Walking together, but which way?

3 Jul 2019

The PM dropped some Indigenous history in his talk yesterday, but he needs to be reminded of some other important events.

The PM dropped some Indigenous history in his talk yesterday, but he needs to be reminded of some other important events.

Yesterday, in Canberra, the Prime Minister gave a speech at the Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony held to open parliament, which has been happening for the past decade or so.

During his speech, the PM made his entry into this year’s Understatement of the Year Awards when he said.

“In my maiden speech to Parliament, I said that ‘a strong country is at peace with its past’. This is a work in progress”.

A. Work. In. Progress.

“Being at peace with our past, being at one with our past. While we reflect on how far we have to go, consider though how far we’ve come”

He then went on to tell the story of the first opening of Parliament in 1927 which, for context, was one year before the last recognised officially sanction massacre of Aboriginal people, the Conistan Massacres which took place between 14 August and 18 October 1928 and it is believed that up to 170 Aboriginal men, women and children were murdered.

At the opening of what is now the Old Parliament House, well, I’ll let the Prime Minister tell it.

Not a single First Australian was invited to celebrate.

However that didn’t stop two men.

Jimmy Clements – better known as King Billy – and John Noble.

They left their home at Brungle Mission near Gundagai and began a long walk to Canberra.

They trudged over the mountains.

Until they arrived in the nation’s capital.

The 80 year old King Billy stood firm in front of the new Parliament and protested ‘his sovereign rights to the Federal Territory.

The police ordered him to move on – fearing his shabby clothes and the dogs at his bare feet would offend the sensibilities of the Duke and Duchess of York who were in attendance.

An incredible thing happened.

The crowd, Australians, took King Billy’s side.

They called on him to stand his ground. He did.

A clergyman declared that he ‘had a better right than any man present’ to be there, and that was true.

King Billy won that fight.

And the next day, he was among those citizens officially presented to the Duke and Duchess.

His long walk to Canberra paid off.

King Billy won that fight? Did he though? Sure, he was hoping to meet the royals, and did, but then what?

As the PM himself said above, he was there to protest ‘his sovereign rights to the Federal Territory,’ he wasn’t there to protest his right to stand there and protest, he was protesting for his sovereign rights. He died a few short months after that encounter, but his fight for his Sovereign rights has been carried forward by countless Indigenous people since.

The PM then jumped forward 80 odd years to Michael Long’s famous ‘Long Walk’ in Canberra to talk to John Howard about Indigenous disadvantage and then, continuing the walking motif, finished with:

So here we are. Walking together.

All Australians, Indigenous or not, walking together side by side.

Towards reconciliation.

Towards equal opportunities.

Towards Closing the Gap once and for all.

Walking in the same way a determined, steely eyed, 80 year old Wiradjuri man walked to Canberra almost a century ago.

We have a long way to go. We know. But we will walk that journey together.

To his credit, at least it wasn’t Turnbull saying,

“We are as old as our First Australians, the oldest continuing human culture on earth, who have cared for this country for more than 50,000 years. And we are as young as the baby in the arms of her migrant mother who could have come from any nation, any faith, any race in the world.”

He must’ve said that a dozen times in his short time as PM, and it pissed me off every time, because much like the most recent PM’s speech, it’s just words. Cherry picked examples and flowery language that hides that simple fact that the ‘Gap isn’t Closing’ through conscious decisions that are made by those in government.

I know that statement will upset a lot of people, those who say “Well, what are we going to do to close the gap? Throwing money at it doesn’t help!” as though shit doesn’t cost money, or as though the money that is ‘thrown at’ Indigenous affairs is in the hands of Indigenous people. Controlled by Indigenous community controlled organisations, or used to address the broader issues underpinning Indigenous disadvantage, like the refusal to discuss issues of Indigenous Sovereignty, which Jimmy Clements protested in Canberra for some 80 years ago.

It seems the PM forgot all of the other times people have petitioned and protested the government in his speech too, from William Cooper leading a deputation of Aboriginal people to petition the Prime Minister in 1935, the Ten Points formulated at the 1938 Day of Mourning meetings, or the Aboriginal Tent Embassy still standing in Canberra despite countless efforts to tear it town, the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petition, 1988 Barunga statement, 1998 Elcho Island and Yirrkala petitions or the 2008 bark petitions, the Redfern Alliance Statement, or the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Not to mention the countless other protests, marches, petitions, or even the countless government reports which have been ignored by the very governments who initiated them, the national inquiries and royal commissions, going back even further than the opening of Parliament.

Or even just Alwyn Doolan who walked some 8000km from Cape York to Canberra hoping to talk to the PM only to be snubbed, and that was only a couple of months ago.

Hell, even speeches given at the Logies of all places are calling you out for this shit.

When the PM talks about us walking together I suspect he imagines it to be like that Jesus story of there being two footprints in the sand with him and other white saviours carrying us in our most difficult times, but in truth where’s there’s only been one set of footprints on our ‘shared journey’ it’s been because they were either riding on our backs carrying a whip and a carrot, or nowhere to be seen.

Another history lesson the PM might like to reflect on is those brave white explorers who kidnapped Aboriginal people, put them in chains, and force feed them salt to make them show the way to waterholes which could then be destroyed to make wells for stock routes… that is the power dynamic we now see, that is the journey we are still on.

When we walk with you it is usually because we have no choice, and the path you are leading us on is not for our benefit but yours.

An Indigenous minister for Indigenous Affairs is not a Treaty. It is not self-determination. It is not community control. It is not what the countless petitions and protests have called for.

It’s cool, and time will tell how Minister Wyatt works out, but self-determination does not come simply from having one Indigenous person in a position of power within government, overseeing a portfolio that controls some 7% of Indigenous funding. It comes from Indigenous communities having collective decision making powers.

And it is fairly clear that is not the direction you are trying to take us in.

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