Where we are coming from, moving into a new and exciting future

The claiming of things by Joan Ross
The claiming of things by Joan Ross Pigment print on paper (2012). In this work Joan Ross reconfigures and plays with, as its backdrop, an early Australian colonial painting by John Glover. This work considers the connection to, the disconnection from and ultimately the attempt to civilise nature; imperialism, its power relationships and racism, fear, ownership, boundaries ... from pristine to colourful but completely out of touch.

Goodooga, northwest NSW, 17 January 2012.
Michael Anderson ©

Aboriginal Tent Embassy - Canberra 1972
Aboriginal Tent Embassy
(Old) Parliament House Canberra, 1972

With a new and exciting future ahead, I think it is time for me to remind people of where we have been in the past 40 years in respect of our struggle for land rights, sovereignty, restitution and compensation, and what has been said and acted upon by the governments.

In the first instance, considering the most recent findings and revelations in respect to our continuing sovereignty and dominion over our lands, waters, natural resources and the naturally occurring biodiversity, I need only to say that all that was usurped from late 1875 by the colonial states was illegal and against their own common and domestic laws. In this regard we do know and accept that the Australian states and territories will stand their ground and fight us all the way. I cannot see them acquiescing because the costs of compensation and restitution will be great and significant.

Let me give you an example of the concerns the state and territories have in respect of our potential claims that will come their way. It is necessary to quote the whole of the text as it represents what is in the minds of governments. When the former Liberal/National Prime Minister, John Howard, announced his "bucket-loads of extinguishment" with the amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 in 1998, Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Kate Carnell MLA, wrote in a confidential communiqué on June 20th 1997:

"Thank you for your letter dated 3 June 1997 outlining your government’s proposal to assist the states and territories in meeting the costs of compensation and associated administrative costs flowing from the Wik 10 point plan.

I have noted that the Commonwealth has agreed in principle to provide assistance of 75 per cent of the compensation to state and territories.

The true effects of the compensation scheme cannot be known until the proposed amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 have been seen. While the ACT is keen to examine the amendments, our preliminary view is that in relation to any claims for compensation in the ACT, the Commonwealth is actually responsible on the basis that the land in the ACT is owned by the Commonwealth.

One suggested effect of the amendments and compensation package has been the large scale extinguishment of native title through the upgrading of leasehold land to freehold, with the Commonwealth having to pay 75 % of the compensation. The ACT would be concerned if large scale extinguishment of native title resulted through such a mechanism.

I understand that the Commonwealth has also agreed that where it is clear from the WIK decision that a particular form of land grant would extinguish native title, state and territories may have those leases specifically recorded in a schedule. However, I further understand that there will be generic descriptions in the amendments of particular land grants that obviously extinguish native title, so that it would be strictly necessary for all forms of land grants to be scheduled.

For a small jurisdiction such as the ACT, recording every historical and current lease that has ever been granted in the Territory would be an onerous task, and of little benefit. On this basis, the ACT will at this stage rely on generic definitions in the legislation."

Turn back the clock

Now I wish to turn back the clock a little. If we are to learn of our years of struggle, it will be noticed that our old people never gave up, no matter how impossible the task looked. They believed and history shows that in terms of the modern type struggle we find that the elders forwarded petitions to the King of England, and then there was a ‘bark painting’ petition and numerous other letters and other forms of correspondence, campaigning for our rights to be recognized and acknowledged. But at all times they fell on deaf ears.

The struggle in those days was about the fact that we were Aboriginal people with inherent rights to this country. Our rights and interests were paramount as it was our obligation under our customs and religion to care for ‘Mother Nature’ and to protect our sacred places from being interfered with. But overall their objectives were to gain equal citizens’ rights.

The 1970s witnessed a more aggressive leadership that focused on ‘land rights’ and ‘sovereignty never ceded – compensation and restitution’ became the new catch cry of the Aboriginal liberation struggle.

In a statement to the federal parliament after the establishment of the Aboriginal Embassy Peter Nixon MP and former Minister for the Interior said words to the effect of, because they have a descendent who may be Aboriginal, they should not think that they are entitled to any form of land rights.

I recall the Former Labor prime minister Edward ‘Gough’ Whitlam congratulating us on the aggressive political leadership and the Aboriginal Embassy; but he reminded us of the diverse richness of our culture and the fact that ‘one’ group does ‘not’ represent ‘all Aboriginal people’. In this regard he established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, tasking them to establish a democratically elected body of Aboriginal people from across Australia to speak for and advise the federal government on key policy matters and other matters that the parliament may seek in respect of Aboriginal ‘self-determination’, which led to the election of the "National Aboriginal Consultative Committee" (NACC) in 1973.

Soon after the founding of the NACC, the Whitlam government was "sacked" from office. Malcolm Fraser and his Liberal/National party were then elected. The Fraser government stayed with Whitlam’s plan and retained the NACC. However, they changed their support for self-determination of the Whitlam administration to "self-management". However, as we now know from sources that were within the NACC at the time, there were Aboriginal collaborators who worked with the Liberal/National government and assisted in bringing down the politically aggressive NACC.

