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First Nations’ Law is the heart of resistance

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Lindy Nolan     January 6, 2019

This is the third article investigating ruptures in a carefully fostered pro-corporate united front among First Nations Peoples. It updates and revisits previously published material on mining industry interference in First Nations’ communities and issues.

At Garma Festival in 2016, Yolngu elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu told of his outrage that mining companies keep coming back and back demanding discussions. He was unwell and it showed.
His denunciation did not last long on the Garma website after this writer transcribed it. Garma is sponsored by Rio Tinto.
The patter of mining company reps is something like this, “We’ll eventually get this through. We’ll make sure you’ll be able to afford education for your kids and health care if you agree and some cash in your pockets. We’ll employ some of your people too. If you don’t, we’ll get what we want and you might get nothing.”

Native title legislation is loaded against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples because it allows no veto.

For basic rights most Australians take for granted, one family group is divided against another, one clan against another by this blackmail. Some make agreements for land for which they are not custodians, and bitter disputes follow.

Meanwhile profits, especially mining profits, roll in to corporations.

Racist bile and a bet each way

Academic and activist Marcia Langton has been the mining industry’s most outspoken Aboriginal supporter.  While the Murdoch media and the Business Council of Australia (BCA) were very publicly at odds over the sacking of Turnbull, the mining industry was silent.

A bet each way? Or doing what they’ve done so effectively, stirring a poisonous pot behind the scenes while waving their dinkum Aussie green credentials in the media.

This time Marcia Langton did not follow their lead. She was anything but silent, hammering the far right on a number of public fronts.
Soon afterwards she criticised former Northern Territory CLP member of parliament Bess Nungarrayi Price’s receipt of the right- wing Bennelong Society’s medal back in 2009, though Langton didn’t mention the Society’s creation by Western Mining Corporation bosses, Ray Evans and Hugh Morgan. WMC is now part of BHP.

Hugh Morgan became BCA President in 2003 despite vicious public abuse of Aboriginal Peoples in the 1980s and 90s. Whether Morgan believed the racist bile that regularly came from his mouth is unimportant. What is undoubtably true is that he believed it helped weaken those who threatened company profits.

The million strong marches by mainstream whitefellas in support of justice for First Nations in 2000 was powerful material evidence that constant corporate attacks like Morgan’s had backfired.

The marches coincided with the launch of Jawun, a Business Council-sponsored organisation involving north Queensland Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson, and a plan to win selected Aboriginal leaders to a pro-corporate stance.

Suddenly Morgan’s song changed. One former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) chief expressed his shock when Morgan began courting him, professing “pro-Aboriginal sentiments”.  He eventually took Morgan at face value.

Without judging or discounting the decision of the ATSIC leader, this writer is more sceptical.

Gina and her dad

In 2018 Marcia Langton said she preferred Garma Festival (now flooded with white executives) when it was just her Peoples. She spoke supporting the “Statement from the heart”.

As far as this writer knows, Langton has never mentioned the Samuel Griffith Society’s role in Constitutional recognition. Co-founded by Hugh Morgan at the same time as the Bennelong Society, it defends the Constitution.

Hugh Morgan was also pivotal in garnering corporate support for the previously obscure Centre for Independent Studies, which later published a number of significant articles by Langton. 

These days Gina Rinehart foots the bill for the Centre. 

Ironically, her billions from the Pilbara were born of the longest industrial struggle in Australia’s history. Aboriginal pastoral workers and domestic servants chose May Day, 1946 to begin walking away from feudal bondage on pastoral stations across the Pilbara. Some of the 800 workers, from 26 language groups, who eventually joined the strike refused to go back, despite significant wins. 

The strike is documented in ‘The Black Eureka’ by Max Brown in 1976, and in the inspiring 1987 documentary, ‘How the West Was Lost’ directed by David Noakes.

The strikers took on numerous jobs to survive, but the mainstay was mining. They discovered an array of minerals and metals beyond yandying the tin already mined there.

Gina Rinehart’s father, Lang Hancock, launched his first and most deadly business, asbestos mining at Wittenoom, in 1938.

The finds of the strikers alerted Hancock and others to the riches to be robbed from Aboriginal lands in the Pilbara.

Hancock said anyone standing in the way of his profits should be pushed aside. Drugs to sterilise unemployed Aboriginal Peoples, he said in 1984, should be put waterholes. 

