‘Closing the Gap’? Labor’s dismal record on Indigenous rights

27 January 2024
Nick Everett

Well, I heard it on the radio
And I saw it on the television
Back in 1988
All those talking politicians
Words are easy, words are cheap
Much cheaper than our priceless land
But promises can disappear
Just like writing in the sand ...

Yothu Yindi, “Treaty”, 1992

In his election victory speech, Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed his government to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. Three steps were proposed by the authors of that statement: first, a Voice to Parliament, second, a Makarrata Commission of truth-telling and, finally, a treaty between First Nations People and the Australian government.

Twenty months later, Albanese’s election night promise has evaporated.

Implementation of the first step was a debacle. The Voice referendum was defeated—or rather smashed—last October. The Albanese government and the Yes campaign were unprepared and unwilling to resist a campaign of lies by the No campaign. The likes of Jacinta Price, Warren Mundine and Peter Dutton dominated airtime with their baseless assertion that Indigenous people do not suffer from racism and shouldn’t get “special privileges”.

The No campaign exploited reservoirs of deep-seated racism, which the Yes campaign was unwilling to challenge. Added to this, the proposal itself was weak: the Voice was an act of symbolism that offered little concretely to address the massive socioeconomic disadvantage of Indigenous people.

Such proposals, more or less successful, have been a hallmark of Labor’s approach to Indigenous rights. In 1973, the Whitlam government established the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), and the Hawke government established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 1990. Hawke even went as far as committing his government to negotiate a treaty. Despite much fanfare about a new beginning for the government’s relations with First Nations peoples, little changed.

Despite all the years Labor has been in power, no Australian government has ever implemented national land rights legislation nor a nationwide treaty with First Nations peoples. Aboriginal incarceration and deaths in custody have skyrocketed since the royal commission handed down its report 32 years ago. There has been no compensation to the Stolen Generations, and paltry compensation from state governments for stolen wages.

In the fifteen years since federal and state governments adopted six Closing the Gap targets to address Indigenous disadvantage, negligible improvement has been made. The 2023 report found that adult Indigenous incarceration rates and child removal are worsening.

These outcomes can’t be put down simply to the failure of state and federal governments to talk or listen to First Nations People. They are examples of the inequality and structural racism at the heart of Australian capitalism, of which the Labor Party is a crucial part.

In the early twentieth century, Labor governments shielded police and vigilantes from any state sanction for their role in the massacres of Aboriginal people, defending the interests of pastoralists. During the 1946 Pilbara strike, it was a Labor government that jailed Aboriginal strike leaders for defying the repressive provisions of the 1905 West Australian Aborigines Act.

In the early 1960s, a series of protests by Indigenous people and their supporters led to a groundswell of support for Indigenous rights. The 1965 Freedom Ride drew national attention to the appalling living conditions and racism experienced by Aboriginal people in New South Wales country towns. In 1966, a strike erupted at the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory. At first it was a strike about wages and living conditions, but it later became a campaign for land rights by the Gurindji people.

In 1967, the Holt government put to a referendum constitutional changes long advocated by Aboriginal rights organisations. It won 90 percent support. Yet, there was little appetite by subsequent conservative federal governments to act on this mandate to deliver any meaningful improvements for Aboriginal people.

In a belated response to the Gurindji strikers’ demands, the federal Arbitration Court awarded equal wages to Aboriginal pastoral workers in 1968. It proved a pyrrhic victory: with no anti-discrimination legislation to protect Aboriginal workers from dismissal, they were sacked en masse. Former Aboriginal pastoral workers became refugees on the outskirts of town centres, forced to depend on meagre welfare payments.

Meanwhile, activists in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, drawing inspiration from the US black power movement, began to create Aboriginal community-controlled organisations such as the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service, free health clinics and housing cooperatives. Similar initiatives followed in Melbourne and Brisbane. During the 1970 Vietnam moratorium campaign and mass protests against the 1971 national tour of the all-white South African Springbok rugby team, Aboriginal activists began to make common cause with non-Indigenous radicals.