An example of this can be found in the November 4, 1976 report to the government on the political activities and work by the NACC by Dr. ‘Nugget’ Coombes in consultations with Ms. Lois O’Donoghue (now known as Lowitja O’Donoghue). It was argued in this report that the NACC were dealing with matters that "did not concern them" and that they had lost their way in terms of representing their people. Some of the unacceptable issues identified were that the NACC had called for sanctions to be placed against South Africa and Rhodesia; the establishment of a Human Rights and Social Commission to deal with problems of human isolation in large cities; the application of soil science to examine salinity problems in the Murray Darling River irrigation areas. A declaration was made that ‘although Aborigines were the "oppressed of the oppressed", community projects for Aborigines (in housing, health, education. Legal services) should serve as a model for government aid to other underprivileged groups in Australian society’.

In other resolutions that were deemed to be too radical they created a constitution that was to establish a black parliament who were to work in concert with the Australian governments in respect of a joint governance of Australia. In this regard it was decided that the government could not support nor permit this to gain traction and the government argued that this became the NACC’s obsession that caused them to deviate from the job that they were set up for. But the federal government failed to inform the public that their internal Aboriginal collaborators had advised the government that the NACC were about to challenge Australia’s sovereignty both within the Australian courts and then internationally.

Finally, on the NACC, they did call for the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the late Senator Jim Cavanagh and the then Department head Barry Dexter to resign their positions and that the whole of the administration of the Department of Aboriginal affairs and its budget be transferred over to them as the elected body to administer for and on behalf Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Unfortunately the NACC were terminated and a new set of terms of references were created by the new Liberal/National party Minister Ian Viner MP with the aid of Dr. Nugget Coombes and Lowitja O’Donaghue for the new named National Aboriginal Conference. But, it was found within a couple of years that this body was also too politically radical and they were to meet the same fate as the NACC and Lowitja and Dr. Nugget Coombes re-wrote a new charter for yet another National Aboriginal Conference. Another election was called and new members were elected.

On this occasion the NAC echoed Kevin Gilbert’s call for a treaty to be negotiated from the Aboriginal Embassy protest on Capital Hill in 1979. From 1979 to 1984 the NAC was actioning a well planned program towards a treaty. This consisted of first putting up a shopping list of objectives and then carrying out extensive community consultations throughout Aboriginal Australia to determine their hopes and aspirations on what should be included in a Treaty. It is important to realize that having called for the negotiation of a treaty, the NAC demanded pre-concessions to be agreed to before any talks could commence and they were that sovereignty was never ceded and that Aboriginal people had proprietary entitlements that continued in respect of our land, ‘land rights’.

The former Liberal/National party prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, agreed to these calls and made funds available for the NAC to commence proceedings on a Treaty. The late Dr. Nugget Coombes was not going to be left out of this historical initiative and thereby set up and led a white treaty support group.

Unfortunately, within the Liberal/National government there were deep rooted concerns for this government supported objective. The fact that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were now represented across Australia by a democratically elected body worried the government that this single entity could assert a right to self-determination as united sovereign nations. In this regard the Federal Attorney-General in July of 1981 gave legal advice to the government that if they emulated the model of the United States of America’s Indians, a separate state could emerge, whereby Aboriginal people could assert a right of self-determination under international law.

The Attorney-General also advised the government not use the term "treaty" because of its international connotations. The government realized that should the NAC seek to apply their right to be self-determining using the United Nations Charter and the right to be de-colonized, then we as a people may find friends within the international community who could and would give us their support.

The Australian governments have always understood that they were on shaky grounds in terms of their imposed sovereignty on and within these lands, given the 1872-75 Pacific Islanders Acts. In fact, in the advice given to former Prime Minister John Howard by Dr. Stephen Davis of the Samuel Griffiths Society of lawyers, they concluded their advice by saying;

"The issue of domestic sovereignty is set to dominate future international discussions of Indigenous rights, and decisions made by the United Nations, together with precedents in other countries, could potentially change the map of this country. Land rights and native title in Australia are examples of a very dynamic debate which is open-ended, and which can be simply linked to international conventions and trends to develop a credible basis for a range of outcomes with far reaching and irreversible consequences. Australia tend to take their sovereignty for granted. That sovereignty is now being contested. We must become more aware of the issues, the players and be prepared to defend our sovereignty if we are to maintain it."

The governments throughout Australia are well aware of their own insecurities and fear the Aboriginal political movement that focuses on sovereignty and land rights. They are also very much aware of their illegal land dealing since 1875, as is alluded to in the letter from the chief minister cited above.

It must also be known that in 1983 it was said by the Americans that Australia’s triple ‘A’ economic rating was totally dependent upon how the Australian government dealt with Aboriginal land rights. Added to this, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Country Party premier of Queensland from 1968 to 1987, said in his last ever media release that if the Australian government did not watch what they were doing with Aboriginal land rights then the Aborigines would become the Arabs of Australia.

All of this informs us that the Australian government are well aware of our position and seek to suppress it at all cost.

This, people, is our time. Stand up and be counted as they cannot keep up their charade and deceit.

Michael Anderson can be contacted on: 0499080660