Reflections on the Aboriginal Movement
by Dr Hannah Middleton
General Secretary, Communist Party of Australia
The Sydney Morning Herald (31 August 2007) published a letter from 12 Aboriginal activists which said in part:
A decade with John Howard has included: native title made harder to get with his “bucket loads of extinguishment” legislation; the elected body ATSIC sacked; the Reconciliation Council dumped; paternalistic funding conditions imposed (wash hands and attend school to get Commonwealth monies); the Northern Territory land rights act amended to increase access for mining; and now vulnerable Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory are invaded by troops. It has been a nightmare decade for Aborigines.
We have been reduced to beggars in our own country. Any dissenting voice is ignored by a government that selects “yes” people to promote its own agenda, and the select few are tragically held out as the voice of Aborigines …
We cannot watch developments in silence any longer. Our people deserve better.
We are establishing a national black voice that will seek to represent the unrepresented Aboriginal communities. We believe we bring experience and sincerity to the national political landscape. In our quest, we will not favour any political party as we see Aboriginal issues as being above party politics. Our single aim is to improve the lot of our people …
The letter signalled stirrings of a new Aboriginal activism, developing in response to the ultra-right wing Howard Government’s onslaught on Aboriginal rights and land ownership.
There had been a lot to protest about. On 12 October 2007, Chris Graham, Editor of The National Indigenous Times, gave a timeline which included:
- May 1996: Howard announces a cut of $470 million from the ATSIC budget, forcing ATSIC to close a raft of community and youth support programs, including women’s centres.
- May 1997: John Howard releases his Wik 10-Point Plan which proposes to amend the Native Title Act (which had come out of the Mabo victory).
- August 1999: Howard officially refuses a national apology for members of the Stolen Generations, with parliament instead issuing a statement of sincere and deep regret.
- 28 May 2000: Howard refuses to attend the Bridge Walks for reconciliation.
- October 2004: Howard formally dumps “reconciliation” from the government agenda.
- June 2005: Howard abolishes the democratically-elected ATSIC. He replaces it with a group of hand-picked Aboriginal “advisers” (the National Indigenous Council).
- June 2007: Howard launches his “emergency intervention” into the Northern Territory.
- August 2007: The Northern Territory Emergency Response Act is passed, giving the Government power to acquire Aboriginal land for five years and hold back 50% of all welfare payments for necessary items. The permit system is scrapped. The legislation includes exemptions from the Racial Discrimination Act.
- September 2007: Howard orders his delegates at the UN to vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
There were sporadic protests in response to specific issues but a national Aboriginal organisation which could lead a fightback did not exist.
In August 2003, Michael Mansell wrote:
There was a time when Gary Foley’s call to hit the streets ran a chill down your back. When Paul Coe told us we were a sovereign people, not a minority, we all believed him. And when Marcia Langton addressed a rally against the backdrop of colourful Aboriginal flags of protest, her denouncement of racism against Aboriginal people stirred us to a rage.
Now the streets are silent. The rage seems to have subsided … . It seems to have begun in the late 1980s. The Aboriginal demands were not just for land and self-determination. Greater access to education and jobs in the public service were also part of the black movement's plank. The problem was that those who marched in the streets because they had nothing now became hesitant to protest. Having got jobs and access to universities, this group did not want to risk losing the gains. The Aboriginal protest movement had lost many from its ranks …
Federal governments turned their attention to what they perceived as an uncontrollable political movement. ATSIC was installed. Sold on the grounds it represented a new, fully-funded and independent national Aboriginal and Islander body, the then Labour federal government committed to listen to the voice of ATSIC. In one fell swoop the feds undermined the community structures, de-politicised Aboriginal affairs and gained its own advisory body …
It is true that more jobs, better education, inroads into poor housing and at long last a reduction in the number of deaths in custody, are real advances. But there is more to it than that. In fact, while Aborigines can say we have advanced socially the same cannot be said for our political or economic development. And the improved access has not produced a single activist! …
Popularity has replaced political direction. No longer is strategy based on Aboriginal rights but on how to impress middle Australia. This has allowed the Aboriginal protest movement to be captured, harnessed and driven wherever public opinion takes it. Having lost all sense of political independence, we resort to blaming community people for getting the dole for free as the source of our woes …
With the new national alliance foreshadowed in the Sydney Morning Herald, it seems that the tide may at last be turning.
