Activism's dying embers

Hobart Mercury - Saturday, October 18, 2003

Author: Michael Mansell

THERE was a time when Gary Foley 's call to hit the streets ran a chill down your back. When Paul Coe told us we were a sovereign people, not a minority, we all believed him.

Darrel West's megaphoned calls of ``What do we want?'' once echoed through Hobart streets -- as did our response ``Land rights!'' -- and when Marcia Langton addressed a rally against the backdrop of colourful Aboriginal flags of protest, her denouncement of racism against Aboriginal people stirred us to rage.

Now the streets are silent. The rage seems to have subsided.

There is still plenty to be outraged about. Prime Minister John Howard came to power opposed to the idea of Aboriginal native title and attracted many Hanson voters with his ``bucketloads of extinguishment''. Howard refused to apologise to the stolen generations, was cool to reconciliation and substituted Aboriginal rights with a welfare program.

Foley and Co would once have screamed Howard down and rallied the Aboriginal nation. Instead, the Cape York leadership grovels by asking Howard to stay on. What went wrong?

It seems to have begun in the late 1980s. Aboriginal demands were not solely for land and self-determination. Greater access to education and ``Aboriginalising'' the public service also were part of the black movement's plank. Those who once marched, because they had everything to gain and nothing to lose, suddenly were constrained by the study demands placed on them or feared loss of jobs. The Aboriginal protest movement lost many from its ranks.

The political base remained, though, among the hundreds of Aboriginal legal and health services, land councils and other community organisations. These loose-knit localised bodies fed into national grassroots structures such as National Aboriginal Child Care, the Federation of Land Councils and National Aboriginal Legal Services. The local political base became national and, gradually, international, with Shorty O'Neill, Paul Coe and Burnum Burnum informing the world of the Aboriginal plight.

What for Aborigines was self-determination was for the federal governments an uncontrollable political movement.

ATSIC was installed. Sold to Aborigines on the grounds it represented a new, fully-funded and independent national Aboriginal and Islander body, the then Labor federal government committed to listen to the voice of ATSIC. In one fell swoop, the feds undermined the community structures, de-politicised Aboriginal affairs and gained their own advisory body.

ATSIC became administrative, not political. Coping with its monopoly over the funding of Aboriginal needs and soaking up the status of sole adviser to powerful federal governments was more than it could handle.

It was also starved of the talent that existed in Aboriginal community organisations, many of whom chose to stay on, rather than enter ATSIC -- for to have done so would have jeopardised the survival of crucial local organisations.

By the time Mabo came along the writing was on the wall: the national community groups had disappeared and ATSIC, totally engrossed in administration, had no idea what to do. It took a national meeting at Eva Valley in 1993 to organise a political group to represent Aborigines; ATSIC was reluctantly admitted to that group later.

When John Howard brought the conservative agenda to prominence in 1996, Aboriginal affairs was targeted by the Coalition for open hostility.

Reconciliation chairman Pat Dodson was moved on, as was his brother Mick from the Social Justice Commission. Lois O'Donohue was replaced as ATSIC head and Noel Pearson found the doors to the offices of Coalition ministers firmly closed. It was the clean-out of perceived ALP cronies -- and the message was firmly picked up by a nervous ATSIC which, to save its own neck, began sacrificing Aboriginal organisations. The body set up to represent Aborigines joined the ranks of the enemy. Through former minister Wilson Tuckey, the greatest symbol of Aboriginal resistance and a stark reminder to Australian governments of the ugly side to years of neglect, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, is again under threat. ATSIC's response was to grant funds to a Brisbane conglomerate to conduct a ``review'' of the tent embassy.

It's true more jobs, better education, inroads into poor housing and, at long last, a reduction in the number of deaths in custody are real advances. Yet the needs of a distinct people are more than that.

WHILE Aborigines can say we have advanced socially, the same cannot be said of our political or economic development. Australia was formed as a white country and remains so both in name and reality.

Improved access to education has not produced a single activist! Where once the streets produced community-wise blacks, now universities spit out ``programmed'' Aborigines; where once access to education meant better representation of Aboriginal needs, it now means personal advantage.

The Aboriginal movement is run by technicians in black suits. They are proudly not ``activists''. Where once funding was ``compensation'', it is now readily taken as ``public'' moneys. Popularity has replaced political direction. Aboriginal rights give way to comments designed to impress middle Australia.

The Aboriginal protest movement has been captured, harnessed and driven wherever the whims of public opinion take it. Having lost all sense of political independence, our black intellectuals resort to blaming the free dole as the source of our woes. The effects of dispossession become magnified the more we neglect it.

Resistance! Making a stand! Empowering Aborigines! These are forgotten goals, replaced by acceptance of the right of whites to govern and Aborigines to be governed. We have to rely on Cathy Freeman, proudly holding her people's flag aloft against all protocols, to symbolise our rejection of having to be jacky-jacky Australians. The single, most dynamic young Aboriginal leader, Murandoo Yanner, has been sidelined by white law.

Poor old ATSIC. When the minister split ATSIC's functions in two there was nary a whimper from the highly paid commissioners. During Philip Ruddock's night of the short knives, when ATSIC's leaders were removed, ATSIC remained silent. Not a protest, not a sign of resistance.

What a turn-around. If Dr Charles Perkins' freedom rides of the 1960s were to be repeated today, it's more likely to be Aboriginal bureaucrats complaining than the rednecks of rural NSW. Today the black bureaucrats smugly hide behind the rules and regulations as a defence for their lack of results, wheras Dr Perkins refused to kowtow, even when threatened with the sack. What a difference.

Progress or capitulation?. Indigenous TV shies away from politics. ATSIC subsidised the multi-million dollar AFL to display Aboriginal culture at its games. Aboriginal leaders want us to be good Australians. The better we imitate white people, the more successful we are seen to be.

Once, the Australian flag was seen by the Aboriginal protest movement as representing white domination. Now ATSIC proudly displays it beside the indigenous flags in all its offices.

Once, the Aboriginal flag represented the black struggle. Recognition of the Aboriginal flag under the Flags Act did more than give it status: it symbolised how far the goals had been changed -- the Aboriginal movement just wants to be acceptable.

Edition: 1
Section: Weekend
Page: 075