Thousands protest NT intervention on 'sovereignty day'

February 16, 2008

On February 12, almost 2000 people gathered in the rain at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, before marching, in the sunshine, to Parliament House to demand an end to the federal government's racist "intervention" in the Northern Territory.

The protest, organised by the Sydney-based Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC) and Aboriginal communities from all over Australia, was the focus of a week of actions and meetings in Canberra, as Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous activists gathered to send a message to the new Labor federal government that saying sorry was just the first step.

On February 10, the new National Aboriginal Alliance (NAA) held its second meeting. The alliance was formed last year in response to the Howard government's NT "intervention".

Sol Bellear was chosen as president and Pat Eatock secretary. The alliance intends to meet four times a year, and aims to build a new national organisation for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

On February 11, more than 200 people attended workshops on the implications of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and heard first-hand reports from communities in the NT affected by the ongoing intervention.

However, the main focus of the convergence on Canberra was the protest in opposition to the intervention on February 12. The march from the Tent Embassy to the lawns of the new Parliament House was led by the Chooky Dancers from Elcho Island, famous for their YouTube hit version of "Zorba the Greek".

A sea of banners, placards and flags summed up the demands: immediate review of the intervention, restoration of the Racial Discrimination Act, implementation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and for governments to genuinely consult with aboriginal communities and to accept Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs.

Speakers from around the country, including from the NT, outlined the litany of injustices that Aboriginal Australia still suffers. From areas affected by the intervention, dozens of speakers, including Walter and Barbara Shaw from the Mt Nancy town camp in Alice Springs, exposed the racist and counterproductive nature of the intervention. They noted the lack of any mention of children in the legislation allowing the intervention, and rejected the punitive and offensively paternalistic measures that have been introduced.

They outlined the social problems resulting from the scrapping of Community Development and Employment Programs (CDEP), and how fear of new white business managers controlling their communities prevented two more buses from the NT from attending the protest.

Most worrying are the effects of welfare quarantining — still being implemented in new areas across the NT — and which are creating potentially explosive situations.

Quarantining prevents people from using half of their welfare money other than with "store cards" for specific stores such as Target or Woolworths. However, as Barbara Shaw explained, food vouchers seldom arrive on time and many people must travel up to 700 kilometres — funding their own travel — to find the stores to use them and then end up destitute and with little food.

Eatock from the ARC pointed out, "It's an apartheid system. We all know what apartheid is, and that's what's happening to people living in the Northern Territory."

As Bellear put it: "Well may we say 'God save the Queen', because nothing will save this parliament if they don't pull out of the Northern Territory". Bellear described welfare quarantining as being "like the stolen wages all over again", adding: "We want an immediate pull-out."

A minute's silence was observed for the Stolen Generations.

New Zealand Maori Party MP Hone Harawira addressed the rally saying, "I'm here because a success for indigenous rights anywhere is a success for indigenous rights everywhere".

Australian Greens Senators Bob Brown and Rachel Siewert, and Democrat Andrew Bartlett also spoke but the day belonged to the newly invigorated Aboriginal Australians.

Les Malezer, chairperson of the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action, and organiser of the second meeting of the NAA, told Green Left Weekly that the convergence on Canberra "is a voice for Aboriginal people on the Northern Territory intervention and on the lack of remedies from the Labor government so far".

"We have a message for the new parliament. We want to be treated as people with rights, not with contempt, as the Howard government treated us. We want to be treated as people with the right to self-determination, speaking with our own voice."

"The biggest concern is that we are not going to get anywhere unless the government fully engages with Aboriginal people", he concluded.

Many reacted to the Rudd government's apology for the Stolen Generations by arguing that if February 13 is to be remembered by future generations as "Sorry Day", then February 12 should be remembered as "Sovereignty Day" — the day when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people began to take back the initiative from a system that has excluded and oppressed them for so long.

[Duroyan Fertl is an activist in the ARC.]

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