Role of the Communist Party of Australia
CPA members had been active around Aboriginal issues since the party’s inception. In September 1931 the CPA issued the Draft Program of Struggle against Slavery, which declared that:
Hitherto, the conditions of the Aborigines have not been considered by workers in the revolutionary movement … but henceforth no struggle of the white workers must be, permitted without demands for the aborigines being championed; no political campaigns without political programs applicable to our fellow exploited — the aborigines — being formulated.
Fourteen demands were put forward in the draft covering social, political and legal rights, wages and working conditions, education, development of traditional culture and land rights. Point 14 stated:
The handing over to the aborigines of large tracts of watered and fertile country, with towns, seaports, railways, roads, etc, to become one or more independent aboriginal states or republics. The handing back to the aborigines of all Central, Northern, and North West Australia to enable the aborigines to develop their native pursuits.
These aboriginal republics to be independent of Australian or other foreign powers. To have the right to make treaties with foreign powers, including Australia, establish their own army, governments, industries, and in every way be independent of imperialism.
Within seven years, however, CPA policy was weakened by the introduction of bourgeois, reformist ideas. The anti-imperialist essence of the struggle for Aboriginal rights, the recognition of Aborigines as members of the working class and the key importance of land rights were replaced by New Deal for the Aborigines.
In this pamphlet Tom Wright adopted the suggestion that those full-blood Aborigines who had not yet been detribalised should be completely segregated on reserves where every effort should be made to preserve their traditional economic, social, cultural and religious organisation.
The pamphlet offered not radical changes but measures to alleviate the conditions of the Aborigines. It viewed their position as static rather than a process of change and development and did not consider the active role that the Aborigines themselves were playing and would have to play in their own struggle.
By the early post-war years many Australian communists had in one way or another been in direct contact with the Aborigines and had experience of their struggle. The CPA had also established a Minorities Committee which dealt with the struggle of both the Aborigines and the Torres Strait Islanders.
Further ground was broken by the leadership role of CPA member Don McLeod in the 1946 Pilbara strike, the only white to hold such a position. Along with the black leadership, Dooley and Clancy McKenna, McLeod was imprisoned during the strike, his charge being “inciting Aborigines to leave their place of lawful employment”.
The militancy of this celebrated strike inspired more political action as Aborigines employed by the Northern Territory administration and Department of Native Affairs struck in December 1950 and January 1951. The leadership this time was all Aboriginal, and community-wide meetings were a feature of the action.
Among the savage efforts to break these strikes, the Northern Territory government banished one of the leaders, Fred Waters, to Haasts Bluff, a thousand miles from Darwin. This led to the most vigorous protests from the white community yet seen, particularly the now actively involved union movement, with the Darwin CPA branch at the forefront.
One of the fruits of these developments was an unsigned article, “A New Stage in the Development of the Aboriginal People”, published in Communist Review, September 1954. The article recognised the developing struggle of the Aborigines and their white supporters as part of an objective process taking place on a world-wide scale. It analysed the processes of ethnic consolidation and national formation occurring among the Aborigines as tribal and local boundaries are gradually replaced by wider loyalties and it raised the critical point that:
There has been a tendency to regard the aboriginal question as merely a class question, to consider the aborigine as merely a severely exploited worker. This attitude completely ignores the national characteristics of the aboriginal people, and plays into the hands of capitalist “assimilators” who wish to deny the aborigines the right to develop their own national culture. Again, the aboriginal problem has often been regarded as a racial problem, ignoring the class position and class composition of the aboriginal people, and treating them as an undifferentiated mass, whether tribalised, pastoral workers, settlement natives, etc.
Later an article over the initials A.I. presented an overview of CPA theoretical work in “The Aboriginal National Minority” (Communist Review, February 1963). This also looked at evidence of Aboriginal consciousness and ideology, concluding that:
Although there are individual exceptions, a most important aspect of the life of both full and part-Aborigines is related to the fact that they belong to a self-conscious national minority with its own culture. This factor often appears to be more important to the Aborigine than his membership of the working class when he happens to be working. Consequently, these national characteristics can never be ignored even when the very important working class aspects are emphasised.
