The right to be an agitator



In the 1982 High Court decision of Neal v The Queen, Percy Neal appealed his sentence of six months imprisonment with hard labour for serious assault. Mr Neal, an Aboriginal man who subsequently became the mayor of Yarrabah near Cairns in Queensland, had spat at Mr Collins, the manager of the local store, following an argument.

Main image: Raised fist at protest (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

The magistrate had described Mr Neal as an ‘aggressive agitator’, and in what Justice Murphy later described as a political statement, continued: 

‘I can say unequivocally that the majority of genuine Aboriginals (sic) do not condone this behaviour and are not desirous in any shape or form of having changes made. They live a happy life, and it is only the likes of yourself who push this attitude of the hatred of white authority, that upset the harmonious running of these communities.’

The High Court overturned what it found to be an excessive sentence. Of interest, especially in light of the current peaceful protests around Australia as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, is the context for Mr Neal’s actions. Justice Murphy described these in some depth — characterising the matter as a ‘race relations case’.

‘The evidence showed that Mr Neal and his fellow Aborigines (sic) at the Yarrabah Community have a deep sense of grievance at their paternalistic treatment by the white authorities in charge of the Reserve, including Mr Collins. The Council and Aboriginal members of the Community had no control over what was sold at the store under management of Mr Collins. The evidence… was that although Mr Neal complained that Mr Collins sold rotten meat, Mr Neal and the Aboriginal Council were powerless to do anything about it, apart from making representations to departmental officers.’

The Neal decision is an example of the over-reaction of the law to ostensibly minor actions taken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that inevitably lead to the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people. But it also speaks to the daily experience of many Indigenous communities.

This was a point made at the 7th June Cairns Black Lives Matter protest. Terry O’Shane, a member of the North Queensland Land Council board, pointed out to the crowd that Black Lives Matter was about much more than deaths in custody — as important as that issue was. He reminded those present that we stand on stolen land. That the country is profiting from the free labour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples — in mining, pastoralism, the pearling industry, and infrastructure — the labour of all those who never came home.


'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples already bear an "unnecessary and unacceptable risk". This risk is so bad, and government is so intent on ignoring it, that communities have taken to the streets.'


He said that Black Lives Matter is not just about incarceration rates. It’s everywhere.

This was the point missed by Senator Mathias Cormann on Sunday when he described those ‘recklessly’ attending demonstrations as ‘incredibly selfish…incredibly self-indulgent’. He asserted that attendance at protests imposed ‘unnecessary and unacceptable risk on to the community’. 

The reason that protests are occurring in Australia — and around the world — is a persistent and abject failure in governance that represents not just an issue for particular individuals, but an issue for society as a whole. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples already bear an ‘unnecessary and unacceptable risk’. This risk is so bad, and government is so intent on ignoring it, that communities have taken to the streets.

It is not a question of self-indulgence that brought Australian crowds out in their tens of thousands. It is a question of survival for Indigenous people.

Governments have had a choice for a long time, and they had a choice in advance of the protests. It is government that has the power and the capacity to implement the structural change that our society needs so that all might reach their potential. It is government that might have extended an invitation for round table, socially distanced, conversations to work through the solutions to the ongoing struggle experienced by Indigenous people.

Instead we saw only patronising invocations to stay at home.

If our governments fail to roll out frameworks of good governance when times are good, they cannot expect to have the trust of the people during a crisis. So long as Australia fails to enter into proper legal relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we will see protests, and ‘agitators’ will continue to call for justice. Justice Murphy observed in Neal v The Queen:

‘As Wilde aptly pointed out in The Soul of Man under Socialism, “Agitators are a set of interfering, medding 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.’

And so are we all.



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice. She is presently associate professor of law at Griffith Law School.

