Keeping a flame for indigenous justice

By Graham Ring
The Melbourne Age: April 20, 2006

On a hill not far from the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, a small fire is tended night and day by indigenous activists who say it is sacred. The demonstrators at Melbourne's "Camp Sovereignty" complied with a Melbourne City Council directive and pulled down the tents that had been standing in Kings Domain since the start of the Commonwealth Games.

Earlier, I had sat in the public gallery of the Supreme Court and listened to Justice Betty King give short shrift to the pleas of the protesters for the tent city to be retained. The sacred fire would remain - protected by an emergency declaration made under the Federal Government's cultural heritage legislation - but the tents and caravans would have to go.

The City of Melbourne was being accommodating. It did not apply for the fire to be extinguished, and even offered to help the protesters move the fire. Lord Mayor John So was clearly willing to negotiate. The State Government, for its part, was happy to declare itself a non-combatant and shelter behind the skirts of the council.

These courtroom skirmishes determine only what is lawful. The more abstract concepts of justice and fairness must remain the province of legislatures rather than courts. It's simply not reasonable for the community to expect courts to act as instruments of social justice.

Camp Sovereignty was located not far from the spot where a plaque commemorates the interment of the skeletal remains of Aboriginal people from many of Victoria's Aboriginal nations. They are the ancestors of today's indigenous Victorians.

In some quarters, there may be dispute about whether this little pocket of Melbourne parkland belongs to the Boonerwrung people, whose country stretches away to the south towards Wilsons Promontory - or to the Wurundjeri, who own the land to the east of the city. What is not in doubt is that before the Europeans arrived with their intolerance and gunpowder, the whole of the country was Aboriginal land. There was no treaty. There was no ceding of land.

Hence the ire of the Black GST group, whose title reflects its aims of ending Genocide, acknowledging Sovereignty and securing a Treaty.

The media focus on the Commonwealth Games provided an opportunity to raise awareness around the world of the injustices meted out to indigenous Australians over the past 200-odd years.

The Black GST crew dubbed the event the "Stolenwealth Games", reflecting the fact that Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land without compensation, and brutally mistreated by the invaders.

Some events staged by the indigenous lobby group Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation did generate much publicity for the cause of indigenous justice.

Oversize letters that spelt out the words "Stolenwealth Games" received widespread coverage. A ceremonial fire was lit and visitors to the camp were invited to participate in a smoking ceremony.

However, the trade-off with media actions of this kind is that the ensuing discussion focuses on "colour and movement" rather than the more substantive issues. The discussion around the water cooler tends to be, "How can a fire that was only lit a month ago be sacred?", rather than, "Do the protesters have a genuine claim?"

Camp Sovereignty spokesman Robbie Thorpe tried to keep the story bubbling, speculating on one occasion about the relative courage of indigenous and non-indigenous soldiers. Widespread publicityensued, but the long-term merits of this strategy remain problematic.

The mainstream media coverage of the event has varied. Considerable focus was given to the racial make-up of the protesters, inviting the absurd conclusion that fair-skinned folk had no business in campaigning for indigenous justice. One tabloid columnist even saw fit to speculate on the percentage of "British blood" flowing through the veins of one of the Camp Sovereignty representatives.

A curious aspect of indigenous protest politics is that whitefellas in positions of power always expect Aboriginal people to play scrupulously by the rules. That is to say, "the rules" that were put in place after indigenous Australians had been stripped of their country and their possessions. It takes a lot of gall to steal everything people own and then squeal when they light a fire without a permit.

At Kings Domain, the tents and caravans have gone, and the fire is likely to be moved or extinguished in due course. But the flame of indigenous justice continues to burn.

Graham Ring writes for the National Indigenous Times.