The 1963 congress of the ACTU finally adopted a basic policy on Aboriginal rights. The policy was strengthened at subsequent congresses, in large part through the sustained efforts of communist union officials.
The program adopted by the 21st Congress of the CPA in June 1967, Full Human Rights for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, was a further important scientific socialist document on the national question in Australia.
It analysed historical developments and current conditions among Aborigines and Islanders and set out a list of immediate demands. In its concluding sections it stated:
Those who benefit chiefly from the wage-robbery of Aboriginal and Island workers and from the theft of Aboriginal lands are the big (mostly foreign) pastoral and mining concerns.
The struggle for Aboriginal and Islanders’ rights therefore, is an important part of the struggle of the Australian people against monopoly and its governments, for radical social change and for socialism.
For this reason, the fight for Aboriginal and Islanders’ rights should be regarded as an important aspect of the whole political struggle in Australia, not as a matter for a few well wishers, but one to be taken up by all progressive people, by all true patriots.
The majority of the Aboriginal and Island peoples has been converted into a particularly oppressed section of the working class. Their economic problems are therefore the direct concern of the working class and its unions.
Their problems as oppressed national minorities are also the concern of the working class, which is called on by history not only to emancipate itself but, in so doing, to help emancipate all other sections of the people.
June 1967 was the height of the Gurindji action. The success of their land claim, however limited, was a real victory against a powerful industry and a hostile government. Without their courage and determination, the ongoing struggle for land rights would be far less advanced.
Working people, students and others, speaking out in their unions and workplaces, schools and universities, in the streets and in the press, were brought together and given leadership by the Communist Party. Without their collective efforts, the Gurindji might still be a landless people, separated from their dreaming.
By the end of the 1960s, however, the leadership of the CPA began to support and promote the “super radical” trends and ideas of black separatism which were actually dividing black and white and weakening the struggle for black rights.
At its 1974 Congress the CPA adopted a resolution which played down the position of Aborigines and Islanders as members of the working class but stressed their exclusiveness and separation. “Communists fully respect the independence of the Black Movement and offer it unconditional support and aid.”
“Emergency survival programs” replaced the demand for complete equality in every field, and elementary trade union demands such as equal pay and conditions and unemployment benefits were not included.
The responsibility for developing the scientific socialist policy on the national question in Australia was taken up by the Socialist Party of Australia after its foundation in December 1971. Policies were adopted at its first and second congresses and a number of articles appeared in the Australian Marxist Review culminating in the program, The National Question in Australia, adopted at the Third Congress of the SPA in September/October 1978.
The document analyses the processes of class and national formation among Aborigines and Islanders and puts forward an action program dealing with general rights in employment, housing, health, education, culture and the legal system and with special national rights covering communal inalienable land rights, communal or national rights and control over minerals and other natural resources, ownership and control of sacred sites, the establishment of Aboriginal and Islander autonomous areas, and Aboriginal and Islander participation in funding and policy decisions.
The program calls for unity in action to be built between black and white Australians, stressing that:
If the Aboriginal and Islander struggle is to be won, it is essential that the ideological issues are understood. The working class movement must realise that part of their movement is made up of Aboriginal and Islander workers and that the national liberation and working class movements are allied. The revolutionary and anti-monopoly content of the land rights campaign is as important for the white workers as it is for the Aborigines and Islanders.
At the same time it must also be recognised that the Aborigines and Islanders are not only workers, they are black workers. They are more than members of the working class for they are also members of oppressed national minorities. Failure to recognise this and to fight for their national rights can only strengthen imperialism in Australia.
The policies of Australian communists during the last 60 years have been guided by an understanding that in our historical conditions the class struggle of the working people merges with the struggle against national oppression and the struggle for socialism with the anti-imperialist national liberation movements.
The main aim of the communist national program under capitalism is to build a united revolutionary front of the working people of all nations and national minorities. Applied to Australia this means unity in action between the Aboriginal/Islander liberation movement and the working class movement. Any weakening of this ideological and practical unity can only serve the interests of imperialism and thereby hold back the emancipation of both black and white Australians.
