The Struggle For Aboriginal Sovereignty

On Wednesday morning, while it was still dark, we carted mounds of firewood to the sacred fire at the Musgrave Park sovereign embassy. We cut down green branches, piling them up ready so in the words of one of the Murri activists involved in the embassy, “all of Brisbane would see the smoke.” The atmosphere was tense. TV news cameras surrounded us, rushing around. Supporters drifted in. But there was no sign yet of the police.

There was more urgency this time, but we had actually stayed up expectant the last two nights, since Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk had promised the embassy would be evicted. I still wasn’t certain that the police would come this time, but then there they were. A couple of cop cars at first; then hundreds of cops in the distance marching towards us, two abreast.

I started calling all the numbers I had listed in my pocket, the supporters for whom I was their point of contact. But it was too late. Police had blocked off all the roads around Musgrave Park, putting South Brisbane into lockdown. Even pedestrians were blocked, although people were sneaking through gaps in the barricades and supporters were steadily gathering outside the fenced off park.

I couldn’t believe how many police there were. We were overwhelmingly outnumbered. As they filed in and surrounded the embassy, we locked arms in a circle around the fire (containing ashes from the iconic Canberra tent embassy). The green branches went on and filled the air with smoke. The sound of didgeridoo and clapsticks went up and some of the Murri guys, looking amazing with their ceremonial paint on, did traditional dances around the fire. It was surreal.

The ending though was pretty inevitable, and eventually after extended negotiations with the traditional owners came to no resolution, the police moved in and started dragging people out. There were 31 arrests, and would have been many more if not for a plea from the traditional owners for people to give up and walk out peacefully.

The embassy has pledged to continue despite having the whole site impounded, and I can vouch for the commitment after sitting through a five hour meeting the day after the eviction. In all the responses, the mass media has mostly been fairly positive, and it seems that a lot of people are pretty supportive of the embassy. Most Australians are aware of the difficulties faced by indigenous people in this country.

But there certainly seems to be some confusion regarding exactly what the purpose of the embassy is, in particular around the meaning of the word most commonly thrown around at the embassies, “sovereignty”.

To put a complex idea as simply as I can, sovereignty is the idea that indigenous Australians should be subject to their own law, rather than the colonial law that was forced on them by invasion hundreds of years ago. This is the basis for a large legal case currently being prepared by indigenous people, arguing using the Pacific Islands Act, the law passed in 1875 by the British parliament that declares that British law applies only to convicts and settlers, and not to the “sovereign indigenous people”.

At the risk of sounding like the more reactionary elements of the mass media who love to point this out, the sovereignty movement is a fairly marginal part of the broader world of aboriginal activism. And there are definitely valid questions as to how it would look, given that there never was a uniform indigenous law, and the different nations that once existed are now much less defined. Or that indigenous people no longer live the nomadic tribal existence that law was part of. Or how it would work in the context of a broader Australian law and the land being shared with millions of non-indigenous Australians.

There are many different responses to these questions, but even the leaders of the sovereignty movement would admit that we don’t exactly know the answers. I have certainly had some long conversations about these issues and come out with a not much clearer idea.

I personally am ok with an idea not having a clear picture of what the end result will look like, although I know some other people find that concept a bit harder to accept. But I don’t really want to talk about the legal aspects of sovereignty here. I’m sure they will be discussed in greater detail elsewhere by people with more interest in it than me.

Because I think at a basic level, sovereignty is not about law at all. It is about all Australians recognising, in actions as well as words, that aboriginal people are the sovereign owners of this land and therefore their laws and customs are as valid as any others. In this case, that the traditional owners and tent embassy have as much right to use Musgrave Park as anybody else, including Brisbane city council.

When Lord Mayor Graham Quirk came to the embassy to inform them they would be required to leave, this was certainly not the mindset he brought. Rather, he came with a colonial idea of power, that he had the right to control who used the park. Naturally, in all the benevolence of the state, he would allow the embassy to keep the sacred fire and a marquee (but no more) at the top of the hill, land that is theoretically under native title anyway.

Of course, on Wednesday morning we all saw what the consequences would be of not recognising Mayor Quirk’s power. 200 armed police, and there’s plenty more where they came from too.

Premier Campbell Newman’s comments about “squatters’ camps” also showed a lack of willingness to engage in any kind of aboriginal sovereignty. It was Graham Quirk who summed it up best really when he told the embassy that he understood the value of 60 000 years of culture and centuries of struggle, but “other people have been using the park for a long time, and this is where we usually have the kids’ amusement rides.”