Main image: Raised fist at protest (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)


Topic tags: Kate Galloway, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Percy Neal, Black Lives Matter



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Existing comments

Kate you are absolutely right. However if you tried expressing those sentiments in HongKong (for example) you could disappear without a trace. We are lucky to be able to express our opinions. As for spitting, the reason it suddenly became so serious was because of Aids. Amongs other things Jesus was spat on because he was an agitator for change in the religious caste system in Jerusalem. He bore it stoically showing none of the outrage of your good Mr Collins. Again you are right. Our successive governments have been totally paternalistic in dealing with Aboriginal Communities and expect them to be content with minimalist handouts rather than make any move toward self determination.
Francis Armstrong | 11 June 2020

The only place for agitators is in "washing machines"!
Grant Somonsky | 11 June 2020

The single and most overwhelming reason for Aboriginal incarceration ... is 'domestic violence' including child abuse - where special provisions for cultural difference are already unable to stem the flow. The 'survival' of Indigenous people in Australia is anything but 'under threat' - there are special programs and support for Aboriginal people all over Australia - including a specialised Health service and specialised housing - specialised employment and specialised entry into Tertiary Education available for Aboriginal people. Australian police do not murder Aboriginal people in the streets and there is absolutely no basis whatever for Australia to mimic the American BLM movement except to please the Communist Party of Australia which organised the BLM marches. Mathias Corman is correct in accusing the demonstrators of being selfish ... they have ignored the privilege that has been heaped upon Indigenous people for over fifty years.
Patrick McCauley | 11 June 2020

A reserve, being at some distance from an urban centre which is located where it is for rational economic reasons, becomes a captive market of low-income individuals forced, because of transportation costs, either to pay beyond their means for goods of adequate quality or within their means for goods of inferior quality. You can abolish the reserve and move the residents to a more economically rational location where the welfare payment will produce more bang for the buck or where the recipients might go off welfare into employment, re-interpret equality of citizenship to interfere with natural supply and demand and subsidise the goods, re-interpret equality of citizenship by increasing the welfare payment because of the location, or transform the reserve into an economically productive unit so that it becomes an economically rational location for a population, like a mining town. In any case, the human being, with six trillion brain cells, is not designed to be a life-long tenant of a crib. At least, in those circumstances, agitation is a sign of life.
roy chen yee | 11 June 2020

We are all entitled to be agitators? Not if you’re UQ student Drew Pavlou. He was just 6 months away from graduation, but was suspended by the university for 2 years because of his on-campus activism supporting Hong Kong freedom fighters, and for criticizing UQ’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party. The Left, who once stood by oppressed workers to better their conditions, now stand up for the powerful to silence dissent. Australian universities have grown fat on the Chinese Communist Party’s money. And academics, who now depend on this largesse for their positions of privilege, don’t want agitators disrupting a “perfectly contented class of the community.”
Ross Howard | 11 June 2020

Morrison suggested that the planned protests could cost 25 billion dollars. He knows the connection between life and dollars. so here is the question. If Australia had spent that amount or even half that amount on implementing the recommendations of the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission would there be any need, or desire for a protest. Then Cormann suggests the protesters do 'something useful'. Could that be, if he is a model, the 2014 Budget or his betrayal of his mate Turnbull?
Michael D. Breen | 11 June 2020

The mass protests were irresponsible. My friends put up red yellow and black stramers and I walked past plackards posted on gates that “Black lives Matter”. The protesters proved that to them the lives of the “at risk persons” such as the Elderly and Indigenous did not matter.
Anna | 12 June 2020

How does taking unacceptable risks in spreading the (allegedly) deadly coronavirus amongst demonstrating aboriginal activists and their allies outweigh the unacceptable risk of (alleged) racial discrimination? Who is holding the set of scales? At some point the virtue-signalling rhetoric has to touch base with reality or all credibility is lost.
HH | 12 June 2020

a friend of mine who works in emergency department at a local Melbourne hospital was spat on and abused while trying to help a patient who presented themselves for emergency treatment. as a result she has been on stress leave for over six weeks where is her justice?
lex miller | 12 June 2020

