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The roots of Aboriginal activism

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Brian McCoy |  06 June 2008

Maynard, John. Fight for Liberty and Freedom: The Origins of Australian Aboriginal Activism. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2007. ISBN: 9780855755508

Altman, Jon and Hinkson, Melinda (eds). Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia. Arena Publications Association, North Carlton, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-9804158-0-3

Fight for Liberty and Freedom There are times in a nation's history when events combine to place particular moments in its collective memory. The Prime Minister's apology to the Stolen Generations on 13 February this year is likely to be one. Its timing, planning and execution moved the hearts of many Australians. For similar reasons, the Federal Government's intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities in 2007 is likely to be another.

Such events, and the people who shape them, can open up transforming moments in a community's sense of self. They become occasions to be held and remembered, re-told from one generation to the next. At the same time, they also serve to caution us.

Some significant events and the people who have shaped them can too easily be forgotten. The story of Fred Maynard is one.

Maynard was born in 1879, as the second century of Australia's colonisation was just beginning. That he was instrumental in establishing the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) is not something deeply etched into our history or memory of Aboriginal protest.

In Fight for Liberty and Freedom, his grandson, John Maynard, describes what is was like to be Aboriginal one hundred years ago. He offers us the story of someone who fought to proclaim the voice and protect the rights of his fellow Aboriginal people.

The AAPA sought to make and strengthen links with American Black activists, such as Marcus Garvey and the boxer Jack Johnson, who came to Australia to fight on more than one occasion.

One of his most memorable fights was against Canadian world heavyweight champion, Tommy Burns, in 1908 — an event Maynard describes as 'the biggest sporting event with an international focus staged in Australia during the twentieth century', next to the 1956 Olympic Games. Some 20,000 people gathered inside the stadium, and 40,000 were locked outside. They watched Johnson clearly and emphatically win. But this was no Cathy Freeman uniting a country — the colour of race was far too evident and politically divisive in the nation at that time.

Maynard was strongly supported by a non-Aboriginal woman, Elizabeth McKenzie Hatton, a remarkable woman, missionary and social worker. Her son died soon after returning wounded from France during the First World War. Her sensitivity for those who had lost sons at war gradually shifted to a concern for Aboriginal children and their often forced removal from their families.

Her alliance with Maynard and the AAPA offers a timely reminder that many of the struggles they faced regarding the protection of Indigenous rights and the care of children in the early 20th century continue into the early 21st.

Coercive ReconciliationCoercive Reconciliation, and its 34 contributors, roughly half of whom are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, contribute to our awareness of these ongoing struggles. The authors take us back to the 2007 Federal Intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Human rights, particularly those of the young and most vulnerable within Indigenous communities, remain to be fully addressed.

As the chapters in this book express a wide range of commentary, we come to realise that the Government interventions have been multi-layered and complex. They can be deeply deceptive and divisive. Whatever the need for the rapid interventions, these authors reply with their own, often passionate, responses and critiques.

What Fred Maynard and Elizabeth McKenzie Hatton attempted nearly 100 years ago we see repeated by the authors of Coercive Reconciliation. Indigenous and non-indigenous people come together to articulate how the recognition of people's human rights can best address those human needs that racism, dispossession and poverty have exposed over decades.

It is worth noting that at the 2020 Summit in Canberra delegates to the Indigenous Australia Forum shifted between these two poles of concern: rights and needs. Despite efforts made by some in the media to suggest one direction was more compelling or more deserving than the other, both are needed.

What Coercive Reconciliation reminds us is that collaborative and cooperative work between Indigenous and non-indigenous people continues to be important. Such a partnership seeks to build a better future for the young but one that also addresses human needs and rights.

June 2007, 13 February 2008 and the April 2020 Summit are likely to remain within our collective Australian memory for a long time. It is even possible that the Federal Government will reverse the previous Government's refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That would be something to please Fred Maynard and Elizabeth McKenzie Hatton.


Brian McCoyDr Brian F. McCoy SJ is NHMRC Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University.

 



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The story of Fred Maynard shows the dangers of limiting engagement to "tolerance".
My understanding of early 20th century Australian history is that Indigenous Australians were, at best, tolerated. When Fred and his fellows demonstrated the fundamental rightness of their cause, demanding a full engagement with Indigenous Australians and a proper accounting of post-1788 history, Australia had an opportunity to be a truly enlightened nation.
Instead, the opportunity was squandered. Instead of engagement, a policy of bureaucratic genocide, namely the removal of children to State Institutions, was devised.
I understand that fear of going “over the top” drove many soldiers on the Somme to shoot themselves in the foot. What fear was it that caused post-WW1 Australia to inflict comparable damage to its collective self? Had this nation not held to that fear,we could tell our children our nation's story with genuine pride. Australia would have had no Original Sin.

David Arthur 07 June 2008

I find two questions of particular interest here in the review of the book 'Coercive Reconciliation'.
One,at the 2020 Summit in Canberra delegates to the Indigenous Australia Forum apparently concentrated on both "rights and needs". Did nobody consider responsibilities?
Two, in the consideration of the recent Federal Government intervention in aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory has anyone addressed the question as to why intervention had in fact become necessary? Is someone prepared to fix the system and not just address the symptoms of its appalling breakdown?

John R. Sabine 07 June 2008

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