The following is a transcript of a speech by award-winning journalist John Pilger at the Sydney Teachers’ Federation on April 23. It was part of a public launch of the Four Days in July national Aboriginal rights convergence in Alice Springs from July 6 to 9.
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I am honoured to be on this platform tonight, and I would like to express my warm appreciation to Richard Downs for asking me to join him in launching this extraordinary call-out to all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
I would like also to pay tribute to Larissa Behrendt for her fine, untiring work, and to Paul McAleer and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) for helping to restore the faith of many in a principled union movement, and not least to the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS), a remarkable group that has stood boldly against the intervention and organised this and many other meetings.
When I first heard Downs speak in Melbourne at Easter, I knew that an exciting new chapter in the struggle of Indigenous Australians had opened. One of the most important political events of my lifetime was the long strike by the Gurindji people when they walked off the cattle station at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory in August 1966.
The issues which the Gurindji brought to light — the denial of basic human rights, the lack of proper living and working conditions and the racism — are no different in principle from those described by Downs and other Alyawarr elders since their own historic walk-off in July last year.
Make no mistake. We are celebrating tonight. We are celebrating once more the resolve and courage and political determination, and imagination, of a group of Indigenous Australians.
For just as Vincent Lingiari and his Gurindji comrades made their stand in the ’60s and ’70s, touring the country, forcing justice and land rights into the public consciousness and on to the political agenda, so Downs and his comrades are breaking a long and lethal silence that Canberra and the media have sought to inflict on the human rights and land rights of Indigenous Australia.
So — although we’re here too tonight to protest — let us also recognise what a wonderful moment this is: a historic moment. What Downs and the Alyawarr people are saying is that they will not meet with Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin or Prime Minister Kevin Rudd until the government abolishes the intervention and fully restores the Racial Discrimination Act.
In other words, they’re on strike — like the Gurindji — and the aim of tonight’s meeting is to call on all Australians to walk off with them: to stand with them.
In doing so, we illuminate the injustice and the lies that shame this entire society and we say this to those Australians who look away: you are not innocent bystanders in your own country.
“If you are neutral in a time of injustice,” said Desmond Tutu, “you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Not only that, we are here to tell the world. Time and again the United Nations has identified the deep racism in our politics and our laws. Time and again, federal governments and their media allies have deflected the criticism. How dare these foreigners tell us what we know to be true!
Not any more. The indigenous struggle all over the world is gaining ground, and many people in other countries are now looking past picture postcard Australia at the injustice imposed on the most enduring human society on Earth, the First Australians.
Only last January, the United Nations released a report that examined the state of indigenous peoples in 90 countries. It revealed that the First Australians have the worst life expectancy gap of any indigenous people anywhere. Isn’t that shocking?
For many years, the United Nations has had a shame list of those countries that have not eradicated trachoma, which blinds children. Australia is the only so-called developed country on that shame list. Even impoverished, war-ravaged Sri Lanka has beaten the disease. But not lucky Australia.
So I believe this walk-off — and the great coming-together planned for Alice Springs in July — can be a turning point. By taking direct action and shutting out involvement with the federal government until it ends the intervention, Aboriginal people are taking control over their lives.
For what this walk-off and tonight are setting out to achieve is an Australia where Indigenous people are no longer spoken for by those seduced by authority: the kind who are given space in the Murdoch media, telling the white elite what it wants to hear.
What this call-out is setting out to achieve is an Australia where Aboriginal people are no longer spoken down to, no longer depicted in paternalistic stunts like that staged by the billionaires Andrew Forrest and James Packer at the Opera House the other day, with Macklin and rich celebrities feigning concern for the poor native folk.
What this call-out is setting out to achieve is an Australia where the likes of Macklin are no longer allowed to lie and get away with it, unchallenged. An Australia where Aboriginal people are never again subjected to discredited policies of income management and cynical concern for children.
What this call-out, this coming-together, this strike, this direct action, will do is reveal to the world that the intervention is a fraud, a con, a deception on all Australians.
