NATIONAL: In speculating on the next 30 years of Aboriginal land rights, CHRIS MUNRO looks at some of the challenges experienced by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam in America during the mid sixties.
Three decades of land rights for Aboriginal people in NSW is quite an achievement.
As you’ll read in the pages of Tracker this month, there’s been plenty of hard fought gains along the way and rivers of blood spilt in the streets.
Indeed the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and the land rights network more broadly is a testament to those warriors who dedicated their lives to making a semblance of equality a reality.
But laced with this achievement are some pressing questions of our future as Aboriginal people.
In truth, land rights have bought us only modest rewards as a people. In real terms the process of claiming back our land has returned just 0.01 percent of the NSW landmass to our people. In short, that’s bugger all.
After giving this country 60,000 years of toil and blood, after dying in every theatre of the white man’s war since invasion, we’re still today on the cellar floor looking up and taking orders.
So where do we go from here? Against the odds, yes, we’ve achieved something great, but what’s our next move?
In looking to the future and the next 30 years of Aboriginal advancement, it’s certainly useful to look to those that have trod this path before us.
I find the life and theories of Malcolm X, or to use his Arabic name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, can be extremely useful in a land rights context. Yes, X was an American Muslim and yes he died in 1965, but his broader theories on race and rights tackled within the Nation of Islam resonate today with Aboriginal Australia.
Aboriginal land rights in its most basic form, is essentially a battle for equality and a never-ending struggle to right a thousand historical wrongs. It’s a fight to take back what’s been stolen and to use those reparations to Aboriginal advantage.
The mechanics of Australia’s operation exist in an engine room of economic and political power. Us blackfellas have the political smarts; we’ve been given no choice but to accelerate them rapidly. So In a way, that side of things is covered.
It’s in the economic race that we’ve been savagely handicapped, but we will catch-up and we are.
There’s little doubt Aboriginal people still suffer from what Malcolm X described as “the sickness”.
Aboriginal people in NSW and all over the country are still racked with this sickness that’s kept them under control for centuries and still does today. Land rights have their place and they’ve been a useful treatment, but they’re not yet the cure.
We’re economically ‘sick’ as well. Aboriginal people are still forced to live off the white Australian machine, but have yet to become an irreplaceable cog in its operation. This is a fundamental obstacle that can’t be ignored.
We earn and spend money as Aboriginal peoples, plenty of it, but we don’t own the businesses we continually feed and foster. We seldom own the houses we live in, control the communities we underwrite, the businesses we deal with or their interests. Herein lies the never-ending struggle to stabilise.
So is there any good news? Well, there is. We can develop our economic maturity over time and we’re starting to make good ground. History shows us this maturity, like anything good, is hard earned and takes considerable time.
Another sickness, which has been developed over time is Aboriginal people’s obliging approval of white ways and values.
As Malcolm puts it, “Christianity had made black men fuzzy, nebulous, confused in their thinking”. The same can be said for our people here in parts of Australia. The only qualification being that those Aboriginal people weren’t so much accepting, but more-so powerless, begrudging participants.
Perhaps most importantly though Christianity has led the black man in this country to believe that he’s ‘got another shot at it’. That if he’s dirt poor, living in third world conditions and at the mercy of another race of people, then he’ll be delivered righteousness in another life. What dangerous, blinding rubbish that is.
My grandmother and my great grandmother out on the mission believed in that brighter day, but despite their strength and zest for life, they both died in a dimly lit backwater awash with racist hate and disadvantage.
And for the record, you’ve only got one shot at this, and to achieve your aims, the attitude of the collective must be right.
For land rights to take that next leap, Aboriginal people also need to rid themselves of a lingering political sickness.
We’ve been divided down political lines by a society that’s willing us to fail and a media who’ll use us only when its suits their agenda and that of their white ownership.
We’ve allowed this to happen and we’ve missed opportunities, however fleeting, to wield genuine political power. Up until very recently in the last Northern Territory elections, we haven’t had the foresight to ‘bloc vote’ as a people, were blackfellas decide the fate of an Australian political power.
So here’s the rub. If we want our lands back, if we want a share of the political and economic power that has evaded us since invasion, we must organise ourselves politically. We must take a closer, more orchestrated look at ‘going to war’ in a political sense – at the polls – where middle Australia can accept and understand their defeat because it’d be on their terms.
Land rights and the advancement of Aboriginal people needs a well-resourced, highly organised and super skilled lobby group. We must lay down our influence upon those that seek to influence and divide us.
We needn’t look any further than the 2010 leadership spill that saw the ousting of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for a prime example of the sheer power of effective lobbying.
It wasn’t Julia Gillard that knifed K-Rudd in the back during some backroom deal. He was broken down and spat out by the Australian mining lobby, and it only cost them $200 million dollars in TV advertising – a drop in a multi-billion dollar mining ocean.
Australian political power dynamic is ruled by special interest, or lobby groups, two years in the Canberra Press Gallery drove that concept home very quickly indeed.
So what section of the Australian society needs a lobby more than Aboriginal people? And what voice should be heard every time a political decision is made in Sydney, Canberra or anywhere else in this country? That of the Aboriginal people of course.
An indicator of a lobby group’s influence is of course best read during an election campaign. Have you ever seen a politician, press in tow, visit a dirt-poor Aboriginal community during a Federal election? Hell no. Alternatively, how many times have you seen a politician on the campaign trail, wearing an Akubra and looking awkward as hell out on a sheep farm somewhere? Personally, I’ve lost count.
Farmers, with their lobbying, are one of the most subsidized sections of Australian society. Nothing happens in Canberra without the Australian Farming lobby having its view heard loud and clear. This is exactly the model Aboriginal people and the land rights network must emulate. It just makes too much sense.
We complain when decisions are made without our consultation. Well that’s not anyone’s fault but our own. There should be no room for doubt when it comes to what the Aboriginal people need, want and demand. Its our fight to lose when it comes to decision making in this country, and right now we’re getting out-pointed by a faster, stronger, more experienced foe.
Malcom X spoke on a huge number of subjects, but not long before his death in 1965 he spoke of a new plan for the ‘so-called American Negro.’ The fight had begun for X, but it hadn’t finished. For him the black man in America was a few rounds down, but no out for the count.
For Aboriginal people, the world title fight over the coming thirty years must be land rights. Land is at the very core of Aboriginal well-being – in every sense of the word.
We must view this special milestone as an achievement yes, but the conclusion, no. It’s the end of the beginning, but the start of the next round, the round where Aboriginal people finally find their range and let the hands fly.
We can only hope that in 30 years time words and phases like ‘semblance of equality’ and ‘modest gains’ wont even figure a fresh reflection on the Aboriginal land rights movement.
It’s our fight to lose.
*Chris Munro is a Gamilaraay journalist and NSWALC’s Director of Media and Marketing.