On January 18, the Australian ran a story on a leaked report commissioned by the Peter Beattie Labor state government on the shocking living conditions for Aborigines in Queensland (see accompanying article). Green Left Weekly asked Sam Watson, Murri leader and member of the Socialist Alliance, about this and the ongoing struggle for justice for Indigenous people in Australia.
"We have now found out that the Beattie government has been conducting this review of the situation for Aboriginal people across Queensland for many months", Watson said. "We also know that the government had access to the preliminary findings of the review last year, during the budget estimates committee. Apparently, this document has shown that Aboriginal people across Queensland are severely disadvantaged in employment, housing, health care and education."
But the government sat on the review, Watson said, concealing it during last year's state election campaign. Now that the report has been revealed, apparently by accident, the government has declared that it is a "document in progress" and will be acted upon in due course. "If the government is aware that Aboriginal people are the most disadvantaged and most marginalised people across Queensland, then why hasn't it acted?", asked Watson.
When Beattie was re-elected last year, he immediately closed down the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy (DATSIP) and the ministerial position, and lumped Aborigines in with four other portfolios. "In a money grubbing way, he has attempted to streamline the government. Instead of trying to manage a number of areas of need, he is failing all of us", Watson said. He and other Murri activists are demanding that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs be reinstalled with a massive injection of funding to address communities need.
"Beattie often crows about the fact that he has been able to achieve 4% unemployment rate, yet on remote Aboriginal communities, and in areas such as Inala, Woodridge and across Brisbane, there are many Aboriginal communities with unemployment rates of 90-95%.
"Aboriginal people can't get jobs. Aboriginal people can't get decent housing. We still have restricted access to health care and education. You can walk through the middle of Brisbane and not one single business is owned, operated or managed by an Aboriginal person. Aboriginal people are absolutely excluded from the mainstream of white society in Queensland."
Watson said that this pressure on families and communities "results in Aboriginal people doing violence to their family members, doing violence to themselves. Only this week, tragically, we had another suicide on Palm Island. This horrific tale of woe will not improve until the Beattie government admits its shortcomings."
Watson said the government is working hard to marginalise Indigenous Australians. "There are significant tensions between the Aboriginal community and the criminal justice system, as evidenced by the incident on Palm Island in 2004 [the death in police custody of Mulrunji] and the recent incident at Aurukun. This tension is almost palpable. It's not a question of whether or not this will happen again; it's just a question of when.
"At Aurukun, a police officer discharged a private, unlicensed firearm, saying he felt threatened by a group of Aboriginal people. Where is this going to stop? Are we going to see another death in custody?"
The breadth of support for the Mulrunji campaign indicates that the Indigenous community is attaining a level of organisation not seen in some time. Watson said that this election year would be a "significant" one for the Aboriginal community.
"We have people coming into Brisbane for Invasion Day [January 26] from all over Australia because it is now regarded as the 'hot place' — where Aboriginal people are doing serious political business. People are coming in from Sydney, Moree, Cairns, Palm Island, Townsville and Doomagee to march with us as we demand justice for our people.
"After that we have the anniversaries of the referenda, the presentation of the Bring Them Home report and the NAIDOC committee. We'll also be observing the anniversaries of Aboriginal deaths in custody. In the first few weeks of February, the third anniversary of the death in custody of young TJ Hickey, we will stand with the Hickey family and the Redfern community and remind people about the criminal administration in New South Wales that has done everything to subvert and corrupt the rightful redress by that Aboriginal family."
Watson is standing for the Socialist Alliance in this year's federal election. For Watson, the Socialist Alliance has been a key ally in the current renaissance of the Aboriginal political movement.
"For the past five or six years, the Aboriginal political impetus seemed to have been lost because of the enormous pressure placed on us by state and federal administrations. The Socialist Alliance has formed close working partnerships with key Aboriginal leaders and have been strong supporters of major Aboriginal political initiatives, such as those around the deaths in custody campaign, the continuing struggle for land rights, for equal wages, the return of the stolen wages, and our struggle for secure, meaningful long-term employment and secure, decent housing, health care and education.
"The Socialist Alliance has shown that it is the only political group in Australia that is prepared to cultivate and present Aboriginal candidates in state and federal elections. So I'm a proud member of the Socialist Alliance, as well as a proud Aboriginal person who has been committed to social justice and Aboriginal civil rights for some decades."
Watson criticised the Queensland ALP for not endorsing a single Aboriginal candidate for one of the 87 state seats. "Ironically, the only political party in Queensland to produce an Aboriginal representative to the state parliament was the National Party, which in the 1970s endorsed Uncle Eric Deeral. He was the member for Cook for one term under the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime.
"We still have no representative in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. Hopefully the Socialist Alliance will be successful and I will go to Canberra as a Queensland MP and be able to represent the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal and working-class people across Queensland."
Watson is one of very few Aboriginal leaders who has "come out" as a socialist. He said that since the day he began learning from his grandmothers, uncles and aunties, he always believed that "the Aboriginal culture and way of life is best achieved through the socialist model".
"Having looked at what the other parties offer, I feel that the Socialist Alliance has very similar values to those of Aboriginal people. Whenever we campaign, we present a vision and an alternative that is very close to how Aboriginal people view the current political situation."
In dismantling Queensland's DATSIP, Beattie followed in the footsteps of the Howard government, which abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. "While ATSIC never gained majority Aboriginal support — at its peak less than 30% of the community would have participated in its elections or utilised its resources and programs — it did still have a legitimate mandate that had been authorised by and presented through the Australian electoral system, and a role to play in delivering services and programs.
"By crushing ATSIC, John Howard was able to remove $2 billion from the Aboriginal community, money we are still trying to track down. Who's spending it and on what? That's one question I will certainly be putting to Howard and his colleagues in the lead-up to the next federal election. We fear that it has been stolen and eaten up by white bureaucrats and white contractors."
Watson described the new federal funding system, where communities have to undertake to wash your children's faces, keep their clothes clean and send them off to school every day, as "paternalistic" and "insulting". "John Howard is really trying to turn back the clock, and we do not accept that."
"This year, Australia, and particularly Aboriginal people, will be observing the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referenda in which 92% voted to finally count Aboriginal people in the national census. Four decades on, Aboriginal people are the most marginalised, vulnerable and dispossessed people within our community. That's just not acceptable."