Dear Kate, there are different kinds of agitators. Take the agitator of a washingmachine. The agitator is supposed to quietly rotate and mix the water with the soap and the clothes. HOWEVER, when it rotates so strongly that it tears the clothes to threads and makes the machine shake the foundations of the laundry I would say, call the mechanic.......
Marcel WERPS | 12 June 2020

If, as prominent Black Lives Matter movement agitators accuse, racism in "White" society is structurally inherent, it's a wonder that countries such as America and Australia that allegedly perpetrate and perpetuate "systemic" injustice are able to bring those charged to trial at all. Personal responsibility seems to be a factor conspicuously lacking in exclusively race-constructed narratives of society. Without acknowledgement of its part, the story, to say the least, is incomplete; and agitating voices have a hollow ring.
John RD | 14 June 2020

When I read most of your responses, Kate, I realise just how far down the evolutionary ladder we still are. In comparison with Europe (our closest 'cultural' neighbours) our infection rates are commendably low. Does this mean that we accept the bleak, paternalistic hand of authority and sanction at the expense of recognising and acting on urgent and timely impulse when the occasion calls for it? Primitive, I'd call it!
Michael Furtado | 15 June 2020

It is interesting that, in Western Australia, the Attorney-General, John Quigley, is attempting to limit excessive charges from Perth-based professionals on the trust funds of Aboriginal communities generated by the mining industry. This is one example of a government doing something worthwhile for Indigenous people in this country. One of the problems I have with the recent BLM marches is the piggybacking on them by certain people, such as the two young women charged in connection with defacing Captain Cook's statue in Hyde Park. To me there seemed to be an anarchic, even nihilistic, tone to this. There seems to be an underlying theme amongst certain sections of the community, not mainly Indigenous, who are highly privileged themselves, that Australia is some sort of racist, misogynist, homophobic and everything-else bad country whose whole foundations need to be torn down and rebuilt. This is basically a Marxist view. It will lead, not to an Earthly Paradise, but to a morally constricted Brave New World. Justice for Indigenous Australians can be achieved without going down this path.
Edward Fido | 16 June 2020

An impressive example of government support which brings a reality check to the charge of "systemic racism" that has become a "buzz word" in media commentary - spreading almost as quickly (though without the same intensive scrutiny) as the Corona-19 infection - is the "Aboriginal Pathways Program" offered by universities which offer - and have for some time - courses in Literacy, Numeracy, Culture and Country, and Digital Technology specifically designed to meet the needs of indigenous students. To regard such provision as "paternalistic" is regressive and counter-productive to genuine efforts in education that seek to "close the gap".
John RD | 16 June 2020

In the aftermath of the Reformation, Catholics will recall that statues were demolished as a form of idolatry and to expunge Protestant Christianity of/f the more obvious signs of a clerical regime that was widely regarded as sullied, extravagant and corrupt. Catholics, meanwhile and especially in the Anglosphere, stood powerlessly by and regarded this as a barbarous form of mob-violence. Over the centuries that have elapsed some forms of accommodation and appreciation of the complexity of factors resulting in such a fracture between the two sides has been achieved culminating, for some, in toned-down expressions of the liturgy that have embraced simplicity, authenticity and an up-to-dateness with contemporary cultural modalities. In my youth I was struck by the similarities between Catholic and Hindu religious statuary, and I recall my Jesuit form master, Fr Gilson, explaining that Catholic depictions of Hell and everlasting punishment were not far removed from depictions of the Goddess Kali, who is the Patron of Evil, much in the manner in which Christians have portrayed the Devil. Perchance Edward has missed the symbolism behind extremes of agitative behaviour in his critique of those who deface statues, while people like Rayshard Brooks lie shot to death beneath them.
Michael Furtado | 16 June 2020

M.F. : The fact that pagan religions have approximated Catholic truth on some points is not at all surprising. Indeed, it is to be expected if the Catholic account of revelation, divine and natural, is true.
HH | 18 June 2020

