Terry O'Shane: "We won't support a war!"


Terry O'Shane,
chairperson of the Cairns Regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Commission (ATSIC), spoke at the February 16 Cairns Peace Picnic. SUSAN
AUSTIN interviewed him for Green Left Weekly.

You are one of the many Indigenous leaders to speak out against a
war on Iraq. What motivated you to do so?

We speak out against any war. Anyone who really thinks about it, and
does an analysis of the situation, will find that there is no reason for
this war. All the reasons given by US President George Bush, British Prime
Minister Tony Blair and PM John Howard are absolute nonsense. It's all
about economics. The munitions manufacturers will make enormous amounts
of money on the backs of people's death and misery. It's not enough to
say we're against the war in private, we need to say these things in public.

Is there a strong anti-war sentiment amongst Indigenous people?

Indigenous people in Australia, and throughout the world, are peace
loving peoples. In the harsh Australian conditions, living in harmony with
nature and other peoples, other tribes, was a necessity. Aboriginal people
have developed high levels of scientific knowledge of the flora, fauna
and weather patterns. We understand the need for peace. When the energies
of a nation are directed towards war, it stifles the development of younger
generations. It stifles the cultural, economic and social development of
our children. It limits what humanity can achieve.

Do you think racism and cultural intolerance are being used to try
and win popular support for this war?

Definitely. That's why we have cottoned on to it. Any time you have
a war, you develop names for the people you're fighting against. Names
were introduced, like gooks, for the Vietnamese or Viet Cong during the
war on Vietnam, to try and dehumanise them, so that it's easier for the
government and the military to justify killing them.

That's similar to what's gone on in Australia, where Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people have been fighting our own war for more than
200 years. Niggers, coons, boongs ... many names have been used to try
and dehumanise us. Throughout our history, we've faced shootings, poisoning
of our waterholes and all sorts of things. We weren't afforded any human
dignity until 1967, when the referendum led to us being recognised as human
beings. We understand the process of dehumanisation better than anyone.

The media is trying to develop mass hysteria to support the war drive.
It fosters a closed mind to the devastation that war will bring to the
Iraqi people. We should recognise that we're part of the global community.
We need to welcome the diversity of cultures. In doing that we develop
our compassion, our understanding, our humanity. We can't afford to live
with closed minds.

Do you think that there is a sense of solidarity among Indigenous
people with other invaded and oppressed groups around the world?

I believe that Indigenous people have a natural solidarity with any
peoples who are oppressed. As well as that, most Australians show support
for the underdog. They know that it will be the ordinary Iraqis who will
be affected by this war.

Why is it important that Indigenous people get involved in this campaign?

Indigenous people need resources to counteract our tragic health standards.
We need resources to improve our education programs, employment opportunities
and to support business developments for our mob. These resources will
now go into the war drive. From our understanding of nature, we know about
balance. We know that an increase in military spending will mean a decrease
in spending on the things that Australian people really need. Capitalism
creates the need for welfare, but in the next few years we can expect that
single mothers, the unemployed — everyone on welfare — will find it very

You spent many years in the Maritime Union of Australia, and you’ve
mentioned that the MUA always promoted the slogan “Peace is Union Business”.
What role do you think unions can play in the anti-war campaign?

There's been a terrible shift in Australia, as the government leads
a very careful campaign against the workers and the unions. [The government
has] gone to the media claiming that workers have got too much power.

Well, we are the people of this country. We have the right to get together
and challenge the big corporations and the CEOs who make all the profits,
but won't give workers a decent pay rise. The only leverage [workers] have
got is to withdraw their labour. Unions, collectives of workers, have an
important role to play in promoting peace.

Workers in Iraq will suffer when the bombs are dropped: workers on the
docks, in the oil refineries, in the hospitals. Workers everywhere will
suffer, as the money will be sucked into the war effort.

We want the elected representatives of our country to hear our voice.
We have to maintain the rage, keep up the presence on the streets, write
those letters, sign those petitions, wear those T-shirts. We have to show
that, while we're not supporting Saddam Hussein, we won't support a war.

From Green Left Weekly, March 12, 2003.

Visit the Green Left Weekly
home page.