The Whitlam government

In 1972, one of the most famous Aboriginal protests emerged: the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, established on the lawns of federal parliament. The protest, which gained international attention, was one of many that contributed to the election of the Whitlam Labor government later that year. Once in government, however, Labor moved very cautiously. A gulf between the expectations of Aboriginal activists and what the Whitlam government was prepared to deliver quickly strained relations between the two.

In 1973, Whitlam’s first Aboriginal Affairs minister, Gordon Bryant, established the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) as an advisory body to government. From the outset, there were two competing views about NACC’s purpose. Aboriginal activists wanted NACC to be an autonomous and democratic body that would faithfully articulate their demands. Bryant, on the other hand, wanted a subservient body that would implement government policy.

After just 10 months as Aboriginal Affairs minister, Bryant was replaced by senator and former union official Jim Cavanagh, who had no background in Aboriginal Affairs. Like his predecessor, Cavanagh was soon at war with the activist wing of NACC. The conflict in which both Bryant and Cavanagh found themselves reflected the stark divide between the Whitlam government’s rhetoric of support for Aboriginal self-determination and its practice of ignoring Aboriginal voices.

Hawke’s land rights betrayal

The most significant legacy for Aboriginal people of the three-year Whitlam Labor government was the Woodward commission of inquiry into land rights, which recommended that land rights legislation be implemented in the Northern Territory. Enacted by the Fraser Liberal government, the Northern Territory Land Rights Act has since been whittled down by a series of amendments that having increasingly enabled open slather for mining companies.

In the mid-1970s, the Aboriginal land rights movement was on the rise. Aboriginal communities left church-run missions and state reserves to reoccupy ancestral lands. The community of Noonkanbah (a.k.a. Yungngora), established in the Kimberley in 1976, was soon after thrust into the spotlight in a bitter confrontation with the Charles Court Liberal government over mining exploration.

The election of the Burke Labor government in Western Australia in February 1983 signalled the launch of a fierce assault on land rights by mining interests. Like conservative Premier Charles Court before him, Brian Burke was committed to currying favour with the state’s mining magnates, including Lang Hancock (Gina Rinehart’s father), and property developers. The WA Inc inquiry later revealed that Burke held a slush fund in his office to pay off anyone who got in his way.

Just three weeks after Burke’s election, the Hawke Labor government was elected on a platform of support for national land rights legislation. However, mining bosses soon went on the offensive. In May 1984, Western Mining Executive Director Hugh Morgan told an Australian Mining Industry Council seminar that the granting of Aboriginal land rights was “a symbolic step back to the world of paganism, superstition, fear and darkness”. Charges of genocide were “nonsense”, he claimed.

A mining industry advertising campaign portrayed land rights as an attack on suburban backyards. Newspaper and television ads featured a “Keep Out” sign with the accompanying warning “This land is part of Western Australia under Aboriginal claim.”

Labor soon buckled. In October 1984, Hawke announced the watering down of proposed legislation. Western Australian Premier Brian Burke, however, threatened to resign if the legislation was not shelved entirely. In March 1986, federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Clyde Holding announced that land rights legislation would not be implemented nationally. The only concession federal Labor was prepared to make was the symbolic return of Uluru.

Labor’s capitulation reflected its commitment to an “economic rationalist” (i.e., neoliberal) agenda that favoured the big end of town. Labor had no appetite for a public education campaign that could beat back the mining companies. And the unions, with a few notable exceptions, also failed the test. Having entered into the straitjacket of the Prices and Incomes Accord, the Australian Council of Trade Unions was not prepared to defy federal Labor and lend the kind of support necessary for the land rights movement to prevail.