At a time when the editors of Eureka Street are as commendably anxious to maintain a revenue stream to support the work of social justice, as they equally commendably hand-wringingly strive to maintain civility of commentary, I find it hard to measure the 'Yes; but' pernicketiness of some fundamentalists here against events on the global stage that within the past week have seen a man arrested for drunk-driving shot and killed for attempting to flee the scene of a drive-by food outlet where he was detained for a breathalyser, after an interrogation that took more than forty minutes. The high drama of this event, following on the footsteps of a similar incident in which a similar person was suffocated to death by the forces of law and order, highlights the point about the legitimacy - nay the necessity - of agitation if we are all to survive, which is surely Professor Galloway's point. That naysayers here should appeal to Revelation to justify their position when Mary's Prophecy alludes to the mighty, whether statuesque or not, being toppled from their thrones, surely invites the tragic observation that sometimes to 'scratch the Christian is to find the pagan spoiled' (Zangwill, II, 6).
Michael Furtado | 18 June 2020

The more florid and abstruse the rhetoric, the more one suspects that the actual argument is being desperately avoided. There's daylight between Cicero and his imitators.
HH | 19 June 2020

HH, what on earth has my reference to Kali and Hindu religious cosmology got to do with your commendable distaste for false gods, unless one of them happens to be the problematic disagreement at hand about agitative justification? If so, and were you to forsake the fig-leaf of acronymity, you might reveal yourself as conservative and also white, privileged and therefore blindly content to observe the niceties of a politeness code that serves as an inaccessible slur of contempt for the down-trodden. While I'm sure there's no loftier riposte than your appeal to Cicero, I well remember Shylock's plea in The Merchant: 'O Father Abram! What these Christians are, whose own hard dealing teaches them (to) suspect the thoughts of others!' (I. iii. 161)
Michael Furtado | 20 June 2020

Michael Furtado: “'O Father Abram! What these Christians are, whose own hard dealing teaches them (to) suspect the thoughts of others!' (I. iii. 161)” Isn’t Shylock projecting onto Antonio what he thinks Antonio is projecting onto him? But, is it ‘projection’ to be as cunning as a serpent (while being as gentle as a lamb)?
roy chen yee | 21 June 2020

I have a real problem with meaningless, unjustified rage resulting in senseless violence, Michael Furtado. Jesus was definitely never into that. His anger and the resultant action were always justified and proportionate, as with the money changers in the Temple. Jesus was not into destroying society, but reforming it. The riots in Chicago following on from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are reported to have caused a devastating effect mainly in Black areas to Black Americans. Someone like Mahatma Gandhi was not interested in destroying the symbols of British rule in India, but gaining Independence from the moral high ground. His vision of India was not Hindutva but one that embraced everyone of every religion. It seems to me that many who claim association with the BLM movement lack the unifying vision of Martin Luther King and Gandhi who inspired him.
Edward Fido | 21 June 2020

Au contraire, Edward; every public statement I'm aware of on behalf of the global Black Lives Matter movement has invoked the examples of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Apart from the predictable RMWFs (i.e. reactionary myopic white fundamentalists) on show here - with the possible exception of Roy Chen Yee, who woefully misreads my point about Shakespeare's own racial stereotyping of Jews - every public figure on record has endorsed the impressively peaceful displays of global protest following upon the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. What a pity you fail by your own excellent standard of appeal to the principle of moral proportionality when you cannot see that the overwhelming balance of violence blindly perpetrated by the privileged has for many centuries been on one, generally White, side! And, BTW, despite Gandhi's peaceful agitation, the British imprisoned him whenever he went on fast and he successfully appealed to others to follow his examples of non-violent protest. As usual, its not the violence of the protests but the effectiveness of agitation that has taken the mighty unawares. Or maybe its the fragility of White bystanders in the currently unfolding drama of the global BLM movement.
Michael Furtado | 22 June 2020

