Reconciliation and the Aboriginal rights movement

January 30, 2001
Placards that reads "Sorry" means you don't do it again
Placards that reads '"Sorry" means you don't do it again'. Photo: supplied.

By Kim Bullimore

In the wake of mass protests against racial discrimination organised by indigenous rights activists during the white ruling elite's 1988 bicentennial celebrations, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke sought to placate Aboriginal activists with the promise of a treaty between the commonwealth government and indigenous Australia by 1990.

However, instead of a treaty that enshrined in law recognition of the rights demanded by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, indigenous rights activists were co-opted into a process of "reconciliation" between black and white Australians that has done nothing to eradicate the vast material disparities between the quality of life of most indigenous people and the majority of the Australian population.

The reconciliation process was never about overcoming these disparities. Instead it was developed to give the white ruling elite and its governments the appearance of recognising the demand for social justice raised by the independent Aboriginal rights movement, while they entrenched the legal subordination of Aborigines' land rights to the profit-making interests of mining companies and pastoral lease-holders.

Rather than introduce real and substantial reforms to eradicate Aboriginal poverty, indigenous Australians have been told that we should be happy with the few concessions we've been given during the reconciliation process, because "reconciliation is a long road and indigenous rights are something which can not be won overnight".

Indigenous Australia has been given symbols and gestures, in an attempt to placate us and make us forget our demands for land rights, a treaty, compensation for dispossession, and positive discrimination in access to meaningful employment, education and health care.

A generation of indigenous rights activists have been co-opted into this game through being transformed into bureaucratic functionaries of government-funded service agencies and well-heeled lobbyists who carry out "high-level" negotiations with government officials. The focus of their activity has shifted from organising grassroots public protest actions to administering the limited funds doled out by the government to "self-managed Aboriginal welfare agencies.

Through the political privileges the reconciliation process has accorded to this tiny minority of indigenous Australians, the white ruling elite has been able to demobilise the independent indigenous rights movement and has set the political agenda for race relations in this country.

The lip-service paid by the white ruling elite to the need to achieve social justice for indigenous Australians through the reconciliation process has significantly increased the numbers of non-indigenous working people who are sympathetic to the cause of indigenous rights.

However, the political conservatisation of high-profile indigenous leaders that this same process has facelifted, has meant an abandonment of any perspective of taking advantage of this situation to build mass public protest actions against the Howard government's attacks on the gains made by the indigenous rights movement in the 1970s and '80s.

The remaining grassroots indigenous activists have been marginalised, demoralised, and are generally bereft of any perspective of co-operating with each other to build united protest actions.

The conservatisation of high-profile Aboriginal leaders has now reached the point where some of them, like Noel Pearson, are providing black voices in support of the traditional racist "explanation for Aboriginal poverty — that it is the poor's own fault, a result of "welfare dependency .

Pearson's call for Aboriginal individual "self-determination" fits in perfectly with the Howard government s economic rationalist rhetoric of individual "self-reliance".

A tiny layer of well-educated indigenous leaders have found lucrative jobs by working within the "white fella s system" with its self-seeking, individualistic values. These middle-class Aborigines have so internalised these values that they have become blind to the racist social relations that systematically block the great majority of indigenous Australians from being able to find a personal road out of poverty. They therefore assume that if the rest of the indigenous population hasn't "made it", the reason must be because they are addicted to government welfare.

In one sense, though, Pearson is right. Addiction to government welfare is what is holding back indigenous Australians. It is dependence upon government welfare — the well-paid jobs created for a minority of Aborigines in government-financed indigenous welfare agencies — that has been the means by which the white ruling elite put an end to the politically self-reliant indigenous right movement of the 1970s and '80s.

As long as the majority of indigenous people look to such activists-turned-bureaucrats and radicals-turned-respectable lobbyists for political leadership, there will be no possibility of rebuilding a strong, independent movement which can fight for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

To build a strong movement which is capable of winning real liberation for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, will require leadership from activists who are politically independent of the white ruling elites governmental structures and parties.

A politically independent movement, which mobilises the biggest possible number of people in mass public protest actions, which encourages participation in these actions by all those who support its demands for concrete measures to achieve social justice, which seeks to build alliances between all sections of the population — black and white — who are victims of the profits-before-people s needs agenda of the corporate ruling class, that's what is needed to really advance the cause of indigenous rights.

Our strength has come when we have remembered this: the land rights movement in the 1970s, the protests during the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, the anti-bicentennial marches in 1988, the campaign against deaths in custody.

For Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the situation is urgent. Our people are dying 20 years younger than other Australians. Our children have a mortality rate three times higher than other Australian children. Our people are suffering and dying from curable diseases in a wealthy country. Our young people are being jailed and dying in custody at increasing rates. Our people have the highest rate of unemployment and the lowest levels of education.

We cannot keep going the way we are currently. We need to change the way we have been doing things. We need to do what works: bring people onto the streets, assert our independence from the institutions of power which oppress us, ally with all those who support the struggle for indigenous rights, whether they be black or white. It is only when we do this that the door to real liberation for our people will be opened.

[Kim Bullimore is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party and is also active in the Indigenous Student Network. Image source.]

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