By Meike Wijers
The closing of some 150 Aboriginal communities in Western Australia has ignited a storm of outrage among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. At a rally at the Redfern Community Centre on March 21. Aboriginal leaders urge people to reclaim their land and call for a treaty with the Government.
While the fires of the Redfern Tent Embassy are lighting up in the dusk, around 60 people gather at the Redfern Community Center next door. The event, hosted by the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney and presented by journalist and film-maker Jeff McMullen, marks the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2015. Four Indigenous women call for a treaty that recognises the sovereignty of the First Nations People over their land and gives them the self-determination that was promised to them when Australia ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1975. However, they claim not much has changed in the past 40 years.
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, well known as an outspoken advocate for Indigenous people and Northern Territory Australian of the Year 2015, delivers an emotional speech. “This is my country. It is the country of the First Nations. I will not put up with the atrocities that are happening over in Western Australia right at this precise moment. If that’s not a land grab, I don’t know what is.”
The recent announcement made by Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett to close remote communities that are not “economically viable”, has been received by the Indigenous community with outrage and anguish. Mr Barnett has the support of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who said that Australian tax payers cannot be expected to pay for “lifestyle choices”.
“I would love to see people like the Prime Minister of Indigenous Affairs sitting in this room and answering a few questions,” says artist Brenda Croft. Ms Croft, a Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra woman, organised the 45th Anniversary Commemoration of the Wave Hill Walk-off in 2011. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who died the day before the rally, sent a video message to Ms Croft and her team in 2011 to show his support in which he said the debates about the future of Aboriginal policy are “a testimony to the failure of Australia as a whole to come to grips with making Indigenous Australia full partners in the modern Australia”.
Ms Croft believes his words are pertinent. “Our people are constantly made to feel they’re useless. They’re not useless, they’re not hopeless, but they are helpless. We’re continually having what we have stripped away.”
The Indigenous women stress that a treaty is the first meaningful step in empowering Indigenous people. Natalie Cromb, a 29-year old Gamileraay woman, campaigns for the Aboriginal cause through her writing for online magazines such as Independent Australia. “A treaty is vital to the future of this nation. But I know it’s not a cure all.” She believes Mr Abbott’s latest comments have deterred people from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal backgrounds. “What Abbott is saying is so outrageously racist, even non-Indigenous Australians speak out. They say: ‘he doesn’t represent my views, I don’t think that of Aboriginal people’.”
In Natalie Cromb’s opinion, there are two critical elements to bridging the cultural divide: empathy and education. “People need to learn about Indigenous history and culture, and do so with an open mind and pure heart. Treaty is the insurance policy we need, so we can hold the Government accountable and so real gains can be made for the Indigenous people of Australia.”
During the Q&A session, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks is referred to as ‘auntie’ as people approach her with respect. She acquired fame as a leading character in John Pilger’s documentary film Utopia, named after her homeland community in the Northern Territory outback. She explains how important land is to Aboriginal people. “I am nothing once I am off my ancestral lands. Without my land I am rendered voiceless, and dispossessed to such an extent that I am nothing.”
She emphasises that she does not want to make the discussion into a conflict between black and white. “I do not want to get into a conflict and fight and actually become a racist person myself. The race card is being played by the Westminister-system to such an extent, it makes you want to be sick. I will not play that game with them.”
Ms Kunoth-Monks ends the discussion with an appeal to all Aboriginal people to not sit and wait for the Government to impose policies. “Assert yourselves. You are sovereign. This is our land. But instead of being so angry that you push people away, reach out. For God’s sake; reclaim, assert. Otherwise, in the process of holding back and trying to ape the white man’s way of life, we are going to lose the lot.”