Yet with the loss of Aboriginal activism that Michael Mansell describes, the unity of these two movements was broken and the areas of solidarity work for the CPA were restricted.
Where to now?
One organisation which did grow out of earlier Aboriginal resistance is the Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG) which was formed on 16 July, 1990. The APG’s policy statement says:
We can anticipate the white reaction to any challenge from the Aboriginal community to over 200 years of white supremacy and domination. What is seen by Aborigines as freedom and independence is for whites a form of apartheid; what has been put forward as the right of Aboriginal people to control themselves has drawn the comment of “separatism”; what the APG sees as self-determination for Aborigines is viewed generally by the white powers-that-be as a dividing up of the country.
Furthermore, whenever members of the Aboriginal Provisional Government talk about an Aboriginal State, the immediate response from our opponents is that “Aborigines are to be rounded up and put on a little piece of land somewhere in the middle of Australia” …
Let it be clearly understood: the Aboriginal Provisional Government wants an Aboriginal State to be established, with all of the essential control being vested back into Aboriginal communities. The land involved would essentially be crown land but in addition there would be some land which would be needed by the Aboriginal community other than crown land.
The test for which lands come under the Aboriginal Provisional Government would be the land needed by Aboriginal communities to survive on. No longer would Aborigines need to beg governments or judicial bodies for land to be returned to Aboriginal people.
At the end of the day, enough land would need to be returned to Aboriginal communities throughout Australia to enable them to survive as a nation of people and the remaining land would be kept by whites and their governments as a basis for them to continue their nation …
Nor would Aboriginal people have to live in a particular small area on Aboriginal lands. The areas would be scattered far and wide around Australia and would be the land needed by local Aboriginal communities.
While some have scoffed at the peculiar boundaries such a division of land would create, it is not unusual in international circles. For example, the United States is a nation yet is separated completely from its territory in Alaska. Its territory in Hawaii is halfway around the other side of the world. This has not been seen as a reason to laugh at the jurisdiction of the United States …
The political control of each local Aboriginal community would be vested in the community themselves. There would be no point in transferring white power to an Aboriginal Provisional Government which simply imposed the same policies from above.
The local communities must have absolute control over their day-to-day activities and the direction in which the local Aboriginal communities are to move.
The residual powers of negotiating with foreign governments for trade, coordination of some uniformity between Aboriginal communities and so on, would be vested in the Aboriginal Provisional Government.
Election to the APG would be via the local community controlled councils …
In exchange for Aboriginal people giving up to perhaps half of the country to white Australians, there would need to be a compensation package. It need not necessarily be in the form of money and perhaps ought not to be, so that we become more self-sufficient at an early stage.
However, having access to specialised institutions such as medical facilities, education facilities and telecommunications systems could be a basis for that compensation for ceded lands …
The APG’s views are not the only ones in the Aboriginal movement but they are the most developed and comprehensive view of the Aboriginal future being put forward. They are also the product of some of the most experienced and progressive activists in the Aboriginal movement today.
There are clearly many aspects of APG and CPA policies which coincide.
The Communist Party’s program gives priority to winning communal, inalienable land rights for Aborigines as their right and based upon traditional ownership, religious association, long occupancy and/or need.
Aboriginal land titles must include full rights to minerals and other natural resources as well as to all sacred sites, heritage areas and areas of traditional significance.
Another essential feature is the establishment of autonomous areas for communities on the basis of their communally owned land where they can develop their own economic, social and cultural life. A permit system allowing indigenous landowners to control entry to their land should be an element of Aboriginal land titles.
CPA policy does not envisage a separate state for the Aboriginal people but nonetheless there is much in common.
The Communist Party of Australia has always insisted that the special position and inherent rights of the Aborigines as dispossessed, indigenous minorities must be recognised and that this recognition must be based above all on the return of Aboriginal lands.
Bearing in mind that the breach in unity which came into existence some decades ago “can only serve the interests of imperialism and thereby hold back the emancipation of both black and white Australians”, an important step to rebuilding the unity in action between the Aboriginal/Islander liberation movement and the working class movement might be for the CPA to seek talks with the APG that might lead to eventual recognition of the APG by the CPA.