Your hunch is good, M.F. I'm unapologetically white ( I won't pretend to be otherwise ), conservative (actually more paleo-con, but let's not split hairs) and (worse) male, and (worse again) a bit elderly, and, yes indeed, immensely privileged. Privileged, that is, to be able now to devote myself to caring full time for an increasingly dependent older sibling - someone who might easily in the current climate be declared a "life unworthy of life" - whom I nevertheless love dearly and who has given me much more over a lifetime than I could ever give back. I could wish for nothing more than this honour ... except, of course - the overriding desideratum - to abide to my dying breath in the One True Faith. By all counts, then, I'm abhorrent to the current zeitgeist. Frankly, my dear M.F., I don't give a damn. God bless, and, in all sincerity, "Oremus pro invicem."
HH | 22 June 2020

HH, you sort life out by labelling yourself as a member of This group, as opposed to That. We’re Us; they’re only Them. Your classification only works for a while; though, because old doubts with stronger reinforcements return, lots of extra-terrestrial post-mortal supernatural paraphernalia accrue - solemnly asserted or dismissed - and backed up not only by enthusiastic numbers and quotations, but even by heaps of ceremonial, artistic, visible, volumed, audible and quasi-dance entertainment, accompanying solemn and even difficult practices, which latter tend to increase their credibility, their aura of divinely conferred infallibility for us. And like that sentence, we feel we really ought to shut up and that we're in past our depth. So shut up we do, to everyone’s relief, and go along, or if not, then just quit. Now here's the thing. Avoid self-pity: life without defences is utterly fulfilling. Be alive to every nudge inside you. Interrogate the one that says: 'Trump is my saviour. I shall not want'. Get back in the ring, but not the Fortress Catholicism that you describe. Don’t fall into the have-to trap, especially in the spiritual arena. Listen to the Spirit. Go along with it. Life is bigger than death!
Michael Furtado | 23 June 2020

I think there are those who might be tempted to accuse you of being a Sophist with your use of what appears to be a variant of Woke Rhetoric, Michael. I have not read anything which appears like a RMWF post on this thread. The ghastly heritage of slavery still haunts the USA. I have seen enough evidence of copycat rioting - not protests, straight out rioting - devastate the Black community there. This to me is just anarchy, which destroys society. I do not think the polarised thinking which sees all Whites as bad and responsible for crimes which occurred long ago or all Blacks as automatic victims helps anyone. Someone like the late Beyers Naude was very much part of the struggle which overthrew Apartheid in South Africa.
Edward Fido | 23 June 2020

Nice of you to gently caution against the dangers of sophistry, Eduardo carissimo, but there's nothing WOKE about poor old incorrigibly culturally-Mediterranean me. My insights into agitation incline towards my pulse being raced by the Holy Spirit, Who, I like to imagine, especially in times like these, goads us into radical loving action while we try to shackle Her with mildly moderato WASP warnings, urging prudence, and manifestly here on show, that She torridly shakes off with a toss of what I imagine to be Her fiery female baroque tresses. Bartoli - and Vivaldi, of course! - unerringly nails this concept with the following outstanding bravura performance. Enjoy!
Michael Furtado | 24 June 2020

Thanks for your apologia, HH. I commend you for caring for your sibling but note that the Gospel injunction is to love your enemy; though I suppose it points to a perverse kind of logic that, in order to love another, one has to make an enemy of them first! As to the 'One True Faith', I imagine that most who contribute here subscribe in one way or another to the same overall Christian belief. The critical question then is what construction of Jesus do you subscribe to, since the arch-prophet of the paleo-conservative Fortress Christianity that you enthusiastically endorse is, widely acknowledged to be Donald Trump. I, for one, given today's news of the prosecution of a White policeman and his adult son for the slaughter of the African American, Ahmaud Arberry, while he was out jogging in Georgia, cannot subscribe to a faith that says: 'Trump is my shepherd; I shall not want.' Indeed, I feel privileged to be described as an agitator in Arberry's shocking cause.
Michael Furtado | 25 June 2020

