Feb 16, 2012

Aboriginal protests: grassroots activism v boardroom blackfellas

In the wash-up of the Tent Embassy debacle, a few opportunities have emerged. The most important is a discussion – particularly among young Aboriginal people – about a way forward.

Chris Graham

Tracker managing editor

In the months before he died, Chicka Dixon, one of the most loved and respected Aboriginal leaders of the modern era, would host a weekly meeting at his Sydney home with young and up-and-coming Aboriginal men and women. One of the central messages Chicka wanted to get out was this: "The days of marching on the streets are over. You have to beat them in the boardroom." An impressive young Sydney Aboriginal leader who made frequent use of Chicka’s mentoring was relaying the story to me recently. The conversation was sparked by his disappointment at what had occurred at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on January 26. He spends his days fighting for the rights of his people, and felt that the actions of some Embassy activists -- the demonstration outside an event attended by the Prime Minister, and in particular the burning of the Australian flag -- had set the cause back some years. Aboriginal opinion on the Embassy protest is obviously divided. Some were outraged by it; others were disappointed, but they understood where the frustrations came from. And of course some supported it, while others felt the embassy activists didn’t go far enough. The frustrations of the young Sydney Aboriginal leader are real. But so too are the frustrations of embassy activists. In the wash-up of the Tent Embassy debacle, a few opportunities have emerged. The most important is a discussion -- particularly among young Aboriginal people -- about a way forward. Many Aboriginal people were highly critical of the decision by some Tent Embassy activists to burn the Australian flag the day after the clash at The Lobby. But what they perhaps miss is that while the story played out disastrously locally -- Australians were outraged -- it played out very positively internationally. There’s no commercial need for the world’s media to be parochial in its reporting of Aboriginal affairs, so they overwhelmingly delivered a straight news report. People around the world simply saw images of very angry people burning the Australian flag. The effect internationally has been to shed further light on the atrocious relationship between black and white Australians. Regardless of your views of the actual incident, exposing the racist underbelly of this nation to the rest of the world is not a bad thing for the Aboriginal cause. So to the opportunity for discussion -- I think the debate really is about two classes of protesters -- boardroom blackfellas, and grassroots activists (by that I mean "embassy-style activists and mission blackfellas"). I also think that Chicka Dixon was wrong. While I have enormous admiration for the man, if there’s no place for the street march, then there’s no place for grassroots activists. They can’t battle it out in the boardroom, because they'll never get in there. But nor can they sit on their hands and do nothing. Their frustration and their sense of alienation is no less relevant. Just as there are two classes of protester, there must be two battlegrounds. But in engaging in the struggle, the grassroots activists face a number of specific hurdles. The first is owning up to the reality that the behaviour of some protesters -- albeit a small minority -- was, on occasion, disgraceful. Internal tensions became so great during the four-day celebration that delegations from Western Australia and South Australia walked out. At one point during a press conference, sanctioned by the embassy, one Aboriginal man threatened a cameraman who had been invited on the grounds by embassy officials. "Don’t you f-cking film me c-nt or I’ll smash your f-cking head in," he screamed. The cameraman had simply turned and panned around the embassy grounds to get a different shot. It was a disgraceful display, but one that was repeated by this man, and a few others (women included) over the course of the next few days. During the march to burn the flag another Aboriginal man threatened to assault a number of journalists. Later that night, he arrived back at the embassy drunk and started several altercations. On another occasion, an Aboriginal man walked up the middle of the embassy grounds with a baseball bat, threatening several people. He was chased off by dozens of embassy activists. As media camped up on the steps above the embassy grounds for several days, numerous Aboriginal people took it upon themselves to approach crews and hurl abuse. This even occurred during officially sanctioned media conferences. Most of these incidents were captured by news crews, but it’s worth acknowledging that none of them were reported. And with that, I also acknowledge the press gallery’s interactions with embassy activists throughout the event was mostly professional and respectful. Shame about much of the subsequent reporting (an honourable exception to Channel Seven, which remains the only news outlet to question the level of threat posed to the Prime Minister). Even so, while the overwhelming majority of people at the Tent Embassy were also respectful and well-behaved, there was irrefutably an element that did themselves -- and their cause -- no favours. The days of the street march may not be over, but the days of bullying and abuse to get what you want must end. There can be no room in the Aboriginal struggle for this behaviour any more. There are two other specific challenges for the grassroots activists, and they both relate to how they sell their message. Media has evolved over the past 40 years. But the methods of grassroots activists have not. Unlike the 1972 embassy protests, today we have a 24-hour news cycle. The quickest way to feed a 24-hour news appetite is to run half-baked stories that confirm pre-existing notions about Aboriginal people. Grassroots activists, on occasions, handed those stories up on a platter. The other challenge is that their message hasn’t changed. That’s understandable given there’s been bugger-all progress on the issues that matter to most Aboriginal people -- treaty, sovereignty and national land rights. But white Australia has tired of hearing the same message (if they ever heard it in the first place). So the challenge is to communicate demands in a way that breaks through. What we saw at the embassy a week ago was a failure to do that cogently.Instead, we saw in-fighting, abuse, chaos and very mixed messages. Embassy activists told media that their beef was not with Gillard, but with Abbott. And yet news footage shows activists holding Gillard’s lost shoe aloft like a trophy (and for the record, it was returned … another story media overwhelmingly didn’t report). A well-attended press conference at which embassy officials listed their demands -- sovereignty, treaty land rights -- was followed by the flag burning. No prizes for guessing which story got dropped, and which got run. The fact is, grassroots activists need to get more sophisticated in their message delivery. That’s where the boardroom blackfellas have a role. One of the sad realities of black political life in Australia is that in order to be listened to, Aboriginal Australians must put forward an "acceptable face". It’s why Noel Pearson gets so much traction. It’s why the attacks on "rioters" by Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda and self-anointed leader Warren Mundine dominated the news response to the debacle. These men don’t threaten the status quo. They tell whites what they want to hear. But delivering a difficult message to mainstream Australia is not impossible -- it just hangs on how it’s presented. Working together, boardroom blackfellas and grassroots activists have a chance of breaking through. They can reshape the media landscape, but if they’re to do so, they must remember two golden rules. The first is that boardroom blackfellas and grassroots activists are, deep down, the same people. The second is the greatest tool of colonisation -- the way we whitefellas nowadays try to "civilise" -- is to turn one Aboriginal person against another. When blackfellas fight, us whitefellas start rubbing our hands together and counting our cash. The sooner Aboriginal Australia remembers that, the quicker the battle in the boardroom, and on the streets, will be won. *Chris Graham is the managing editor of Tracker Magazine. He is a Walkley Award and Walkley High Commendation winner, and has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting on indigenous affairs. He served as the embassy’s media adviser for the 40th anniversary celebrations in Canberra.

