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Aboriginal summit calls for new way

By Lara Pullin & Paolo Scimone, Canberra Green Left February 6, 2010

"We have waited far too long, we walk this new way together with our eyes open to the traps of the past, we will not be divided or distracted. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land."

The New Way Summit on Aboriginal rights was held at the Australian National University, Canberra from January 30 to February 1. It was attended by 150 people, plus around 600 who hooked in via phone and internet links.

Convened by Michael Anderson, the sole survivor of the original group of men who founded the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the summit called on Aboriginal leaders and communities to discuss a "new way" for the Aboriginal rights movement.

It has been more than 40 years since the 1967 referendum that gave the federal government power to legislate for Aboriginal people. But recently, there has been further decline of living standards, increased prison rates. The Northern Territory intervention is regarded as a new invasion, especially as it required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA).

Among Aboriginal Australians, there is widespread anger at the ALP government, which has failed to repeal the intervention laws or reinstate the RDA despite early promises to do so.

People travelled from Perth, Darwin, north Queensland and New South Wales. Many of the Aboriginal rights campaigners from the 1970s were present, with others sending greetings or linking in during the three days.

The summit had a militant resolve: the theme of "our way or no way" could well have been phrased "now or never". Veteran campaigners were key informants to the summit, sharing past experiences to help the younger and newer participants plan to move forward.

One person present was lifelong Aboriginal activist Pat Eatock. She moved to Canberra in 1972, with her five-month old baby, to support the Tent Embassy. Eatock ran as the first Aboriginal candidate to stand for federal parliament following the referendum. She is now a member of the Socialist Alliance.

"The tent embassy united thousands of our own people, and our supporters, to stand up and be counted", she told Green Left Weekly at the summit. "We achieved a unity and a militancy that we need to repeat again today, and I see that feeling here at this summit. We need our forums as Aboriginal people and leaders.

"We need to expose Labor Party lies and the deception of the intervention they promised to halt. They're instead extending it to non-Aboriginal welfare recipients, the unemployed. This is another area for unity against the criminal [Northern Territory] intervention."

The summit opened with recognition of activists who have since died, and the need to pass the wisdom and experiences of the Aboriginal rights movement's leadership on to newer and younger people, black and white.

Anderson addressed questions of civil disobedience, the apathy of the general public and despair within Aboriginal communities. He spoke of the silencing of the Aboriginal community by creating dependency on the colonial state through welfare payments.

However, the summit rejected unanimously the politics of Noel Pearson and Cape York Institute and of Marcia Langton. They propose to replace dependency on the welfare state with capitalist wage slavery, whereas the summit focused on autonomy and self-sufficiency.

Anderson spoke of the need for formal sovereignty in order to achieve autonomy.

Speakers Paul Coe and Les Malezer discussed issues involved with national self-determination, and also grassroots social justice campaigning.

They said the ability to resolve social justice issues for Aboriginal people was inextricably linked to sovereignty, which allows for reparations. Thiscould form the economic basis for restoring Aboriginal people's relationship with land, family and community.

Political strategies were discussed, such as the role of the tent embassy and protest marches. Such actions can provide supporters a clear focus. Civil disobedience was also acknowledged, with agreement that we must disobey unjust laws.

A taskforce was nominated to convene the next summit, which will be held over Easter at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The taskforce was directed to focus on: deaths in custody; over-policing of children and youth; institutional racism; child protection — in consultation with Aboriginal communities; sustainable Aboriginal economic development; respect for Aboriginal religion and spirituality; cultural tourism and ownership of all Aboriginal programming.

Some Aboriginal leaders not at the summit have since contacted the taskforce to indicate their support for the next summit.

Murri leader and Socialist Alliance member Sam Watson, who didn't attend, told GLW: "[my] community will be travelling to Sydney for the next summit meeting, where we have serious business of sovereignty to discuss with the other nations."

Watson called for Aboriginal nations to issue citizenship certificates and passports, and to concentrate on unity and national identity. "[Prime Minister Kevin] Rudd, [Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny] Macklin and [Treasurer Wayne] Swan need to be charged with the misappropriation of Aboriginal funds, which leaves our communities and families suffering.

"The NT government and administration also should be pursued for stealing Aboriginal funds. These are life and death issues for our people and the governments must be held accountable."

Richard Downs, spokesperson for the Alyawarr people's walk-off against the Northern Territory intervention, spoke via video link to enthusiastic applause.

Barbara Shaw from the Intervention Rollback Action Group in Alice Springs described intervention as a farce. She described the squalor in which Aboriginal people live and said the intervention had done nothing to improve it.

Raylene Silverton outlined the campaign against uranium by Aboriginal people living in Central Australian outstations. Many uranium deposits lie under their land, and Silverton said they should remain there.

Different speakers reported on the many injustices the Aboriginal community still endures.

Marianne Mackay, Nyoongar woman from the Western Australian Aboriginal Deaths in Custody campaign, said 3% of WA's population is Aboriginal and yet 83% of the prison population is Aboriginal. This is a much higher rate than Blacks in apartheid South Africa experienced.

Ray Jackson from the Indigenous Social Justice Association reported on the abuse of rights regarding the deaths of incarcerated Aboriginal inmates, including those in transit.

After the summit, Jackson told GLW that the summit was "a tentative step towards winning sovereignty".

"[The next summit] needs to be broader and more representative, after we each return to our communities to seek broader support.

"My qualified support is based on our need for true unity and representation from those states that were unable to join in to this summit."

Other speakers included Mark McMurtrie, Gary Simon and Les Malezer.

Venezuelan ambassador to Australia Nelson Davila outlined the gains of the indigenous people of his country as a result of the revolution there.

Greens Aboriginal affairs spokesperson Senator Rachel Siewert pledged to assist the taskforce, including by drafting a private member's bill about sovereignty.

The summit resolved to continue to build unity within the Aboriginal rights movement and to keep up the fight until the intervention was overturned and full sovereignty was achieved.

As part of a protest action for the opening of parliament, two members of the new taskforce, Mackay and Amala Groom from Sydney, were in the public gallery when Rudd began to speak. They became overwhelmed with emotion at the government's crimes against Aboriginal people, and interjected demanding Macklin's resignation and the repeal of the racist intervention laws.

They were escorted out by a large number of security officers.

Anderson described the summit to GLW as: "even more exciting and informed that the original movement that founded the Tent Embassy in 1972. There is no turning back.

"We have waited far too long, we walk this new way together with our eyes open to the traps of the past, we will not be divided or distracted. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land."