How to win Aboriginal justice

February 9, 2014

When the Black Power movement emerged in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in the late 60s, thousands of Aboriginal people took to the streets demanding national uniform land rights legislation and recognition of our right to self-determination.

The establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 further galvanised this groundswell of Black activism. Thousands of Aboriginal people converged on Brisbane to protest the ’82 Commonwealth Games, and then came the call for a Treaty.

There had also been several attempts to establish a national coalition to spearhead the push for Black autonomy — prominent examples included the National Tribal Council in the early ‘70s, and the National Federation of Land Councils and Aboriginal Provisional Government in the early ‘90s.

Consistent with the trend of keeping Australian governments on the back foot, Aboriginal activists also hit the international arena. Two diplomatic delegations from the Embassy travelled to China in the ‘70s as VIP guests of Chairman Mao’s newly-founded People’s Republic. Then in 1987, a Black delegation entered Gaddafi’s Libya using the Aboriginal passport.

When taking into account the history of the Black Power and land rights movements, token and paternalistic amendments to White Australia’s founding document can only be described as a step backwards.

How can anyone be fooled into thinking the multimillion-dollar “Recognise” campaign initiated by John Howard and Noel Pearson is in any way progressive?

First Nations’ sovereignty is anything but some farfetched ambition dreamt up by a minority of “radical” Black separatists. Why is it that talk of autonomy, political independence and control over our own lands is so alien to the mainstream Australian public, government and media?

Other Indigenous peoples around the globe have varying degrees of autonomy when it comes to recognition by colonial society and governments. Given the progress in countries like Aotearoa (New Zealand), Norway and Scotland, it is fair to say the right of autonomy for First Nations peoples has become an established international norm.

For the Māori, everything comes back to the Treaty — land title, cultural awareness programs in the workplace, protection of culture, language revival, control of natural resources and even political representation.

If it wasn’t for the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, Māoridom would be nowhere near where it is today.

Early last year, I spent a week with a Māori family in Wellington. My Tūhoe hosts, who are heavily involved in the politics of their own iwi (tribe), claimed the Waitangi Tribunal followed by the Māori Council and political representation were among the most effective catalysts of change for Māori in Aotearoa.

Established in 1975, the Waitangi Tribunal is responsible for dealing with Māori claims relating to breaches of the Treaty by the Crown.

The Tribunal has been instrumental in launching and growing iwi (tribal) radio,
Māori Television, establishing Te Reo as one of New Zealand’s official languages alongside English, the handing back of tribal lands, financial redress and providing for Māori self-governance structures.
Left at the margins of public debate
For more than two centuries, First Nations have been subject to large-scale dispossession, genocide and systematic discrimination. The push for sovereignty is an ongoing attempt to reverse the effects of this devastating process and establish a revived dignity for First Nations people and our communities.
ISS UE #3 editorial P4
The Māori Council has been the national representative body for Māori since 1962, but holds far more sway compared to both ATSIC and now the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

This organisation actively advocates Māori autonomy and incorporates a system of tribal-based representation.

What’s more, 22 out of 120 Members of parliament in Aotearoa are Māori, of which seven are dedicated Māori seats. Four party leaders are Māori and close to one in five MPs are Māori — that’s not too shabby considering they make up only about 15% of NZ’s population.

To top it off, the Minister of Māori affairs is actually Māori, astonishing considering the first Māori MP was elected in 1869, the same year Victoria enacted the oppressive Aboriginal Protection Act.

Standing outside the Beehive (New Zealand’s Parliament), I noted there was no sign of the Tino Rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty) flag. Apparently it’s a rare sight excluding Waitangi Day and at Māori institutions. On the other hand you have the “historic” moment on January 26 this year when the red, black and yellow flew alongside the Australian flag on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Before moving on from the topic of tokenism, it was brought to my attention during my stay in Aotearoa that there is currently a review of the nation’s Constitution which happens to include both the Treaty and a Bill of Rights — documents noticeably absent in Australia legal system. Two of the central focuses of the ‘Constitutional Conversation’,
instigated by the Māori Party, are the role of the Treaty and Māori representation in parliament.

This “partnership” between Māori and the Crown is put on a pedestal within public life in New Zealand, and it has certainly rattled the cages of the nation’s right-wing factions.

From the drivel that is being circulated by right-wing lobby groups, it’s clear that the Treaty of Waitangi has become of major benefit to Māori. But at the end of the day, a Treaty will mean nothing if we are unwilling to stand up and ensure that such an agreement is honoured.

The Commonwealth is notorious for its tendency to violate treaties. Just take a look at the First Nations people of Canada and their struggle against a belligerent conservative government intent on giving absolute precedence to the interests of mining multinationals.

Tūhoe never signed the Treaty, but they are still able to access the same benefits as tribes that did sign. September last year saw Tūhoe reach an agreement with the Crown which will include a $170 million settlement as redress for past breaches of the Treaty and the return of stolen lands.

Now begins a forty-year plan to establish strong self-governance, sustainable tribal infrastructure, education, health, media and social services programs – the Tūhoe people will eventually finance all of these services themselves as reliance on the NZ government is phased out.

Tūhoe may be a ‘rural’ iwi, but that doesn’t mean the same kind of tribal autonomy can’t be implemented in urban areas. For instance, when I visited Atiawa Toa 96.9fm in the nation’s capital, I was taken on a tour of what I can only describe as a tribal hub – radio, health clinics, football fields, housing, gyms, education institutions, a marae (meeting hall) and central administration, all owned and operated by the local iwi.

Looking at international examples of how other indigenous peoples are attaining self-determination is simply a method of identifying potential pragmatic steps towards our own autonomy.

Dennis Braun, a 60-year-old Arrentre man from Katherine in the Northern Territory,
recently embarked on a research trip to the Navajo Nation, the largest federally recognised tribe in the US.

Braun worked five years for the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and is currently studying law at Bond University. He said: “Everything on the Navajo reservation is run, managed and owned by Navajo people – shops, laundromats, bus services, medical and legal aid, universities, schools, youth detention centres and domestic violence services. This all comes from the money they get from their Treaty.

Our youth today are missing out on a lot. They’d feel pretty proud if we had Aboriginal universities run by Aboriginal people. At the Navajo university, they are taught the histories, the massacres, everything. We are very far behind. We’re still holding the White man’s hand, picking up the sit-down money and being treated like babies. And with the Intervention, we don’t own anything now. We don’t have a say in anything. Navajo have their own police department which seems to have a good relationship with Navajo citizens.”

Comparatively, the push for Constitutional recognition along with bipartisan support for Pearson’s punitive Empowered Communities scheme shows how conservative the Australian dialogue truly is.

Perhaps it appears far more convenient for mainstream Australia to facilitate the assimilation of First Nations people as it fits with the Western ideals of modern progress, rather than dealing with the perceived threat of Black empowerment and being tipped into the sea by the local tribe. Our birthrights must not be left straggling at the margins of public debate.

[Reprinted from Birsbane Blacks Magazine.]

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