He began his iron ore venture in 1952, the backbone of Gina’s massive inheritance.

Even more Morgan

But back to mining magnate Hugh Morgan and his Samuel Griffith Society.

A minimalist proposal for a Constitutional Preamble on Recognition was proposed by Prime Minister John Howard, Morgan’s good mate.
Guardian Australia’s Paul Daley exposed how Howard launched the massively funded constitutional recognition machine. (5)

This came after the Samuel Griffith Society advised Howard in 1998 that Australia's so-called sovereignty, particularly over mineral resources, was under threat from Aboriginal Nations and their Peoples.  Corporations, tightly organised, were involved at almost every level of Recognise. (Lindy Nolan, Driving Disunity, the Business Council against Aboriginal Community 2017)

A significant number of First Nations have opposed the process from the start. It was top down, hand-picked, and “shoved down our throats”, Gunnai/Gunditjmara leader and former Victorian MP, Lidia Thorpe, said last March.  The police had even been called when she tried to address a meeting.

A growing united front of grassroots Peoples began to make itself heard in demands for Treaty across the continent, like the Victorian meeting in January 2016 where constitutional recognition was unanimously rejected

Chosen ones and hitch-hikers

In May 2017 the Referendum Council met at the Yulara a resort few kilometres from Uluru. By that time calls for Treaty had become stronger and more united.

Many First Nations Peoples including traditional custodians of Uluru, who were not informed that the Referendum Council was meeting on their land, call it ‘the gathering at Yulara’s Statement from the Heart’. 

The community was going hungry while food was being dumped at the Yulara meeting.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy Fire Keeper, Gumbaynggirr man Roxley Foley, was not a delegate. He hitch-hiked to the meeting. He said that Uluru’s Mutitjulu Community did not know the meeting was happening until he and others told them that buses were coming from Yulara bringing delegates. (Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney forum, Redfern December 2017)

In November 2017 Anangu Elder, Alison Hunt, asked on behalf of Tribal Elders and the Board of Management of Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park that the name ‘Uluru’ be removed from the statement as proper consultation and protocols had not been followed.
She said no interpreters for the Anangu were provided and they were not invited to vote. Voting happened behind closed doors.
(Read more and hear Alison Hunt here

At Yulara, suddenly Noel Pearson called for treaty, which he and the recognition juggernaut in all its years and millions of dollars, had very deliberately sidelined.

But what kind of treaty or treaties? Where chosen ones speak for others? Where others are silenced? Or the clan-based treaties being reasserted in some places between the Original Peoples of this continent and its islands, part of Law predating the British invader’s law by tens of thousands of years. 

Quiet diplomacy and patience

That pre-invasion Law unites people. Langton speaks up for it. So do those who have seen themselves as her bitter enemies.
Few First Nations Peoples would speak against it, apart from those deeply influenced by the most reactionary Christianity.

It’s slow Law, one reflecting tens of thousands of years of its existence. It suits neither the just-in-time supply chain nor maximum-profit-in-the-shortest-possible-time imperialist compulsion.

Quiet diplomacy and patience are its hallmarks. Good has and will continue to come from the slowing of the souped-up recognition steamroller achieved by Grassroots Peoples against the odds. Connection to Law has been at the heart of their actions.

Corporations hoping to quickly chain First Nations to the invader’s constitution have been forced to wait too, but they haven’t given up.
The Samuel Griffith Society remains a staunch defender of Australia’s constitution. Yet its former Vice President and current Coalition MP, Julian Leeser, took a leading role in winning conservative support  for recognition. 

Now Leeser helps front the corporate and Noel Pearson-backed organisation ‘Uphold and Recognise’.   The post-Yulara ‘Q&A’ broadcast from Parliament House in Canberra gave Uphold and Recognise nationwide publicity.

At the 2018 Garma Festival Langton spoke in favour of what she continued to call “the Uluru Statement from the Heart”. 

Many strong First Nations Peoples well connected to their communities support the Statement. Its immediate rejection by a former prime minister, bereft of principles and then still captive of the far right, amplified their feelings. Many equally strong Elders and communities reject it.

People, especially First Nations, have a right to know who initiated the recognition campaign who backed it and stacked it from the big end of town.

Corporations must be made to butt out. They engineered support for change to suit themselves.

Momentum against them is slowly rising. It will have setbacks. But it is unstoppable.


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