In 2007, the Howard government used the report, Little Children are Sacred, to justify its actions. Child abuse in Indigenous communities was in “unthinkable numbers”, said Mal Brough, then Aboriginal affairs minister. In fact, the sexual abuse of Aboriginal girls and women is mostly committed by non-Aboriginal people living nearby.
Out of 7433 Aboriginal children examined by doctors, 39 were referred to the authorities for suspected abuse. Of those, four possible cases have been identified. In other words, as Professor Alastair Nicholson, a former chief justice of the Family Court, has pointed out, this is no more than the rate of child abuse in white Australia.
How did Brough and Howard get away with this? Certain journalists played a crucial role. The ABC program, Lateline, broadcast allegations about what it called “sex slavery” among the people of Mutitjulu. The program’s source was described as an “anonymous youth worker”.
In fact, he was exposed as a federal government official whose word was discredited by the Northern Territory chief minister and the police. The ABC has never withdrawn these damaging allegations, claiming it has been “exonerated by an internal enquiry”.
Just last week, the chief justice of New South Wales, Jim Spigelman, made a veiled attack on both the Indigenous and Muslim communities. Spigelman referred to the intervention as “triggered by revelations” of child abuse. Not surprisingly, his remarks were taken up by the likes of Piers Ackerman in the Murdoch press. Shame on him.
Our direct action comes at a critical time for the federal government, which is involved in wars of aggression overseas, while refusing to honour its commitment to protect those seeking refuge from the same wars.
This is all part of the militarising of our past and present, while refusing to raise a single official memorial to those who fought and fell in defence of their own country, this country, Australia.
I believe this historic initiative by Downs and his comrades addresses all these issues as well as revealing the so-called intervention as an old-fashioned colonial land grab.
Every government since Bob Hawke has tried to claw back the land rights that were won in the Northern Territory. It’s now happening by stealth and it’s happening quickly. In 2006, there were 180 licences for the exploration of minerals on Aboriginal land. By 2009, this had leapt to 400 licences.
Uranium, gold, oil, iron ore — these are the reasons why Aboriginal people are being humiliated in supermarkets with their Basics Cards. This travesty of welfare manipulation is costing the federal government $351 million just to administer. That’s a lot of money, isn’t it?
And a lot of money is to be made in contracts for the dumping of foreign toxic waste in the Northern Territory. This, and the riches beneath the ground, help us to understand why Jenny Macklin is attempting to destroy some 73 Aboriginal communities, and their languages, and move them to so-called hubs.
It’s getting those damn blackfellas out of the way. She dismisses their communities as “economically unviable”.
Meanwhile, government business managers are being paid salaries of up to $200,000 just to run this charade. The propaganda is laughingly called “Closing the Gap” and has concentrated on housing.
Since Rudd said “sorry” just three houses have been built for Aboriginal people, while 56 houses have been built for white managers.
If we had a free media in Australia, this would be exposed. And I take this opportunity to call on my fellow journalists to examine their consciences and to report the truth about what this intervention really means. And what it means is that Australian apartheid is being entrenched.
The political and media elite hates the term “apartheid”. It knows it means pariah status and shame. It doesn’t want the world to know that, beyond the postcard image of our country, black Australians are being jailed at five times the rate of South Africa during the apartheid years. In Western Australia, it’s eight times the apartheid rate of imprisonment.
When Rudd won the applause of the world by saying sorry to the First Australians, the Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial that said this: “The Rudd government has moved quickly to clear away this piece of political wreckage in a way that responds to some of its supporters’ emotional needs, yet it changes nothing. It is a shrewd manoeuvre.”
Actually, if the SMH believes nothing has changed, it’s mistaken. For behind the government’s shrewd manoeuvre is a piece of social engineering that will also affect non-Indigenous Australians.
The so-called special measures that control and restrict Aboriginal welfare are there to make it look as if the government is not discriminating, and they will apply eventually to the rest of the population.
Thousands of non-Indigenous people blighted by unemployment and homelessness will be quarantined and controlled; and I urge white Australia not only to listen to Richard Downs and his comrades but to support their action, because it concerns all of us.
For until our government ends its war on Indigenous Australia, until it negotiates a treaty that gives back to the First Australians their nationhood, we who came later can never claim our own.