Julia Gillard's empty words of 'respect' to Aboriginal Australia

Aboriginal Tent Embassy commemoration, January 26. Photo: Peter Boyle

Moments before Julia Gillard was whisked away from the angry crowd, losing her shoe in the process, she began an awards ceremony speech with these words: “Can I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and in the spirit of reconciliation pay my respects to elders past and present.”

It was an expression she had used many times before, like an eastern mantra. A brief check of her press website shows she had said these exact words on 19 and 20 January 2012, 18 November 2011, 21 and 4 October 2011, and 1 Jan 2011.

Yet, that same day, she did not take the trouble to walk 100 metres from her ceremony to say hello to the largest ever gathering of traditional owners in Canberra since she had become Prime Minister.

They had come from every part of Australia, several hundred strong, along with several hundred supporters, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of one of the most powerfully symbolic events in contemporary Australian history: the setting up of an "embassy" in front of parliament, to show that Aboriginal people were being treated as foreigners in their own land. The consensus at this year’s gathering was that little had changed.

Gillard's subsequent international embarrassment, best illustrated by the photos of security dragging her away to a waiting car, drew attention to her alarmed flight from those very people she claimed to acknowledge and respect.

Why did she not speak with them, and why did she run away in fear?

It was not because there was a "riot" or any great threat of violence, as the corporate media would later falsely claim. As police sergeant Chris Meagher said, no-one was injured, there was no property damage and no-one would be arrested. "Basically there was a minor fracas between ourselves and the demonstrators," he told reporters. "They've had a point to prove today and they're having their celebrations."

The Canberra police on January 26 were more disciplined than the unelected Aboriginal "leaders" (such as Warren Mundine and Mick Gooda) who, from a distance, seemed happy to collaborate with the corporate media and condemn their own people.

It should have been no surprise to anyone that the corporate media showed contempt for and propagated lies about the Tent Embassy. After all, they have been central to building the image of the most feared and despised race of people in this country.

Why are Aboriginal people still so feared and despised? Why do Prime Ministers run away in fright? Perhaps it is because their continued existence (in the face of genocide and assimilation) unsettles the big property owners, and the very legitimacy of the neo-colonial state. No other group of people poses that same threat.

For the record, a group from the Tent Embassy (I was among them) had gone to the café because we had been informed (accurately) that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had said that, while Aboriginal people were held in ‘respect’, it was ‘time to move on’ from the tent embassy. He effectively denied there was any basis for the Tent Embassy. Our anger was directed at the conservative leader.

But Labor, in practical terms, has been every bit as bad as the conservatives. It was Labor that reneged twice on promises (in 1972 and 1983) to enact national land rights law, to meet the just demands of the traditional owners. This, of course, had been the main demand of the Tent Embassy in 1972. Yet land rights are today enjoyed by far less than 10% of the Aboriginal population.

In place of land rights, Labor offered "reconciliation" and a stinking piece of hypocrisy called "native title", the weakest land title imaginable and which firmly denies (by "extinguishment") any land rights to the vast majority of traditional owners.

The only reasonable conclusion we can draw as to why Julia did not speak to or with (instead of just about) the traditional owners on January 26 is that she had nothing to offer. Speaking to or with them would have led to further embarrassment.

So why did she proclaim that mantra of respect? Did she imagine it absolved her government from doing anything, just like saying a few Hail Marys?

Indeed, what use is it for anyone to repeat these phrases of "respect", when they engage in no practical acts of respect and, even worse, persist in openly racist policies such as the NT intervention?

Perhaps parliamentarians should be held to account every time they come out with these empty words. The immediate response could be: "OK, what will you do?"

Will they commit or will they run? The current look is not promising. As Tent Embassy stalwart Isobel Coe said: "They fight like cats and dogs in the parliament, but when it comes to Aboriginal people, they run like dogs."

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