On Saturday I spoke at a forum as part of the ‘Intervention Intervention’ exhibition. This is a powerful and profound exhibition of artists responding to the draconian Northern Territory intervention and the forum was a great opportunity to discuss the many issues involved. It was also a great honour to be on a panel with Professor Larrissa Behrendt as we eagerly wait and see if she will be pronounced Australian of the Year.
Below is a copy of a speech I gave to open the forum. The exhibition continues at ‘At the Vanishing Point’ Gallery, King St Newtown until the 30th of January.
REDCOATS, COLONISATION AND THE NT INTERVENTION iNTervention Intervention Forum Speech 22 January 2011
I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on Aboriginal land and pay my respects to the elders past and present. This land was never ceded, sold, traded or given away. It is still Aboriginal land, it always was and it always will be.
When the British arrived in 1788 they claimed the land of the First Australians as if the occupants did not exist and came up with the terrible notion of Terra Nullius which obliterated the original Australians as if they were non human.
This is the great crime that White Australia was built on and it is a theme that permeates the wonderful work of Uncle Gordon Syron whose painting here today mentions those redcoats who represent the devastating invasion forces of the British Empire.
Uncle Gordon’s work has a constant theme and images of the arrival of the redcoats whether it’s his series of paintings on the arrival of the first fleet as viewed through the Sydney Harbour heads or the sinister presence of redcoats in his other landscapes and paintings.
Two of Gordon’s paintings hang in my office and the presence of the redcoats in them is a constant reminder of the invasion and occupation of Australia by her majesty’s finest British colonial oppressors.
Uncle Gordon’s redcoats are not just the troops that sailed through the Heads with the First Fleet, they are symbolic of generations of repression and discrimination. Oppression that continues to this day and is at its most obvious in the Northern Territory Intervention.
Today the colour of the redcoats has changed to blue but the heel of the boot is just the same. I acknowledge here the painting by Teena McCarthy which shows the imprint of that boot on remote land and communities.
Unlike the colonisation of other countries like America and New Zealand there were no treaties made and signed between the British and the original inhabitants of Terra Australis. Of course treaties involve an agreement between two parties and the British had negated the original Australians by saying the land was nullius or empty.
Thus there was no need to acknowledge Aboriginal sovereignty, to make treaties or compensate the landowners. The Greens support both treaty and just compensation for this great wrong that colonisation has created.
Across the world we have seen that colonisation has really meant the repression and oppression of indigenous populations whose culture is rapidly destroyed for the alien values of the colonial power.
To achieve this hegemony the colonisers begin a process of genocide that ranges from massacres to assimilation in a global attempt to wipe out the diversity and uniqueness of indigenous peoples and create a Eurocentric world.
In Australia we have seen British colonialism at its most ruthless and throughout the 222 years of settlement a concerted effort has been mounted to control and destroy Aboriginal culture and society.
The most recent expression of this oppression is the Northern Territory Intervention which follows a history of massacres, dispossession, of confining Aboriginal people on church run missions, taking the wages of those who worked, removing children from their families in the Stolen Generations and trying to breed Aboriginality out of society by assimilation policies.
Policies that have aimed to destroy Aboriginal language, culture and custom.
The Intervention is the last straw in this history of oppression and discrimination and is a final attempt to destroy one of the oldest cultures in the world.
The attack on remote communities, the leasing of Aboriginal land by the government in exchange for housing, the introduction of Basics Cards, the closing of community run services, the attack on language and the attempts to force nomadic people into town centres are all part of this slow genocide.
What’s happening in the Northern Territory is like the infamous line from the Vietnam War where the Americans had to “destroy the villages to save them”. Under the Intervention the government has chosen to destroy community and culture under the pretext of saving the children and has even used the armed forces to invade remote communities.
The paintings here today reflect many of these aspects of this latest oppression and discrimination.
Brendan Penzer’s exhibit on the Basics Card highlights the unbelievable discrimination that the Intervention has brought to Aboriginal Territorians who are forced to have their money and the places they can spend it controlled by the government. They are singled out from all other Australians at this point in time and treated like children with no pocket money.
No one else in Australia is confined to poverty in this way and I note that Jane Doolan, who painted the delicate painting you see when you enter the gallery, and Amunda Gorey were unable to attend the opening last week because their finances were controlled by the Basic Card and would not allow them the freedom to travel down to Sydney.
How is this possible in the 21st Century, when freedom is meant to be a central part of our democracy, that we allow the original Australians to languish under paternalistic government control with substandard education, health and housing?
What has happened to justice for Aboriginal people since the referendum of 1967 and the 2000 march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Reconciliation?
How is it that the human rights of Aboriginal Australians have gone backwards instead of forwards?
How can a Labor government continue and strengthen these policies?
Instead of the reforms we have seen no changes with the continuation of the special leases demanded by the government as a trade off for housing, which is a basic right of all Australians, and the threat of extending the system of quarantining of Centrelink payments by the Basics Card across the country – thus covering their abuse of the Racial Discrimination Act.
In spite of these draconian measures we are still waiting to see a decent amount of housing built, community run services and jobs created or a change in the terrible health outcomes of Aboriginal people.
I look at the artworks here today and I am humbled by the talent that flows from our native brothers and sisters and their ongoing courage and outrage at the terrible conditions that the redcoat ancestors continue to force upon them.