In the lead-up to the 1988 bicentenary celebrations, Indigenous activists again began to plan national protests. Under the theme of “Boycott the Bicentenary” and “Don’t Celebrate ’88”, activists around the country travelled to the Sydney suburb of La Perouse, the site of Arthur Phillip’s first landing 200 years earlier. From there they marched to Redfern and into the Sydney CBD, holding a 40,000-strong demonstration.

The Hawke government was forced to offer up some concessions. The first was the announcement of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC). The second was the creation of ATSIC. The third was the creation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR). All of these initiatives were intended to deflect public anger and were largely symbolic in their outcomes.

The RCIADC was established in 1987, following a long-running national campaign demanding action on Aboriginal deaths in custody, spearheaded by the families of 21-year-old Eddie Murray and 16-year-old John Pat, both murdered in police custody. The RCIADC report, handed down in 1991, included 339 recommendations, many of which have never been implemented. The federal government was not prepared to force state governments to implement reforms to their criminal codes and police and prison systems that could have reduced Indigenous incarceration. Instead, a bidding war about who was most “tough on crime” has led to the maintenance of racist policing measures and ever increasing Aboriginal incarceration, especially among youth.

ATSIC: flaws in the machine

ATSIC, launched in 1990, was given a broader mandate than its predecessor, the NACC. Its functions were to advise governments at all levels, advocate for Australian Indigenous affairs and deliver and monitor Indigenous programs and services. Yet, as Indigenous activist and historian Gary Foley observes, there were fundamental flaws in the machine.

The first was that ATSIC’s elected councillors lacked a popular mandate. According to Foley, in the 1973 NACC elections, more than 80 percent of Aboriginal voters participated. In contrast, in ATSIC’s first national election, in 1990, fewer than 30 percent of eligible Indigenous people did so. This was due not only to the low level of Aboriginal voter enrolment, but also to several Aboriginal activists disenchanted with the process calling for a boycott.

It was not, however, just the lack of voter participation that ensured ATSIC was not representative. ATSIC was composed of a nominally representative wing, consisting of councillors representing regions and a board of commissioners. Alongside this structure was an administrative body composed entirely of unelected public servants drawn mostly from the old Department of Aboriginal Affairs bureaucracy. ATSIC staff were not accountable to ATSIC’s elected councillors, but instead to the federal government and its Aboriginal Affairs minister. Presiding over the whole body was a government-appointed ATSIC chairperson, Lois O’Donoghue, who had been a senior Commonwealth bureaucrat since 1967.

ATSIC’s structure ensured the same tensions arose that had plagued the NACC. ATSIC councillors’ role was purely advisory; they had no effective decision-making power; that power was vested in an unelected state bureaucracy.

The federal government needed an Indigenous body that could be widely seen to be representative of Indigenous interests while, at the same time, implementing government policy. This contradiction only sharpened in following years as programs delivered by ATSIC were pared back. ATSIC councillors were now left with the job of explaining to their constituents why they were implementing cuts to health, housing and employment programs. ATSIC was wound up by the Howard government, with Labor’s backing, in 2005.

Reconciliation: a useful diversion

Another Hawke government initiative proved even more hollow: the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. As Foley and others have pointed out, reconciliation was not an issue that had emerged spontaneously from either the Indigenous or non-Indigenous communities. Rather it proved a useful diversion from the anger Aboriginal activists felt in response to Labor’s betrayals.

CAR was established in 1991 with much fanfare. It was one of few recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to be implemented. According to the Reconciliation website, CAR “invested ten years of research, promotion, partnership-building, consultation and educating into the reconciliation process”.

However, the Reconciliation process has little to show for this investment. It took six years for another royal commission to hand down the Bringing Them Home report on Australia’s Stolen Generations, in 1997, and a further decade before the newly elected Rudd Labor government apologised to the Stolen Generations (albeit without compensation). Hundreds of thousands participated in reconciliation bridge walks in June 2000. However, their demands were limited to calling on the conservative Howard government to apologise to the Stolen Generations.

