Olympics: 'the world will be watching'
BY ARUN PRADHAN
MELBOURNE — All those who want to see justice for Aboriginal people should raise their voices and protest during the Olympic Games in Sydney in September, veteran Aboriginal activist Gary Foley told a meeting here in April organised by Students for Land Rights and Justice.
"From the 1960s until today, Australia has had a national inferiority complex, a weakness in its fear of international embarrassment", he said.
Foley spoke of the many decades of Aboriginal protest and of how they were influenced by, and influenced, international movements and developments. The late 1960s, in particular, was a time when the Australian establishment feared the likely impact that the growth of a radical wing in the United States civil rights movement would have here.
Young indigenous activists at the time took inspiration from both local battles, such as the Gurindji struggle which began in 1963, and international ones, such as those by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese liberation forces.
Young blacks began to find their voice and adopted the slogans and ideas of the US movement, although Foley adds that the slogan of "black power" in Australia was more about the peaceful struggle for self-determination than the media hype of the day recognised.
The Tent Embassy
On January 26, 1972, in response to growing support for legal recognition of Aborigines' rights to their land, then Prime Minister William McMahon declared that his government would not grant Aboriginal people land rights but would instead offer 25-year leases.
In response, Foley recalls, Aboriginal activists, activating networks in Redfern, Fitzroy, Brisbane and around the country, established an Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Parliament House in Canberra. A statement that Aboriginal people were not citizens in their own country, the embassy was to become the physical and symbolic centre for the land rights movement.
Initially the "ambassadors" only expected to remain at the site overnight. But the protest gained broad attention and support, including from local residents and the ANU Student Union. Tourist buses soon included the site as part of their tour and, when someone planted a letterbox outside the embassy, even their mail began to get delivered.
"The only reason that the demonstrators survived the freezing Canberra winter of 1972 was because of the support of a broad range of people", Foley said.
By July, McMahon had passed laws to ban camping on the lawns and, within 24 hours, ACT police had violently broken up the protest. International coverage of the event became a major political embarrassment for the government. (The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was re-established in 1992 and is still in place.)
The second major protest event that drew international attention to the struggle of Aborigines was to come a decade later. Under the slogan "the whole world is watching", protesters at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane faced fierce repression at the hand of then-premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen's police but still managed to win widespread public sympathy.
"The organisers of the games should have been pleased", Foley said, "we put their games on the map. No one would have heard about them except for us!"
Despite its success in gaining support, the land rights movement faced a powerful counter-offensive, spearheaded by the Australian Mining Industry Council. Saturation media coverage of the AMC's claims led to a decrease in public support for land rights and a new fear of Aboriginal demands. "Goebbels would have been proud of the advertising propaganda campaign mounted by the companies", Foley said.
Bob Hawke's Labor federal government, elected in 1983, bowed to mining company demands and backed away from previous land rights commitments. Foley still gets angry when he recalls Labor's betrayal.
"If a government ever had an opportunity to right the wrongs, it was that of Hawke and [Paul] Keating", Foley said. "Instead, those class traitors chose to run with their rich business mates — they will be condemned by history."
Australia's 1988 Bicentennial "celebrations" showed how far the government had removed itself from Aboriginal causes. But while the official celebrations were lavish and hollow, the demonstration in Sydney on January 26, 1988 still rates as the largest demonstration by Aborigines and their supporters in Australian history; it put the spotlight on the history of shame like few things ever have.
Foley believes that Australia is more open to international exposure, embarrassment and pressure than ever before. "Since the fall of apartheid in South Africa, Australia is one of the last bastions of extreme racism", Foley said. "Australia is a sitting duck for protests".
The Olympic Games will be an obvious target for such protests. "We don't have to be violent, or burn anything", Foley said, responding to statements by Charles Perkins which seemingly advocated just that. "Howard is ensuring that the world is watching."
During all the boring gaps in the games the international media will be hanging around the stadium's car parks, "And guess who else will be out there?", Foley asked with a grin.