Aboriginal people driven from their land

February 19, 2015
Locals mark Guringji Freedom Day in on August 26,2011. Photo: Bryan Andy

On February 9, the Grandmothers Against Removals joined a national sit-in protest at Parliament House in Canberra.

This group of Aboriginal women has campaigned tirelessly to raise the issue of what they call the “Stolen Generation of the 21st Century”. Despite the official policy of child removals being over, Aboriginal children are today placed in “out of home” care at record rates.

Even as the February 9 sit-in continued, the Grandmothers were preparing for a big protest on February 13, the anniversary of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008. Rudd’s apology may have been beautifully crafted, but in fact it changed nothing. Rudd himself ruled out compensating those whose lives were destroyed by the policy, and for Aboriginal Australia, life has arguably become harder since 2009.

The refrain “things are going backwards” is sadly heard in many Aboriginal rights struggles, not just the campaign against child removals. At the Freedom Summit in Canberra over January 25 to 27, Aboriginal activists who had travelled from around the country brought with them many pressing concerns, which paint a picture of the many fronts on which Aboriginal Australia continues to be under attack.

It is now eight years since the Howard Coalition government launched its appalling intervention into NT Aboriginal Communities — the NT Emergency Response package. While the intervention may seem like old news, it continues to be raised as an example of the increasing neoliberal offensive against Aboriginal people’s right to their own land, identity, and self-determination.

History certainly did not stop in 2007 when the intervention started. Aspects of the intervention, such as income management and increased police presence, have continued and there have been many more attacks as well, not just in the NT, but across the country.

The intervention and policies banning bilingual education and undermining NT homelands, were really about launching an attack on Aboriginal identity and culture. They were about undermining a way of life that really isn’t compatible with capitalism; a way of life that involved collective property rights and aspirations other than home ownership and careers. It is a way of life that embraces multilingualism, sustainability and quite often strong opposition to the extractive resource industry.

Many of the policies in the NT were seen, in one way or another, as forcing Aboriginal people off their land, whether to free up resource-rich land for the extractive industries or to push remote Aboriginal people into larger, more “viable” service hubs.

Right now in Western Australia, Aboriginal people living in remote communities are facing a similar disastrous social experiment. The Barnett government has foreshadowed the closure of more than 100 remote communities.

This attack has been a long time coming from the WA government: Premier Colin Barnett flagged it four or five years ago, and the first community, Oombulgurri, was closed in 2011, in response to a spate of suicides there. Three years after the community closed, in November last year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that some evicted Oombulgurri residents were still homeless in nearby Kununurra and Wyndham, while others were living with family in ever more crowded houses.

More than 30 activists travelled from Western Australia to Canberra to discuss this urgent struggle that they are facing. One of those was Shaun Harris, the uncle of a young woman from South Hedland who died in prison last year. Harris told New Matilda that the closure of communities, expected to affect around 15,000 people, could have disastrous impacts.

“The crime rate will go up, because there is going to be more homelessness. People are going to have to move onto the streets, going to have to go into crime to pay for food, they won’t be able to pay for their medication, and it will put a strain on the health system.”

Harris was also concerned about the impact the closures would have on imprisonment rates. This spells bad news for another area of struggle facing Aboriginal people, an area in which successive state and territory governments have appalling track records.

Aboriginal people are 15 times more likely to be locked up than non-Aboriginal people — at the time of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, they were eight times more likely. Then, the main cause of death for Aboriginal prisoners was hanging — now, the main cause is illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, reflecting the fact that outside of prison, too, Aboriginal people are doing it tough and carrying a heavy health burden.

The NT intervention has led to an increase in Aboriginal incarceration rates. Given the lack of planning and care taken in the closing of Oombulgurri in WA, Harris is right to be concerned.

These attacks are all connected. Studies have shown that Aboriginal people still connected, or reconnecting to their ancestral country and traditions, through living on their homelands, engaging in Caring for Country work or speaking/reclaiming their language, enjoy better health and quality of life. The 2012 Our Land Our Languages report found that Aboriginal people who speak an Indigenous language are more likely to be employed, attain higher qualifications and are less likely to be charged by police or be a victim of violence.

Driving Aboriginal people off their land will rob them of their areas of wealth and expertise: their connection to, and knowledge of, country, maintenance of their languages, cultures and oral histories.

Aboriginal people living on their homelands are also often at the forefront of struggles to protect country from extractive industries: this is the case around the world. In the NT, Indigenous leaders are focusing on environmental struggles, as the NT government seems intent on digging up and selling some of the most ecologically significant parts of the continent.

Clans at Borroloola and across the Roper region are gearing up for a fight against fracking on their country. And leaders of the Muckaty campaign, with their supporters across the country, had a big win last year when the federal government withdrew plans to store radioactive waste on their country.

The strong grandmothers leading the current fight against Aboriginal child removals need our respect and support, as do the many Aboriginal activists around the country who have taken the baton, rekindled the fires of resistance and kicked off 2015 by taking the fight to Canberra.

While there are many issues being raised by these activists, there are also many ideological threads that join them together. They are struggling for the right to assert and control that which is theirs, and that which white Australia has tried so long to take from them, whether it is their children, their land, their language or their identity.

While Tony Abbott’s “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs” title becomes more of a joke as his inaction continues, Aboriginal people themselves are increasingly taking matters into their own hands and setting the agenda.

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