The struggle for rights, even dignity, for Indigenous people in this country could be likened to precariously building a sandcastle in cyclonic conditions.
Our government is the tantrum throwing brat that comes in and stomps on our carefully crafted structure.
Why? Because petulance is a trademark of the Australian government.
There are no shortage of examples of this behaviour, even when different people are holding the reigns of power.
However, perhaps one of the easiest examples is the historic case of The Wik Peoples v The State of Queensland. A moment which the Wik peoples of Cape York pursued confirmation at law that native title was not extinguished by the granting of various pastoral leases over the land.
Wik Vs. Queensland win, but then Howard changed the game
It was essential to the Wik people to be recognised as original inhabitants – not owners (an important distinction) – of the land. A discrete point at law of the utmost importance to the Wik people. The High Court rightly determined that the mere grant of a pastoral lease does not necessarily extinguish any remaining Native Title rights. It also did not go so far as stating that the leases were extinguished. Put simply, the Court determined that if there was a conflict of rights, the native title holders came off second best. If there was no conflict, the rights of each co-exist.
The question at law was not momentous from a legal perspective, although quite the moral victory for the Wik peoples.
But what followed is very telling of our government and the methods in which they cling to power. At all times the Wik people conducted themselves with dignity. They used the colonial legal structures to affirm what was known at a cultural level in order to make the government see and understand that the Indigenous peoples of this country are not interested in land grab or commoditisation of land. Instead, we want the non-Indigenous community to understand the responsibility of caring for the land, of belonging to it and maintaining the synergistic relationship which gives life to our cultural, communities and ceremonies. Former Deputy Mayor of Aurukun, Phyllis Yunkaporta described the event as, “For my Wik Elders to go out there, into the world, and be so well-dressed, and display to the world what they were made of, they stood tall and strong.”
Despite this, the government set out on a deliberate campaign which mislead the ‘mainstream’ (as they termed everyone, other than Indigenous people). The Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fisher, and Queensland Premier, Rob Bobridge, made claims that the High Court decision went beyond their duties and attacked the institution for purported “judicial activism” against ‘mainstream’ interests. A freshly elected Howard government went into battle for the ‘mainstream’ and forged ahead with their deeply controversial 10 Point Plan to amend the Native Title Act —a plan which led to the longest debate in the Australian Senate’s history.
The reason for the outcry from the political heavyweights was not the decision itself, but because the cost was nought. It was no great victory for the Indigenous people, it was no civil rights victory, but merely a decision that the grant of a pastoral lease did not necessarily extinguish Native Title —and in fact, would extinguish Native Title to the extent of any inconsistency. There was no loss in a capitalist sense, but this was an extraordinary loss of face for the government who were used to being in the driver’s seat steering public opinion with respect to Indigenous people. The Indigenous people using the system in this manner for a moral victory with no interest in finance did not fit the narrative being pedalled since invasion.
Howard predictably spouted a divisive rhetoric about needing to protect ‘land owners’ (yes I know, the irony is not lost on me either). He then proceeded to undermine the essence of the Native Title legislation with his Wik 10 Point Plan with full support from the ‘mainstream’ public who believed the nonsense being circulated by the government and media that had little to no factual or legal basis.
Turnbull dismisses the Uluru Statement
A more recent example that demonstrates governmental petulance being very much alive and well is its response to the Uluru Summit.
The government enthusiastically tasked the Referendum Council to ‘consult’ with Indigenous people on the topic of constitutional recognition, and seemingly keen to congratulate themselves on some more symbolism: Recognising us in their constitution (honestly, aren’t they just the best!?).
The audacious Indigenous community rejected symbolism and responded with a request to have a say in the laws that are implemented that affect their communities. They even went so far as to request that the truthful history of this country be told. Audacious.
The Turnbull government pretty much asked for Indigenous views and then responded with a, ‘I DIDN’T WANT THAT ONE’ rebuttal like a kid being offered the wrong coloured donut in a bakery.
Unfortunately, there has very rarely —if ever— been any intention of meaningful change or redress at the governmental level in any interaction with Indigenous people. Instead, they want to pat themselves on the back as white saviours at budget time when they sprinkle their crumbs haphazardly and want the ‘mainstream’ community to admire them when they pursue symbolic notions of inclusion. Attempts are so often an embarrassment and an insult.
We are not the fools the government thinks that we are.
We know that the Australian Government will set the goal posts only to move them when we score. Only they don’t just move them, they kick the goal posts down and shout and scream like the intellectual infants they are.
Less and less people are paying attention to these tantrums. Eventually the government will be put in time out and this country will mature together.