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Costs and benefits of protest camp


Depending on who you talk to, Black GST has either successfully thrust the issue of indigenous rights back onto the political agenda – just in time for this month's Reconciliation Week – or has inadvertently undone many years of hard work.

Camp Sovereignty was set up in Melbourne's Kings Domain by members of Black GST (Genocide to end, Sovereignty to be acknowledged, Treaty to be made) as a protest against the Commonwealth Games. After almost two months, its fire was finally extinguished by authorities in the early hours of last Thursday morning.

Camp organisers dubbed it the ‘StolenWealth Games’, and the protest dominated the mainstream media for several weeks as the Melbourne City Council and even the State Government attempted to remove them from the camp. John Howard criticized the protesters in the national press. Despite its currency with the newspapers, the question of how effective this protest has been cannot be avoided.

Reconciliation Australia, an independent organisation dedicated to building respectful relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, has commented diplomatically that this protest was an exercise in democratic liberties. Other protest groups have congratulated the organisers of the camp on their success, and on their levels of exposure.

But respected elders of the Wurundjeri tribe – the traditional owners of most of the land that encompasses Melbourne – have denounced the protest as disrespectful and disingenuous. They argue that the action was taken without consideration of their rights as elders of the land, and that their requests for a ‘culturally appropriate’ action were ignored.

Camp Sovereignty is the first campaign for Black GST - and ending the genocide of the indigenous population is just one of their goals. The definition of genocide employed by some of these groups is admittedly somewhat more all-encompassing than is usually defined.

As State Convenor of Socialist Alliance Jody Betzien contends, ‘There’s been a destruction of culture, of community. You’ve got indigenous people dying twenty years earlier than non-indigenous people.’

The CEO of Reconciliation Australia, Barbara Livesey, is of similar opinion. ‘Our vision is of a country where everyone enjoys equal life chances, and that hasn’t happened yet. A goal for our organisation is to close the gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.’

Yet protests are a process, she says – not an end in itself. ‘Protests serve a valuable purpose, and we have good relationships with a diverse range of organisations. But the purpose of Reconciliation Australia, when it was set up, was to work with all stakeholders involved in the process of reconciliation.

Despite the mostly supportive reactions from other social justice groups, elders of the Wurundjeri tribe are frustrated that their land is being used in a ‘culturally inappropriate’ protest, and are angry at what they see as an abuse of the cultural heritage laws that have been used to keep Camp’s ‘sacred fire’ burning. Sovereignty

Elder Ian Hunter told The Australian that the camp was a ‘bloody disgrace’, and had actually damaged the Aboriginal people’s cause. ‘It’s a load of crap,’ he said. ‘The smoking ceremonies they are conducting are offensive. As far as traditional Wurundjeri people are concerned we want them out of there.’

Professor Joy Murphy Wandin, a respected Wurundjeri elder, was equally outspoken. ‘I had two conversations with the organizers [of Black GST], and I made it clear that I wanted them to go about it in the right way,’ she says. ‘I asked them to have respect for the traditional owners of the land, but they then did none of their planning in conjunction with us.'

Not only was Professor Murphy Wandin disappointed in the manner of the group’s protest, she argues they did not have any tangible outcomes in mind, ‘There doesn’t appear to be anything written down, no statements with clear targets in mind,’ she says. ‘The only way to get policy through is to have it on paper… they didn’t do that.

Professor Murphy Wandin dismisses suggestions that the protest was effective. ‘I don’t believe that’s true for one minute – it may be that there were people coming together in recognition of a goal, but they went about it entirely the wrong way,’ she says.

Barbara Livesey believes that despite these controversial protests, Australia is developing a better idea of what reconciliation means, and how it works. ‘The environment now is infinitely different to what it was five years ago,’ she says.

‘Then, we were having bridge walks – and now we have reconciliation occurring all over the country, in schools, workplaces, in communities.’

The tenth anniversary of Reconciliation week falls at the end this month, and with the issue of Indigenous rights back in the public sphere, it remains to be seen whether Black GST’s protest can produce a change in policy or government attitude.

Marisa Pintado is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.



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Existing comments

Good article. Well-written and it addresses some really important issues.


Daniel | 16 May 2006  

That Robbie Thorpe is a silly man - surely, if he is so "culturally aware" and worried about the injustices against the aboriginals of this country, it would make sense to protest in a way that was in harmony with values and ideals of his "society" - isn't it contradictory to protest against us new arrivals, AND what we have brought, but to then use "our" methods of protest, and to ignore (respected) elders

andrew | 23 May 2006  

I fully agree with the Wujunderies,who have the final say on the land. The others were a loose cannon, which did not really attract much sympathy from the general population

Theo Dopheide | 23 May 2006  

I just got around to reading this article and found it very informative and reflective. Clearly, we still have a tricky road to manage ahead of us before we will feel comfortable enough in our own identity as an Australian people to forgive our past, honour our present and respect our future enough to be able to eventually say "sorry" to each other sincerely in the true spirit of reconciliation. Thank you for highlighting the underlying issues that one isolated protest, effectively or ineffectively, brought to the fore even if for a very brief moment.

Felix | 26 July 2006  

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