Tent Embassy protest speaks for itself

Michael Brull The Drum 31st January 2012

The enormous hysteria over an alleged riot that caused no more damage than a "few smudged fingerprints on the glass of the restaurant" is beginning to subside.

Considering there were no arrests, no damage, and no real threat to anyone except protesters aggressively handled by police, it is worth trying to understand why the protest has caused such a reaction.

Despite enormous media coverage, it has overwhelmingly been sensationalistic, shallow, and devoid of understanding. There is a genuine bewilderment at the discovery of Indigenous anger. A common theme, often implicit, is something like: after all we do for them, they just seem so damn ungrateful.

Andrew Bolt wrote of a "disgraceful riot", where Gillard had been "monstered", Abbott and Gillard had been "terrified", and they had been "vilely abused" - after all "we've" done for them. After all, "we" "formally apologised" for the Stolen Generations (which Bolt thinks never happened). "We" have also "marched over bridges", "spent billions to try to lift Aborigines out of poverty", and "granted Aborigines land rights".

He concluded that "the reconciliation movement must end. It's just too dangerous."

In its own way, this is rather comical. After all, the agenda of the Tent Embassy and its supporters is not about reconciliation at all, which is an entirely different agenda. They call for things like recognising Aboriginal sovereignty. They regard native title as grossly inferior to the land rights they believe Indigenous Australians are entitled to. In the words of Gary Foley, "Native Title is Not Land Rights, and Reconciliation is Not Justice!" As Amy McQuire noted, the protest from 40 years ago "was about Aboriginal sovereignty, about the ability for Aboriginal people to control their own affairs. Aboriginal Australia wanted an acknowledgement for a sovereignty that was never ceded."

Tony Abbott's remarks were:

I can understand why the Tent Embassy was established all those years ago. I think a lot has changed for the better since then. We had the historic apology just a few years ago, one of the genuine achievements of Kevin Rudd as prime minister. We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise Indigenous people in the constitution. I think the Indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.

This reflects a surprising amount of ignorance. It is one thing to reject a protest's concerns. It is another thing entirely to claim that a protest is no longer necessary because completely irrelevant things have changed. It is rather as though one were to say to a group of women protesting for paid parental leave, that their protest was redundant because, after all, women got the vote so long ago, and even abortion was legal. This kind of patronising dismissal would presumably get some kind of analysis, if it were directed at people who matter. However, Abbott's condescending words were only targeted at Indigenous Australians, so there's no need to try to understand why anyone would feel angry at him.

Astonishingly, Abbott called the protesters un-Australian. That is, Abbott called Indigenous protesters un-Australian. I think it is hard to exaggerate how audacious and offensive such a comment is.

David Penberthy, editor in chief of The Punch, wrote that "The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has never engendered any public respect". He just found the protest mystifying.

He claims Michael Anderson said, "To hell with the Government and the courts", and Penberthy just doesn't get why. This government "apologised to the Stolen Generations". The court overturned terra nullius. Now that the courts recognise Aboriginal people exist, what more can they want? Obviously, any anger that remains is obviously "irrational", given how well the Australian Government and courts treat Indigenous Australians.

Why might an Indigenous Australian be angry at this government and the courts? Well, the courts are part of the reason why we jail black males at a right five times higher than Apartheid South Africa did. The courts which acquitted Chris Hurley of killing Mulrunji Doomadgee, which locked up Marlon Noble for 10 years without ever trying him for the crimes there's no evidence he committed. Or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, who was impressed by the "good character" of the men who beat Kwementyaye Ryder to death.

The Labor Governments of Rudd and Gillard have continued and expanded the racially discriminatory intervention. It has pursued an assimilationist agenda in the Northern Territory, dismantling bilingual education, cutting funding to homelands so that Aboriginal people are forced to move to hub towns, seeking to destroy their connections to land that is culturally valuable to them. The Labor Governments have continued the Howard process of taking away Aboriginal rights. Meanwhile, there has been no evidence of improvement in socio-economic conditions in Indigenous communities. Jenny Macklin's own handpicked board to review the intervention explained that "dysfunctional government service delivery" and "the chronic failure by all levels of government to provide basic civic services" to Indigenous communities were the "key determinants" of all their problems. When "the most recent statistics on child removals show Aboriginal children are being taken from their parents in numbers much greater than the Stolen Generations."

One could go on and on at great length. Yet many conservatives are undoubtedly genuinely puzzled. Why on earth are Indigenous Australians so angry?

Part of the reason for the surprise at the anger of Indigenous protesters is because we usually never hear such voices.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended summer school classes on defamation. One of my fellow students was an Indigenous man. When the subject of News Limited came up, he described his anger - and that of many Indigenous Australians - at how it consistently ignored the views of most of Aboriginal Australia, instead just promoting the highly unrepresentative views of alleged leaders like Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson.

Nicole Watson wrote of the:

Shallowness of engagement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. For a great number of the population, their interaction with Indigenous people is confined to an appreciation of dot paintings, cheering on black athletes from afar and reading Noel Pearson lambast Indigenous people for their own poverty on the pages of The Australian.

However, media commentators across the spectrum remain impressed by the Australian's coverage of Indigenous issues, and the narrow range of voices it chooses to give a platform. Margaret Simons, for example, gave an "honourable mention" to The Australian for "for never dropping the ball" on Indigenous affairs (she wrote Indigenous with a small "i"). Similarly, according to Nicole Watson, Mungo MacCallum explained that Tony Abbott "has an excellent relationship with Aboriginal Australians". Why? He has "credibility on Indigenous issues" because he's friends with Noel Pearson.

Likewise, Paul Sheehan commented on the alleged "irony" that Indigenous protesters would target Tony Abbott. After all, "Abbott has spent weeks with Indigenous communities searching for ways to end the cycle of failed government policies. He is particularly close to Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson."

What more could you want? On the progressive end of the spectrum, Mike Carlton wrote that "Abbott deserves credit for his tireless drive to understand the plight of Aboriginal people. He has worked in their communities and listened to them as few politicians have done." Perhaps the word "them" means Noel Pearson. Gerard Henderson also explained that "as is well known, Abbott has a history of supporting Indigenous endeavours and has Aboriginal friends and associates."

The Australian headline declared that "Mob doesn't speak for us, say Indigenous leaders". Readers will be amazed to discovered these "leaders" include Warren Mundine, and the former chairwoman of the Northern Territory intervention, Sue Gordon.

A headline could as easily have been "Indigenous leaders don't speak for us, protest shows". The "unrepentant" activists said so. Michael Anderson said that "They were not elected by us, they were just appointed by the Government not Aboriginal people. They're just interested in representing the middle to upper-class Indigenous Australians and paying off their mortgage". Similarly, Fred Hooper said "what is being said in board rooms by black fellas appointed by government is not how we all really feel". Similarly, Amy McQuire complained that the media "prefer to listen to the self-appointed Aboriginal leaders such as Warren Mundine, who represent the smallest percentage of Aboriginal opinion."

The protest has seen a remarkable level of media criticism of Indigenous Australians. Some may think that the protest was therefore a failure. I think that view is incorrect. For a long time, Australia's media has refused to provide a platform to Indigenous Australians, except those who, in the words of Chris Graham, tell "white Australia what they want to hear: ...that we're doing our best to save the unsaveables, and that the demise of Aboriginal people is really their own fault." This protest has shown white Australia that many Indigenous Australians are angry.

It would be nice if we took the time to find out why.

Michael Brull is studying a Juris Doctor at UNSW. He tweets at @mikeb476. View his full profile here. More articles by Michael Brull