It would have been so easy for Quirk to sit down and talk with the embassy about the use of the park and sharing it with others. Rather than being a hostile place, the embassy has signs up everywhere saying “everybody welcome”. It’s impossible to turn up there and not be offered a cup of tea. The embassy was happy for the Paniyiri festival (supposedly the reason for the eviction) to happen, had even talked about taking down some tents so it took up less room in the (massive) park. The festival organisers had publicly said they were ok with the embassy being there, and asked them to give a welcome to country. All it would have taken to recognise the sovereignty of aboriginal people was to come and sit down and check that everyone was ok with sharing the park, respectfully negotiate any difficulties.

But Quirk’s actions said a lot more about the way our society views indigenous issues than the aboriginal flag that flies outside parliament house, or the shallow acknowledgements of traditional owners that precede public events. He came in (with a token indigenous “liaison” standing silently by his side), announced he could only stay for half an hour, gave his orders, listened to a couple of questions, then said he had to go and walked out, turning his back and ignoring an elder asking him a question in the process. Whatever apologies or gestures have been publicly made, the truth is that this is what passes for recognition of indigenous culture in Australia today.

Meanwhile, I can personally say that I as a white person have been officially welcomed via smoking ceremonies into aboriginal communities from Rockhampton to Melbourne and multiple places in between. I’ve always been treated with respect and dignity.

A friend of mine once cried at a smoking ceremony; her family had been refugees and she said it was the first time anybody had ever welcomed her to Australia. Compare this to our colonial law and its attitude to outsiders – rigorous visa and immigration regulations; a harrowing mandatory detention process for those seeking asylum.

From the beginning of the land rights struggle, to the debate over an apology from the Prime Minister, to any discussion of sovereignty now, there has been endless fear mongering about what the consequences would be of acknowledging aboriginal law, with no basis whatsoever in reality.

Meanwhile, it is colonial law that continues to rule by brute force – giving native title rights then taking the land anyway for resource exploitation; forced relocation of homelands; the Northern Territory intervention which required repealing the racial discrimination act to enforce. It’s in the face of these laws that aboriginal self-determination is considered such an offence, that people ask what right they have to be treated any differently from whites.

As much as sovereignty seems to be a radical concept, it really just comes from a belief that aboriginal people should have control over their own lives, and be able to piece together a healthy culture free from the impositions of a system that has not only dispossessed them repeatedly, but now incarcerates them at astonishing rates (30% of prisoners in Australia are indigenous). Whatever we think of the pros and cons of this, it’s really pretty hard to argue on a moral basis. After all, indigenous people never asked to be subjected to British law.

Realistically of course, the legal case is an uphill battle. It’s hard to argue within a legal framework the illegitimacy of the law. It’s unlikely that any kind of legal sovereignty will be granted any time soon. But then again, it wasn’t that long ago that aboriginal people weren’t considered fully human, and it wasn’t any legal process that changed that. Rather, through history it has been shifting attitudes that have forced the law to change.

No one was surprised that Graham Quirk acted the way he did on Wednesday. Of course it is in the interest of the council and government for them to control who gets to use the park. But it’s possible that events like this will lead to changing mindsets around aboriginal culture. Maybe one day Campbell Newman will learn what that aboriginal flag on his lapel pin actually means.

Maybe aboriginal sovereignty is closer than we think. The battle for the sovereign embassies (the Brisbane embassy is one of over 10 around the country) will go on anyway, and this represents an opportunity for all Australians to show their support for true reconciliation and true indigenous self-determination. As the police closed in on Musgrave Park, a chant was started as a reply. Or maybe an invitation.

“1-2-3, sovereignty! That’s how easy it can be!”


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2 responses to “The Struggle For Aboriginal Sovereignty

  1. jonocingram

    Thanks for your thoughts and reflections on this Andy.

    You hear many Australians saying that Aboriginal people should not be treated any differently than white Australians, but the fact is that they are treated differently…its just in a way most white Australians aren’t willing to admit (eg NT Intervention/Stronger Futures and the Racial Discrimination Act). Like you have done, reconciliation begins with sitting down and hearing the stories of this nations first peoples.

    Cheers mate

  2. Pingback: Colonisation: latest instalment, Musgrave Park. |

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