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A Look Back at the Australian Aboriginal Rights Movements of 2014

This year activists have worked to reclaim the first land handed back to indigenous Australians and form an Aboriginal-controlled body to represent all indigenous nations.

by Paul Gregoire
Dec 30 2014, 7:25pm

Photo courtesy of Redfern Tent Embassy

2014 saw a rise in the formation of prominent Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander movements. And although these movements have seemingly different agendas—from calling a halt to another stolen generation, to reclaiming the first land handed back to indigenous Australians, to forming an Aboriginal-controlled body to represent all indigenous nations—they're all connected by the common cause of indigenous self-determination.

At a time when minister for Aboriginal affairs, Tony Abbott, is championing the cause of constitutional recognition, which many indigenous rights activists label as mere tokenism, movements such as these are calling instead for greater Aboriginal sovereignty.

These movements come as the gap between indigenous Australians and the rest of the population is widening. The 2014 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report revealed that suicide rates, cases of self-harm, and levels of incarceration are soaring. On the recommendation of Andrew Forrest's Creating Parity report, the government is now planning to implement changes to its welfare system that will see indigenous recipients in remote areas working double the amount of work-for-the-dole hours than those in urban areas.

VICE Australia spoke with representatives from several newly established indigenous movements to gauge their success so far and vision for the future.

Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR)

On National Apology Day, February 13, a group of women from the Gamilaraay nation of northern New South Wales (NSW) who called themselves GMAR gathered outside state parliament to protest the forced removals of Aboriginal children from their homes by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS). They declared a new stolen generation is happening nationally, as current figures show more Aboriginal children are being removed from their homes than at any other time in Australian history. In NSW, the nationwide crisis is at its peak, with 10 percent of the state's indigenous children in out-of-home care.

"Basically the group is saying, if a family is in crisis, work with the families and keep the children within their Aboriginal families and communities. Children are being removed from their Aboriginal families in entirety, not just their parents," said Suellyn Tighe, a member of GMAR.

Tighe explained that the movement has been campaigning for a proposed Aboriginal Community Expert Committee, which would work in conjunction with FACS, to oversee cases of possible child removal. The grassroots movement garnered the support of major institutions, such as the NSW Ombudsman and the Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Care State Secretariat. And this led to the first meeting of the GMAR working group, also attended by representatives of FACS, with the aim of developing the structure for an initial northern NSW and future statewide committee.

However at the first meeting the FACS attendees named themselves chair of the committee. "We actually said, 'This completely smacks of paternalism. This is our proposal, therefore we should be leading this,'" Tighe said. FACS conceded this at a second meeting in December and a GMAR representative now chairs the group.

Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy

On National Sorry Day, May 26, a group of Aboriginal activists established the Redfern Aboriginal tent embassy on an area of land known as "the Block," in inner-city Sydney. The embassy is protesting the $7 million Pemulwuy project, a development initiated by the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) and developer Deicorp.

The Block—the heartland of Sydney's indigenous community since it was handed back in the 1970s—was previously used by the AHC to provide low-income houses for local Aboriginal residents.

The new development has the financial backing to establish a commercial sector and student housing. But there is no funding for a proposed 62 affordable houses for Aboriginal residents.

On December 22, Jenny Munro, tent embassy organizer and a founding member of the AHC, was arrested over an incident and one of her bail conditions is that she cannot return to the embassy. Munro told VICE that on the same day, Redfern police informed her that they were going to evict the embassy protesters. This led to an alert being sent out over the embassy's Facebook page, resulting in 150 protesters assembling and maintaining a vigil.

These incidents came just weeks after it was revealed that Deicorp employed a company that allegedly used racist marketing to advertise another Redfern development. "The attitude of the development company is very anti-Aboriginal," Munro said. "I think something needs to be done to stop the developer moving in, while this question mark hangs over their head."

But these events have done nothing to deter Munro and her group. "We're as strong and determined as ever to maintain our protest at the site that is one of the most iconic pieces of land for our people, having been one of the first that we gained back under the white system of law in this country," Munro said.

The Freedom Summit

Ask Tauto Sansbury, organizer of the 2014 Freedom Summit in Alice springs, why the event was necessary and he'll give you a specific and direct answer. "Because of all the issues faced within Australia, because of the federal government's cuts to Aboriginal programs, because of the Andrew Forrest report Creating Parity, the National Indigenous Advisory Body chaired by Warren Mundine is ineffective, and the information that's been provided by Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson to the federal government on Aboriginal affairs is pretty ineffective," Tauto told VICE over the phone.

"The Abbott government are removing Aboriginal rights on a daily basis. We want to be able to attack the government on all of these issues," he added.

The summit was headed by 20 delegates, who it is proposed will form a national Aboriginal-controlled representative body. This body will be able to address both federal and state governments on indigenous issues, such as sovereignty, treaty rights, and self-determination. As Sansbury explained, it will work to get "everybody united from around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia and to have one united voice going forward into 2015."

The next move is for the delegates, along with an estimated 1000 plus supporters, to converge on Canberra on January 26, to begin a sit-in outside of Parliament.

The Brisbane Sovereign Aboriginal Embassy

The Brisbane Sovereign Aboriginal embassy was established in Musgrave Park in March of 2012. The embassy runs a food program, which services 235 families throughout the greater city on a weekly basis. According to Boe Spearim, a representative of the embassy, the program lowers the rate of Aboriginal child removals by the Department of Community, Child Safety and Disability Services, as the first thing an officer does when inspecting a residence is to check the amount of food in the cupboards.

GMAR and other grandparents groups from around the nation held a two day meeting in Musgrave Park in July, in response to the national child removals crisis. At that time the groups formed the National Aboriginal Strategic Alliance (NASA). The park was also the site where the "Decolonization Before Profits" G20 protest march was organized in November.

"One of the things that came out of the week-long protests in Brisbane, was that we decided next year, February 13, the grannies group (NASA) is going to head down to Canberra for a national protest," Spearim said. "Also through G20, us young fellas, started a new group called Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. We're looking to have a national meeting at the start of February in Victoria."

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