In honour of Indigenous agitators


John Williamson, opening of the Museum of Australian Democracy in CanberraSaturday 9 May was a magnificent autumn day in Canberra. I stood outside the old Parliament House, just in front of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Bob Hawke stood up on those historic white steps, as had David Smith when he read the proclamation dismissing the Whitlam Government at the behest of Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975.

This time the crowd was benign, delighted to hear Hawke, the only person to have been Prime Minister in the old and new Parliament Houses, open the Museum of Australian Democracy — with his distinctive larrikin touch and a call for an Australian republic to take effect at the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign.

John Williamson sang, espousing 'Waltzing Matilda' as the true national anthem against the backdrop of his preferred Australian flag featuring the kangaroo and the Southern Cross.

The day was reminiscent of 9 May 1988, when Queen Elizabeth, further up the hill, opened the new Parliament House. The big difference was the place of Aboriginal Australia in the proceedings.

Back then, four years prior to the Mabo decision, Aboriginal Australians were still protesting for land rights. While Michael Nelson Tjakamarra escorted Queen Elizabeth down to his mural in the forecourt, Aboriginal Australians and their supporters were chanting, 'What do we want? Land Rights. When do we want it? Now.'

Church leaders had asked our parliamentarians to acknowledge the need for reconciliation during the bicentenary year. After the disrupted opening of the new Parliament House, the Coalition parties in opposition withdrew their support for the first resolution in the new Parliament House that acknowledged the need for reconciliation.

Twenty-one years on, traditional owner Paul House made a speech on the steps of the old Parliament House welcoming everyone to his country.

He spoke about his ancestors including those who were marginal to the opening of that building in 1927. Jimmy Clements was the only Aboriginal person there and he definitely had no speaking role. House insisted that reconciliation entailed recognition of the distinctive place of Aboriginal Australians in the life of the nation.

For me it was a week of Aboriginal reminiscences, and not all evoked hope of progress.

Percy Neal, Frank Brennan and Tammy WilliamsEarlier in the week, I had accompanied Aboriginal lawyer Tammy Williams to Yarrabah, an Aboriginal community outside Cairns. We met with the mayor Percy Neal (pictured with Williams and Frank Brennan), who spoke of his people's need for housing, training and employment. His community is threatened with loss of the CDEP scheme which allows Aboriginal employment for a range of community projects from council work to the running of the local museum.

Neal had been chairman of his community back in the early 80s. I had heard him making the same pleas for jobs and houses back then.

In 1982, Neal came to national prominence when he appealed his sentence of six months imprisonment for an assault on the white manager of the Yarrabah reserve.

When originally sentenced, the Queensland magistrate had observed that Aborigines living on reserves had been quite happy with their lot until the likes of Neal came as political agitators and upset them. The magistrate's dim view of Percy's political activity had informed his decision to impose imprisonment on Percy. The Queensland Supreme Court then decided to increase the term of imprisonment.

When Percy appealed to the High Court, Justice Lionel Murphy observed:

'That Mr. Neal was an 'agitator' or stirrer in the magistrate's view obviously contributed to the severe penalty. If he is an agitator, he is in good company. Many of the great religious and political figures of history have been agitators ...

'As Wilde aptly pointed out in The Soul of Man under Socialism, "Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation."

'Mr. Neal is entitled to be an agitator.'

As the elected leader of his community, Neal is still agitating for justice. Almost 30 years ago he told the visiting Commonwealth minister Fred Chaney that land rights could change the plight of his people. Chaney had begged to differ, as he had just come from Manangrida in the Northern Territory where land rights had been granted and the social indicators were just as grim.

The Yarrabah community was granted secure land title in 1986 but still the social problems are endemic.

Our community consultation at Yarrabah focused on community concerns about training, employment, housing and the Queensland Government's discriminatory alcohol management plan. No doubt there are Yarrabah residents delighted that alcohol is less readily available. But prohibition encourages dangerous practices such a sly grogging and takes away the freedom of responsible Aboriginal residents to be self-determining.

The lesson of the Northern Territory intervention is that good government intentions are not enough. Special laws applied to Aboriginal communities should be enacted only at the request of those communities, and restrictive government measures should always be applied in a racially non-discriminatory way.

Gone should be the days when Aboriginal Australians are marginal to the corridors of power as decisions are being made about them, even when the lawmakers think they are acting in their best interests.

Perhaps it will not be until the Museum of Australian Democracy features the memorabilia of the first Aboriginal Australian Prime Minister that the descendants of agitators like House and Neal will be guaranteed a fair go in the Republic of Australia — whatever the anthem or the flag.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University. He visited Yarrabah as part of the National Human Rights Consultation, of which he is Chair.

Topic tags: Museum of Australian Democracy, percy neal, paul house, yarrabah, aboriginal, indigenous



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Existing comments

Recently 3 non-indigenous groups visited Jenny Macklin, MP’s office re the serious concerns we have with the NT Intervention. It took 3.5 months to get replies to our letters and a great deal of effort to secure a visit, finally with Jenny’s advisor. Our meeting was polite and respectful and we left reassured in some ways. Yet, we are to wait to spring and hope that legislation will pass through the senate!

We left a ‘brief’ which stated our concerns including some damning statistics published through make indigenous poverty history, newsletter e.g. the threefold increase of anaemia in 18mth under the intervention.
In hindsight something fundamentally seemed missing. An understanding. The very day after our visit a media statement from the same office, confirmed this. Nothing short of a coercive demand to an aboriginal council in Alice Springs to agree to lease their land in exchange for basic services such as alcohol addiction programs, housing and even reimbursement of legal costs! It stated: “Secure leases are the first necessary step …” We ask why?

The amount offered had more than doubled.
Land is intricately linked and connected to aboriginality and communal custodianship to aboriginal society.
Recognition of this will open the way for a mutual and respectful way forward.

Georgina Gartland | 14 May 2009  

thanks for that

Greig Williams | 15 May 2009  

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