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Issue #1803      November 15, 2017

CPA 13th Congress

For Land and Justice

The Howard government years were a disaster for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That government led a rear-guard action to deny the reality of the 1788 invasion, to deny the policies of genocide, to refuse to recognise the monstrous history of the Stolen Generations and, above all, to limit, delay and, if possible, scuttle the land claims of Indigenous Australians.

Appealing to latent racist tendencies and a widespread perception that Aboriginal peoples received special treatment, the Howard government denied the existence of the Stolen Generations and refused to consider an apology for the policies of earlier governments, dramatically reduced spending on Aboriginal affairs, disbanded the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 2005, watered down Native Title legislation, and even attempted to interfere in the curriculum of schools and universities and the approach of museums in representing the treatment of indigenous peoples in Australia’s colonial past, was the only national, democratically elected indigenous voice.

In June 2007, his government launched the “emergency intervention” into the Northern Territory. Two months later the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act was passed, giving the government power to acquire Aboriginal land and hold back 50 percent of all welfare payments for “necessary items”. The government scrapped the permit system which had enabled Aboriginal communities to control entry into their land and deal with social issues such as alcohol abuse.

Behind the intervention in the Northern Territory was the desire of the capitalist corporations to wrest control of Aboriginal lands from the local communities so they could better exploit the mineral wealth below.

A new Aboriginal activism began to develop in response to the ultra-right wing Howard government’s onslaught on Aboriginal rights and land ownership.

Apology

With the election of the Rudd Labor government in late 2007, a new sense of hope developed among Aboriginal people.

Responding to an overwhelming demand, expressed in the intense and broad struggle which swept him and the Labor Party to office, Prime Minister Rudd made a full apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Federal Parliament on February 13, 2008.

This was an important symbolic act and a significant contribution to healing and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

However, little has been done since that first highly emotional act of the Rudd government which continued to support the NT intervention. There was a growing sense of disillusion among many in the Aboriginal community about the effectiveness and intent of the ALP policies. Rudd’s commitments remained empty promises.

The campaign for justice for Lex Wotton, a respected community leader from Palm Island, became a symbol of the long struggle against racism and the state-sanctioned killings of Indigenous Australians.

After the brutal death in custody on Palm Island of Indigenous activist Mulrunji Doomadgee, Lex Wotton was arrested and charged for being part of the justifiable protests against the murder. The police officer charged with Doomadgee’s death was acquitted. Wotton was jailed for six years. The double standards are blatant.

The trial, conviction and jailing of Lex Wotton remains a national disgrace. He successfully sued the Queensland Police Service for unlawful racial discrimination.

Land Rights

Central to the fulfilment of Aboriginal rights is the possession by Aboriginal communities of communal and inalienable title to their land, including the minerals and other natural resources on and within it and in adjacent seas.

Conservative forces, above all the big (mostly foreign) pastoral and mining concerns refuse to recognise the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as the original occupiers and owners of the land.

For the ruling class of capitalist Australia private property is sacred, not concepts of justice or what is right.

The Communist Party of Australia remains committed to the campaign to win recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original occupiers and owners of Australian territory and their right to own and control their land and resources.

CPA Policies

The CPA recognises that the issues confronting indigenous Australia are complex, resulting from a long history of colonisation, dispossession and injustice and require long-term policy solutions.

The CPA also supports financial and other support for programs under Aboriginal control to upgrade Aboriginal health, employment, housing and educational standards. Support must be provided for the maintenance and enrichment of the culture and beliefs of the Indigenous people.

The CPA recognises the development of a new Indigenous activism in response to the ultra-conservative policies of successive governments. In response to the continuing diversity of the Australian Indigenous community the CPA encourages wide-ranging discussions and consultation in seeking support for its program.

More specifically the CPA supports:

  • Communal and inalienable land rights for Aboriginal communities.
  • An immediate review of the effectiveness of the Native Title legislation with a view to strengthening the powers of Aboriginal communities wishing to oppose developments, in particular by the mining transnationals.
  • The immediate rescinding of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act and its discriminatory provisions for Aboriginal peoples and the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT.
  • The restoration of the Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP) program to all Indigenous communities that request it.
  • The establishment of a genuinely representative national Aboriginal advisory body to be elected by registered Aboriginal voters at the same time as each Federal election.
  • The ongoing campaign for the restoration of unpaid wages to Aboriginal peoples as a result of previous “protection” policies.
  • A federal inquiry or royal commission into the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee and subsequent events on Palm Island including the imprisonment of Lex Wotton and reports of Queensland police harassment of his supporters.
  • The establishment of a Federal Ombudsman with sole responsibility for investigating complaints by Indigenous people of their treatment by the criminal justice system of the states, territories and Australian governments.
  • The abolition of the current celebration of Australia Day and its replacement by a more meaningful, respectful and relevant national day that can be celebrated by all Australians, Indigenous and non-indigenous.
  • The introduction of compulsory Aboriginal Studies programs in teacher training courses and in the school curriculum and, where practical and applicable, the introduction of Aboriginal language programs in schools.

Many of the planks of this program would see the Commonwealth finally using the powers given to it in an overwhelming vote by the people of Australia in the Referendum of 1967. Action is needed now.

The working class, trade unions and community movements must unite with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander movements to win their rights.

Land Rights

For at least 60,000 years or more Aboriginal people lived on this continent, owning, caring for and being sustained by the land. With their deep knowledge of nature and respect for the environment in which they lived, they developed a successful economy and a rich spiritual and cultural life.

In 1788, the British invaded this land and used military force to begin the land grab which continues to this day. The Aboriginal people fought back to protect their lands. Aboriginal people suffered murder on a huge scale, death through disease and poverty, and the deliberate destruction of much of Aboriginal traditional society.

Despite having to fight a war for the land, the British declared this continent terra nullius – that the land was empty and belonged to no-one when they colonised it.

For over 200 years the lie of terra nullius was the cruel and brutal cover for the mass murder, for the refusal to recognise Australia’s Indigenous race as people, for the forced removal of children from their families, for the inhuman exploitation of the labour of Aboriginal people, for the racist treatment and apartheid Aboriginal people have been subjected to. Terra nullius was the justification for the denial of Land Rights.

But the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have survived and their struggle for Land and Justice has never ceased.

In June 1992, the High Court of Australia recognised the concept of Native Title, stating it had existed before settlement and had continued after colonisation. However, it said Native Title was extinguished whenever land had been sold or set aside for some other purpose.

The Howard government’s amendments to the Native Title Act opened the way for another massive land grab by miners and pastoralists as their leases were converted (de facto) to freehold.

This brought “certainty” to miners and pastoralists, the certainty of knowing their ill-gotten wealth and profits were secure. But for Aboriginal people it is, as then Northern Land Council Chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu said, “the final drink from the poisonous water hole”.

Even though Native Title opens the way for only a small number of Aboriginal people to make land claims, it should none-the-less be protected from efforts to destroy it.

The High Court’s extremely narrow interpretation of Native Title in effect cuts off most Aboriginal people from making legitimate claims to land.

Aboriginal people should not be forced to accept the racist legal fiction that land they have been forcibly prevented from maintaining a “continuing association” with is therefore the property of the colonisers for all time.

In addition to Native Title for the few, there should be Land Rights for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Land Rights mean recognition of Aboriginal prior ownership of all the continent of Australia. There must be legislation to return land to its traditional owners on the basis of traditional ownership, religious association, long occupancy and/or need, including full rights to minerals and other natural resources.

Next article – Editorial – The un-Australians

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