Yes, Michael Furtado, the question Jesus himself poses "Who do you day I am?"(Mtt.16:15) is critical. But its answer is not a construction of the individual in isolation from the belief of the Church to which Christ has entrusted his self-revelation and the mission of making himself known and loved. For Catholics, the heuristic conditions of his identity are Scripture and the Apostolic tradition. No justice is done to this critical question and its practical implications by dismissive caricature of the faith affirmed by those who refuse to have Christ and his gospel reduced to an ideological construct.
John RD | 27 June 2020

M.F.: “… though I suppose it [the command to love your enemy - HH] points to a perverse kind of logic that, in order to love another, one has to make an enemy of them first!” With respect: as a matter of logic, a command to “love your enemy” does not as such perversely imply that one must love only your enemy. And as a matter of simple exegesis, the relevant biblical passage, in context, is urging us to love not only our neighbour, but even our enemy, just as, for example, in other parts it condemns not only adultery, but even the intention thereof. Just as we are forbidden by Our Lord to commit adultery, even in the mind or heart, so we are enjoined by Him to love all, neighbour and enemy alike.
HH | 28 June 2020

M.F.: “… though I suppose it points to a perverse kind of logic that, in order to love another, one has to make an enemy of them first!” With respect: as a matter of logic, a command to “love your enemy” does not as such imply that one must love only your enemy. And as a matter of simple exegesis, the relevant scripture passage is urging us to love not only our neighbour, but even our enemy, just as, for example, in another part of His sermon Our Lord condemns not only the act of adultery, but even the intention or wilful desire thereof. Anyway, that’s my “Fortress Christianity”, elderly white immensely privileged male Trump-is-my-shepherd construction of it, FWIW.
HH | 29 June 2020

I couldn't be more in agreement with you, HH; for, if you had read me as I intended, my point was that it is relatively easier to love a friend than an enemy, as I think it was Our Lord Who also meant that in His various disquisitions on love and justice. I am accordingly unable to follow your tangential segue into adultery and its attendant moral pitfalls, though I note that we are enjoined not to judge in case we too, and especially the Pharisees amongst us, are also judged. My main concern for you is your reckless endorsement of paleo-conservatism, which, insofar as you equally proudly proclaim your membership of the One True Faith, rather raises the question of how that arch paleo-con, Donald Trump, stands alongside equally proud White you, on the same day in which he tweeted his support for a White Nazi racist. In losing yourself in a labyrinth of your own creation you invite the criticism of John RD who, in flying to your assistance, hoists you and your paleo-conservatism on his pet anti-ideological petard, often trundled out by John when the prospects look somewhat grim for his side of conservative politics and theology.
Michael Furtado | 29 June 2020

M.F., I can’t help noticing that, after citing the biblical injunction not to judge (which is really about *rash* judgement, according to the authorities), you launch into a litany of judgments as to my “reckless” paleo-conservatism, my “proud” whiteness, the implied evil of the supposed “White Nazi racist” - who was, on the evidence of the tape, just ironically and humorously hitting back at the ridiculous and hate-filled epithets hurled at him by the mob - and the “pet anti-ideological petards” of John RD. Speaking for myself: you don’t know if I’m a “proud” white or a modern day Manichean self-loather. Well, truth to tell, I love being what God created me as: white and male. But - I’m sorry if this doesn’t compute - I equally love. and thank God for, black people being black, and God knows how I would cope if women weren’t women. I'm deeply racist: I unapologetically aver that the West Indian black batmen are by far the most beautiful strokemakers the game of cricket has ever seen, closely followed by the Indian and Sri Lankans, with the stodgy, ever so correct, white English and Australians way behind, a poor crop at best (Bradman excepted). I have lifelong friends (and probably enemies, mea culpa) of all colours. One of my favourite saints is the freakish Martin de Porres, O.P., a mulatto. I also love St Augustine, who hailed from present-day Algeria. And I worship Our Lord, who, needless to say, was both divine and a not-white male, but whose Church is the Ark, His mystical (not specifically white!) body, outside of which there is no salvation.
HH | 03 July 2020


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