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17 thoughts on “Aboriginal protests: grassroots activism v boardroom blackfellas

  1. Whistleblower

    The alienation of so-called indigenous Australians is largely self-inflicted because of their unwillingness to adapt to the social requirements necessary to participate in the modern world economy. There are plenty of opportunities for advancement, but these are squandered on the presumption that somehow or other being of aboriginal descent make one a special case. Therefore they theydon’t have to adapt to changing circumstances in terms of education, social and vocational skills, but can gain identity by claiming victimhood.

    There should be no battle in the boardroom or the streets. The battle is in the minds of the alienated. Until they learn to adapt to a different way of living involving integration into Australian society, they will continue to be marginalised largely on a self-selection basis, aided and abetted by parasitical left-wing activists who boost their own self-esteem by promoting indigenous victimhood as a means of self-expression.

  2. Mr Marrickville

    Mr Graham has a habit of referring to non-indigenous Australians as ‘white’ in his articles.

    Considering that a large number of non-indigenous Australians are not white it is not clear who he is talking about when he talks about ‘whites’ and ‘whitefellas’.

    I assume he means people of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English descent.

    What about people from continental Europe (west and east and the Mediterranean)?

    What about people from the Middle East?

    What about people from Asia and Oceania?.

    What about people from Africa?

    If he is arguing that non-indigenous Australians with white skins are racist but non-indigenous Australians who do not have white skin are not could make that clear and explain the basis for the claim. There are plenty of non-white non-indigenous Australians who have strong views about people of different backgrounds – invariably former neighbours in their or their parents homelands.

    If he thinks that all non-indigenous Australians are racist and racist specifically towards indigenous Australians he should describe the issue as being racism by non-indigenous Australians rather than ‘white’ Australians in particular.

  3. Lyn Gain

    A thoughtful article Chris. But I don’t think you have given enough emphasis to the corruptive effects on the boardroom blackfellas of mixing with the whitefella power brokers. This is a very complex issue, in both black and white society, whether to do ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ advocacy. I teach advocacy and social change, and remind my undergraduates how important it is for the advocates to take the people affected with them, and make sure everyone supports the message. This is, of course, a great deal easier said than done. There seems to be considerable dislocation between the boardroom blackfellas and the grassroots activists. It could be a gut reaction or a thought-through position on the likelihood of achieving real social change through revolution or through reform. I am reminded of a 1999 article by Garry Foley on reconciliation. This is still valid, as is an alternative pro reform view – both of which I still use as readings. Working together is certainly the way to go, but how realistic is this, for either blackfellas or whitefellas with different views about what works. Which groups do you think are most likely to be reading Crikey?

  4. Whistleblower


    You really need to be more explicit in your question. Let me amplify my position.

    In my opinion, a significant proportion of the the so-called indigenous problem is an intractable issue born out of a desire to cling to a form of identity which is antipathetic towards participation in a modern economy.

    The first main issue is physical isolation. Substantial remnants of so-called indigenous culture are in isolated areas of low economic value in terms of goods and services production. This isolation mitigates against effective healthcare and education.

    Most mainstream Australians understand that education is the key to social dignity and the ability for one to earn a living. Clinging to outmoded tribal customs, non- mainstream languages, and fragmented cultural values must make it difficult for so-called indigenous children to remain competitive in educational environment if they are isolated from a broader peer group.

    Anybody who really cares about aboriginal welfare would be working to physically integrate aboriginal communities into mainstream Australian society. This would require relocation away from tribal homelands into urban centres.

