[We happened to witness a demonstration last Thurday, “Australia Day”, which commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet, with convicts, and so of course also marks the beginning of the dispossession of Aboriginal people. I gather pictures of our Prime Minister being dragged by a security man have gone around the world. I have sent this account to media, we’ll see if it gets a run.]
[Posted on The Drum, 30 Jan.]
The bias, hysteria and divisiveness of our public political conversation is never far from view, but this week I encountered it first hand. I watched the Aboriginal protest unfold at The Lobby restaurant. The event reported in the media and reacted to by many commentators is a lurid parody of what actually happened. Perspective and balance are hard to find.
The protest was not violent. It was certainly rowdy and confronting. The protesters chanted loudly and angrily, and some beat time on the glass walls of the restaurant. There was some pushing and shoving as the VIP cars finally moved out. Police initially said there were “scuffles” and no arrests would be made.
For those inside the restaurant it would probably have been a bit scary, but the Prime Minister and others stayed calm and were never physically threatened. My partner and I were outside watching from meters away and never felt concerned for our safety.
The most likely result of actual confrontation, in my estimation, would have been angry people shouting in the faces of the PM or Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Ms. Gillard has had former Labor leader Mark Latham in her face and survived.
That evening the WIN TV news repeatedly referred to “violence” and used other inflammatory terms so inaccurate as to amount to lies. The Canberra Times front page next day screamed “Australia’s day of disgrace”. There are disgraces involved, but the rowdy protest was not one.
The most dramatic images were not of violent protesters, but of a rattled security man dragging the Prime Minister, quite unnecessarily, as Mr. Abbott’s less undignified gait makes clear.
There is now a great fuss about a staffer who leaked the location of Mr. Abbott. This distracts from the stupidity of having the event a stone’s throw from a gathering marking the fortieth anniversary of the Aboriginal tent embassy, in a fish-bowl restaurant with glass on three sides. We had noticed a formal gathering in the restaurant, and it would not have been too hard to see who was in there, had we bothered.
Few seem to be able to put this episode in some perspective. A speaker at the tent embassy earlier had made the point that there has never been a legal basis for applying English law to aborigines. We dispossessed them in a genocidal invasion and unilaterally applied our law.
An aboriginal man taken into a white court in the 1840s said he did not acknowledge the authority of the court. There had been no agreement to submit, no treaty, nothing. When the court said it would apply English law anyway, the man’s lawyer said in that case the man should be compensated, under English law, for the theft of his land.
You know there has never been any compensation, nor has the legal situation fundamentally changed. The contemptuous white attitude of the past persists today in the Intervention in the Northern Territory, which was imposed by Tony Abbott’s party and continued by the Prime Minister’s party.
The Intervention blatantly belies Abbott’s and Gillard’s claims that things are better than forty years ago and that most Australians have respect for indigenous people. Respect would involve looking together for a way forward, not draconian and racist income management and displacement from traditional country.
The whole point of the tent embassy was and is to confront white Australia with these realities. A great wrong was done to Aborigines and we still cannot find it in our hearts to treat them with respect and deal with them as equals.
Many, including other aboriginal people who were not there, are lamenting the confronting behaviour as harming the cause. Yes, it would be better if everyone would sit down calmly and get real about what has happened and what needs to be done. But perhaps the protesters have a point that they are not listened to if they don’t insert themselves in our faces.
In any case surely we can step back and make some allowance. The protesters have far more reason to be angry than drunken yobbos at rock concerts or the Cronulla beach. Given past wrongs, they deserve some credit for avoiding destruction and actual violence.
Nor does burning the Australian flag count as destruction of property. It is a symbol. A symbol of the white invasion and imposition of white law. They make the same valid point as the elder in the 1840s – they do not recognise its authority.
This episode exposes much that is unflattering about Australian society. The media, unfortunately typically, reported inaccurately and used inflammatory language, thereby promoting division. Many people, including many in responsible positions, have reacted instantly and irrationally.
One would wish the media and politicians would be more capable of monitoring and managing their own gut reactions, but of course these days they have become the least capable of such maturity. We are foolish to tolerate such immaturity, in our so-called leaders and in our selves.
Here is a good lesson in the need for Australians, all of us, to grow up, and to face up to some hard truths, and some hard choices.