Sam Watson: ‘We need treaty and sovereignty’

Murri author, playwright, filmmaker and activist Sam Watson.

Sam Watson, a leading Murri activist from Brisbane, has been involved in Aboriginal rights struggles since the 1960s.

He is a prominent author, playwright and filmmaker, and is the Aboriginal affairs spokesperson for Socialist Alliance. A Birri Gubba man, he was previously an academic at the University of Queensland, and received honours for his 1990 novel The Kadaitchi Sung and acclaim for his 1995 film Black Man Down.

Watson spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Jim McIlroy about the issues confronting Aboriginal people.

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What are some of the main issues and challenges facing the Aboriginal rights movement on the 230th anniversary of the white occupation of Australia?

The big issues for 2018 are the crucial, interlinked questions of achieving Treaty and sovereignty. In the lead-up to January 26, Invasion Day, the challenge before us is to mobilise and unite our community around this key task.

We must campaign to achieve a Treaty signed by the Crown, fully recognising our sovereignty over our land. Not one piece of this country has ever been ceded to a white colonial power, and never will be in the future.

The Aboriginal Embassy in Canberra is still the focal point of our national struggle, but the Aboriginal nations have been sold out by hand-picked Black bureaucrats.

Through Invasion Day this year, we must also honour our genuine Aboriginal leaders now passed on. There were a number of deaths last year and the community is still going through Sorry Business following their passing.

These include the great leader and activist Dennis Walker, who played a key role in the 1960s and 1970s, and later was heavily involved in the Treaty movement; the prominent story-telling leader Les Bostock; and Sol Bellear, the highly respected co-founder of the Sydney Aboriginal Legal and Medical Services.

What are the current campaigns against Black deaths in custody, which is an issue you have personally been deeply involved in?

There are currently strong campaigns around Black deaths in custody all around Australia. In Queensland, we are especially supporting our Palm Island community, particularly the community's class action suit against the Queensland government [over issues arising from the murder in custody of Cameron Doomadgee in 2004].

Across the nation, there are a number of campaigns in progress, notably the investigation into the death of Ms Dhu in Western Australia, and also in the Northern Territory and NSW.

Aboriginal communities are closely monitoring police activities in all states and providing support for the families of those who have died at the hands of police or corrective services staff.

What is your view of the findings of the recent Royal Commission into youth incarceration in the NT?

We have looked at the preliminary findings of the Royal Commission, which are still to be implemented. Overall, the criminal justice system has failed to engage sufficiently with young Aboriginal people who fall outside “normal” society.

We need much stronger action to support and engage with youth who are falling through the cracks of the system. This problem has been highlighted by the recent controversy over alleged "African youth gangs" in Melbourne.

The racist criminal justice system across Australia has enormous difficulty dealing with these issues. Behind many of these problems lies the high rate of poverty in communities, the massive unemployment and lack of decent housing.

For many Aboriginal communities, the education system is sub-standard, and children have to go away to the cities to go to school. The medical crisis in many remote communities is appalling.All these pressures impact tremendously on Aboriginal people, and youth in particular. On Palm Island, for example, young people are left without proper government support.

Following the police murder of Cameron Doomadgee, the Queensland government's only response was to build a new Police Boys Club!

Our young people and families need support, and reconnection to country and culture. We need stronger and better-funded Aboriginal councils and the reassertion of appropriate authority for tribal elders and family groups.

These networks must also take full account of the serious issue of violence against women.

How do you assess the new Stolen Generations, with increasing numbers of Aboriginal children again being taken away from their families?

Record numbers of Aboriginal children are now being removed by authorities into out-of-home care. We are facing a new era of forced removals, despite the findings of the Royal Commission into the Stolen Generations.

The white powers-that-be increasingly see home care outside Aboriginal communities as the only solution to social problems. Aboriginal mothers are being unfairly judged by the system.

The quality of care and support should be culturally assessed. The authorities bring the stormtroopers in to remove Aboriginal children, without adequate support being provided.

What is your opinion of the impact of the Northern Territory Intervention into Aboriginal communities, after more than 10 years in operation?

The NT Intervention dates back to the dying days of the [John] Howard [Coalition] government. It was introduced to try to (unsuccessfully) steal back the political momentum from the Kevin Rudd-led Labor opposition at the time.

The NT Intervention was based on bogus grounds. Only one prosecution was ever launched over alleged child abuse in NT Aboriginal communities.

This fundamental fraud was compounded by successive governments, both Coalition and Labor. The NT Intervention has cost Australian taxpayers a fortune and delivered zero positive results for Aboriginal communities.

What is your comment on the debate about a proposed referendum on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal people?

Large numbers of Aboriginal people refuse to get involved in this supposed debate.

Aboriginal people never ceded our sovereignty to the British Crown. There was no cession of sovereignty to James Cook or the First Fleet in January 1788. And no sovereignty was ceded at the time of Australian Federation in 1901 either.

We stand basically on that foundation. Why should Aboriginal people now consent to the addition of a paragraph to a foreign-based Constitution?

How do you view the role of Aboriginal representative and advisory bodies?

ATSIC [the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission] was in place from 1991 to 2004 and abolished by the Howard government. Despite its problems, ATSIC was based on a series of regional councils, with significant involvement by local people.

It was able to work with some legitimate mandate, in the circumstances. From 2004 till now, government advisory representatives have absolutely no authority from Aboriginal people.

What about the ongoing question of Aboriginal land rights, especially in the face of threats from the Adani coalmine and unconventional gas mining?

Aboriginal people are deeply concerned about the role of multinational corporations, which are seizing our land and water and destroying it. In WA, we face uranium mining; in the NT, a nuclear waste dump; and in Queensland, they want to turn our state into one big coalmine.

The fight for Aboriginal land rights is still critical for us. Our people will fight to defend our homelands from mining and other threats.

Finally, what are your overall conclusions on the struggles facing the Aboriginal movement in 2018?

The Aboriginal rights movement is at a crossroads right now. From the 1990s to the present, we experienced a process of transition from the streets to the boardrooms.

But now, the younger people are becoming impatient again. Devolution of the Black political movement is going on.

Aboriginal people are moving back onto the streets to confront white power once more. The [Malcolm] Turnbull government is providing nothing for our people, while [Labor Opposition Leader Bill] Shorten is not offering real alternatives.

There is a political vacuum in Indigenous affairs. Aboriginal people face major problems right now, and we are demanding strong action — immediately.

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