labour councils and the Australian Council of Trade Unions to publish a statement condemning the federal government’s policy of forcing Aboriginal people to work for the Basics Card and the axing of jobs across the territory.
Aboriginal people fighting to protect their land from mining companies and the government described uranium mining and nuclear waste dumping in detail. “Breaking the nuclear chain” was a forum that included Diane Stokes from Muckaty, whose community is fighting to stop the government from dumping nuclear waste on their land.
Human rights lawyer George Newhouse said the Muckaty campaign was “one that we can win”.
Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, part of the campaign against the Olympic Dam uranium mine in Roxby Downs, said of Prime Minister Julia Gillard: “The first thing she done was open the door to mining companies.”
Motions were passed to organise community support, and snap actions when necessary, to defend land threatened by mining and waste dumping.
The convergence resolved to “form alliances to use the federal elections period to raise awareness and opposition to the intervention”.
Murray George also called for people to support election candidates who oppose the intervention, such as the First Nations Electoral Party, a new party representing Aboriginal people.
On the final day of the convergence, 300 people rallied in the Todd Mall in Alice Springs. Speakers called for Macklin to resign as Aboriginal affairs minister. It included Marianne Mackay from the First Nations party, and Paddy Gibson and Barb Shaw from the Intervention Rollback Action Group.
Downs told GLW: “The groups from Melbourne should go back and target Jenny Macklin in the lead up to the election.
“There’s a huge role for the different activist groups to play, and for us as Aboriginal people too, to engage and bring everyone in.
“The students are really passionate, and they’re up with what’s happening, through the internet and networks. The Aboriginal people are more isolated and we haven’t got all the technologies to campaign on the same scale.
“But we’re directly affected. So that’s why we need to fight for change together.”