Nyoongar Tent Embassy puts sovereignty on the agenda

Nyoongar Tent Embassy, March 22. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

A movement for Aboriginal sovereignty has galvanised around the February 12 formation of the Nyoongar Tent Embassy in Perth.

The embassy was directly inspired by two developments: the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, which promoted a national push for Aboriginal sovereignty, and the February 8 report about negotiations between the state government and the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC) about Nyoongar native title.

The embassy suffered a heavy blow on March 22 when an operation of more than 60 police tried to close the embassy down. However, the embassy has so far survived the attack and the subsequent increase in police harassment.

Bail conditions on key participants who were arrested that day have prevented them from returning to Matagarup (Heirisson Island), the site of the embassy.

The discussion since that event reveals that sovereignty is an idea that will not simply go away.

Aboriginal Legal Service director Dennis Eggington said on the ABC on March 24 that the embassy is “about the sovereignty movement”.

“It is about Aboriginal people getting a better deal than what we've got in the past … It needs protest, it needs people [to be] talking about the rights of the first nation peoples in this country and I don't think the protesters or the sovereignty movement is finished by any means.”

Eggington said the issue can be resolved and called for a treaty as a means to achieve this.

“[Sovereignty] doesn't have to be something that can't be resolved. It is a matter of governments sitting down in a fair dinkum way and drawing up a proper treaty or partnership.”

He said any agreement had to be one between “equals, as equal people in this country, not as subservient to some kind of state or commonwealth government”.

“I don't know why Australia procrastinates any longer,” he said. “It just causes these kind of issues that we're dealing with today. It is something that needed to be done a long, long time ago and it needs to be done as soon as possible.”

On March 28, 100 people took part in an Aboriginal rights rally organised by the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation. The rally explicitly rejected the state government offer of a $1 billion land and cash package to extinguish Nyoongar native title.

Instead the rally called for 5% of the value of economic activity in the Nyoongar land to be paid every year to Nyoongar people.

Iva Hayward-Jackson told the rally about the issues Aboriginal people face, including health, housing, imprisonment, suicide and treatment by the police.

“I state now that $1 billion would not and can not resolve even these few problems,” he said. “[It] will not solve Nyoongar inequality and will not raise living standards.”

Hayward-Jackson said the money offered by WA premier Colin Barnett would help only the Land Council and other Aboriginal organisations. “We don't want organisations to lord over us.”

The SWALSC has produced a document explaining its approach to negotiations with the state government. It said the maximum potential gains of pursuing any native title process were extremely restricted by the inherent limitations on native title from the original Mabo High Court decision and the later legal restrictions imposed by the Keating and Howard governments.

SWALSC said more can be gained by pursuing negotiations with the state government than a bid to gain native title rights through the courts. These are the only two ways to achieve native title rights. But the sovereignty movement says Aboriginal people deserve a lot more than just native title rights.

Greens politican Robin Chapple told Green Left Weekly that he believes the WA government has been happy to engineer a situation in which Aboriginal people are fighting among themselves and that this may even have been Premier Colin Barnett’s goal all along.

The next step for the Nyoongar Tent Embassy will be a rally on April 5 at 11am, starting at the Supreme Court Gardens and marching to Matagarup (Heirisson Island).

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