    It would involve exposing aboriginal children to all of the benefits to be derived from vocational employment rather than living on welfare. However anybody trying to facilitate such an arrangement would be accused of creating another stolen generation.

    This reminds me about the old joke about how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb. The answer is of course that the light bulb has to want to be changed.

    So it is with the indigenous community, it has to want to change and has to manage the change itself. Until enough indigenous leaders come to the fore and recommend this type of solution to the rest of the indigenous community as a desirable pathway, a significant proportion of the money being spent on indigenous welfare is being swallowed up by bureaucracy and spinning of wheels. There is very little advantage to be gained from taking an adversarial position which only reinforces the egos of activists.

    I am more than happy to be told that my position is wrong, but I expect constructive debate rather than four word challenges with no substance.

  5. Mark Regan

    Wow Whistleblower you make a complicated social and political issue seem so simple. Thank God for good old common sense hey So, Aboriginals are alienated because of their ‘unwillingness to adapt to the social requirements necessary to participate in the modern world economy’. I get it now. Its their fault! If only Aboriginal people in isolated communities
    WANTED to become hedge-fund managers or chemical engineers. Because there are ‘plenty of opportunities for advancement,’ you said so, but you conveniently don’t say what these are. Well never mind, here’s your second paragraph all steeped in tough love and common sense.

    And what a paragraph! I can tell you’ve really thought about this issue and perhaps discussed it with some of your friends.
    Whistleblower, its as though you are speaking from the year 1890. Since then a man called Durkheim… oh whats the point?

  6. daiskmeliadorn

    This seems like a problematic article for a “whitefella” to be writing.

    I’m not sure Aboriginal activists should really have “media cut-through” as their main objective when the media relentlessly and almost without exception ignore any positively-framed message (as Chris Graham pointed out in his article yesterday – the thousand? 2000? strong rally had zero media presence).

    A lot of Aboriginal people, and I suspect many of those Chris describes being very drunk and abusive, are desperately poor, and we all recognise totally alienated by most of Australia’s institutions. Sure it would be a great media strategy for those people to sober up and be nice and respectable. But they probably have bigger worries – and it’s whitefellas’ responsibility to try and address those. It’s hard to argue it’s our role to police Aboriginal peoples’ behaviour, and encourage some Aboriginal activists to disown those who are obviously struggling.

    Hopefully Chris would argue that’s not what he is suggesting, but it looks to me like the direciton his argument leads.

  7. Phen

    Mark – I think its fair to assume that getting more aboriginal children motivated to want to become mechanics and secretaries would be a good starting point before chemical engineers and hedge-fund managers. Even these modest goals are out of reach when people grow up in a culture of welfare dependency and victimhood complexes.

  8. Lyn Gain

    I think you’re making a valid point Daiskmeliadorn. I, for one, am not an outraged Australian. It is important to understand that the frustrations which lead to what Chris calls ‘disgraceful’ behaviour arise from 40 years plus of inappropriate action, and an attempt to co-opt the well behaved blackfellas into the system. Why is it disgraceful to see real people behaving with real passion. And as for some other comments, I have never heard such patronising eurocentric twaddle in my life. I assume Phen is not a secretary or a mechanic. And, Whistleblower simply assumes that the dominant society’s obsession with competitive economic ‘progress’ is preferable to an indigenous valuing of wisdom and harmony with the land.

  9. Chris Graham

    @ Whistleblower: You could have saved a lot of time and energy (and strain on the environment) by just writing, “Aboriginal culture is shit, and Aboriginal people should assimilate”. Mind you, you would have been rightfully ignored. But then were anyway, so no harm done, I suppose.

    @Daiskmeliadorn: Some fair points you raise. And it is problematic coming from a whitefella. I was very mindful of that when I wrote it. And I normally don’t write that sort of stuff, but having been as involved as I was at the Embassy, and seeing what I saw, I felt obliged to offer an honest assessment. It was a difficult piece to write (and in fact the original is much much longer, and tied together with the piece Crikey published yesterday).

    I’m not suggesting Aboriginal people disown those that are struggling (although I accept it could be read that way). The individuals I’m mostly referring to are not poor – they’ve been part of the Aboriginal struggle for a long time. They’ve contributed a lot, but they’ve often gotten their way through aggression and bullying. In fact several of them have benefitted more than most from it. I saw first-heand the impact these people had on other Aboriginal people during the course of events – Aboriginal people who were there for the same reason as them, but got threatened and shouted down. I also made the point in the article that it was a very small minority, but that because of Australia’s inherent racism, they do enormous damage to the ’cause’. That is a sad reality, whether we like it or not. And granted, it is for Aboriginal people to police, not me. But it’s a discussion that has to be had.

    Overall, I was trying to write the piece from a media management perspective (as I was worked as the ‘spin doctor’ for the Embassy). What I think a lot of people miss is that ATSIC, for example, wasn’t abolished because it was corrupt, or because it lost some ‘political war’. It lost the public relations war.

    All that said, I do take the points you and Lyn have made, and appreciate the thoughts that have gone into them.

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