A struggle of heroism and valour

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A struggle of heroism and valour

They Spoke Out Pretty Good
By Elaine Darling
Janoan Media Exchange, 281pp
Send $26 to Elaine Darling
4 Warattah Court, Wurtulla Qld 4575

Review by Bob Brown

The title of Elaine Darling's book was taken from May McBride's description of the role of women in the Aboriginal movement in Queensland: "They had plenty to say, the women, I know that. Some of the men might have been a bit lax in the attitudes. [But] the women — they spoke out pretty good!"

While I was a member of the parliamentary Aboriginal and Torres Islander Affairs Committee, I often heard them "speak out pretty good": proud, dignified, articulate Aboriginal women who were determined to achieve equality, recognition, rights and opportunities for their dispossessed race and especially their children. As witnesses to the committee, their determination and courage were always inspiring.

For 13 years, Darling was a member of the Australian parliament after she had won a non-Labor seat in Queensland in 1980. She was the first woman member of the House of Representatives from Queensland and has a proud record of speaking out on human rights issues. She voluntarily retired in 1993.

In They Spoke Out Pretty Good, Darling has traced the development of the events, motives and relationships, and analysed the personalities, forces and organisations involved in the struggle for indigenous rights in Queensland between 1958 and 1962.

In the front-piece of the book, her study is well described as an "exposé of race and gender politics". However, it is also an exposé of the tactics and motives of agencies such as the Queensland Special Branch of the state police during that period of overt McCarthyism, marked by efforts to infiltrate, take over and destroy organisations with agent provocateurs and spies.

It is also an outstanding portrayal of the leadership of a group of mainly Murri women who, in an era of racism, intimidation, repression and government-inspired conspiracies, pursued their own agenda for black rights.

The entrenched racism — at best paternalistic, at worst repressive and vicious — was formalised in the incredibly misnamed Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Acts 1939-1946.

These acts provided the legal basis for the separation, dispossession, deprivation and devastation of Queensland Murries. They also provided the framework within which the exploitation of Aboriginal people was entrenched and perpetuated by the poor education standards on reserves and in church missions and settlements. Murri girls were trained for domestic work and the boys for manual and rural work.

In her foreword, Jackie Huggins, deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Unit, University of Queensland, says of the women central to the study: "They were the true and early pioneers of reconciliation who fought alongside each other long before race relations was ever on the agenda". Huggins knew the women personally. Her mother, the late Rita Huggins, was one of those courageous Murri women who were inspired to pursue the empowerment and personal dignity they saw flow from their radical involvement in the struggle for black rights.

Well-meaning conservatives, as well as radical activists, were involved in the struggle but that did not prevent those who sought to preserve their own privileged positions of authority, their own brand of race relations and their monopoly over policy formation from misrepresenting the black rights movement and its participants.

There was also the usual right-wing, McCarthyist paranoia within the government, the bureaucracy, political parties and churches which guaranteed continued misrepresentation and intimidation.

Even the conservative Liberal politician, the late Neville Bonner, conceded to Darling in 1995 that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the young Aboriginal activists entering the Aboriginal rights movement were classified as "radicals and Commos ... because they dared to speak up against authority". The late Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) remembered how Brisbane students who supported Aboriginal rights "were called niggers — and they copped it".

The story told in They Spoke Out Pretty Good is one of struggle, heroism and valour. It is one of inspiring success because that struggle also contributed towards the campaign leading to a referendum in which almost 90% of Queensland voters supported the removal of discriminatory provisions from the constitution. There is no doubt that the pioneers and participants in that struggle were strengthened, empowered and ennobled by it.

In her "Author's Note", Darling refers to the women who, in that era of racial repression, were capable of "vaulting barriers of sexism and racism to speak out in resistance". She says it is her hope that "their story will add to the store of knowledge which is essential if the white community are to fully appreciate just why we should say 'I'm sorry'".

Her study certainly contributes to that and should assist towards the achievement of a genuine reconciliation.

Elaine Darling has drawn from diverse original sources including the oral commentaries of participants in that great and noble struggle.

[Bob Brown is a former federal Labor MP. He was minister for land transport in the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating Labor governments.]