Howard was in no mood to listen. Thus, the mobilisations served only to build a platform for Labor based on a purely symbolic gesture.

Native title: not land rights

When the High Court announced its Mabo decision, on 3 June 1992, it was described as historic. However, the Keating Labor government immediately came under pressure from mining and pastoral interests to implement native title legislation that would protect them from native title claims.

A year later, after the Wik people lodged a significant native title claim, the federal cabinet decided that the Native Title Tribunal would serve to adjudicate between Aboriginal people and mining companies where agreement couldn’t be reached. Thus, Aboriginal people would once again be deprived of any veto over mining on their land.

Indigenous leaders were divided. An elite, self-appointed group, including Noel Pearson, Sol Bellear, Marcia Langton and others were ushered into negotiations with government, arriving at what they claimed was a “compromise” agreement. A second group of indigenous negotiators, led by Michael Mansell, met with crossbench senators in an effort to force concessions. They were sidelined.

The resulting Native Title Act 1993 established a very high benchmark for recognition of title. Only crown land could be claimed, and it was available only to Aboriginal people who could prove continuous association with that land: a very difficult thing after centuries of dispossession. With most Aboriginal communities having experienced forced removal or expulsion from their land, and the removal of their children, such connections to country were all too often severed. Consequently, very few Aboriginal people are native title claimants, and those who are successful are obliged to seek redress through compensation, instead of exercising rights of control over development on their land.

In March 1996, the conservative Howard Liberal government was elected in a landslide, in an election in which Pauline Hanson’s anti-Aboriginal, anti-Asian agenda featured prominently. This set the scene for Howard to launch an attack on even the most meagre gains Aboriginal people had won in the preceding Hawke and Keating years. Howard castigated truth-telling about Aboriginal massacres as a “black armband” view of history.

The Northern Territory Intervention

The culmination of Howard’s backlash was the Northern Territory Intervention, launched in June 2007. The pretext was the Little Children are Sacred report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. However, the measures Howard implemented bore no resemblance to the report’s recommendations. Instead, Howard seized on an opportunity to improve his flagging electoral fortunes with a military invasion of Aboriginal communities.

The NT intervention included welfare quarantining, depriving Aboriginal people of control over their income, and the replacement of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) with work for the dole. The federal government compulsorily acquired 65 Aboriginal communities, denying these communities control over who entered their land. Federal and state police, as well as the army, mobilised to crack down on alcohol consumption and pornography, supposedly to aid the welfare of Aboriginal children. Demeaning signs were erected at the entrance to communities declaring them alcohol- and pornography-free zones.

The NT Intervention was continued by the subsequent Rudd and Gillard Labor governments under the misnomer of “Stronger Futures”. Cosmetic changes were made. Rudd and Gillard’s commitment to the Intervention demonstrate the shallowness of Rudd’s Stolen Generations apology.

Today, Aboriginal communities are still suffering from the dismantling of the CDEP employment program and the punitive welfare measures that followed. Housing overcrowding remains a key issue. A 2021 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found that, while one in five Indigenous people live in overcrowded housing, in remote communities the statistic is one in four and, in very remote communities, one in two. The consequence is dramatically reduced health outcomes.

Labor’s failed Voice referendum did not signal a change in orientation. Rather it followed the same strategy Labor adopted in the Whitlam years, half a century ago. That is, the strategy gives lip-service to Aboriginal empowerment, while at the same time entrenching elite interests. Combating institutional racism and inequality will require a different approach: one built from the ground up.

Addressing a Rainbow Alliance conference back in 1988, Gary Foley concluded his talk by arguing, “The only sort of Australia that I think Aboriginal Australia can ultimately live alongside in true harmony is some form of socialist republic Australia where racism, sexism and exploitation have been eliminated”.

That’s not just the type of society we should all aspire for, but also one we need to organise and fight for, together.

[This is an edited version of an article published in Marxist Left Review.]

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