Navigating the complexities of the struggle for First Nations justice in the age of woke, censorship and repression
By Lorraine Pratley for Real Left Australia.
Australia, like the US and South Africa, is a colonial settler state. For millennia, the first peoples of Australia and the Torres Strait Islands lived healthy and fulfilling lives. This was disrupted in the era of colonial expansion of the first capitalist powers. Invaded in 1788, Australia was to serve as a port for Britain in the South Pacific. Early colonists quickly recognised the commercial potential of this vast land.
Contrary to popular belief, Australia was not a predominantly arid place. The very earliest settlers reported a landscape of lush green grasslands interspersed with forested bushlands. These plains were carefully sculpted by local First Nations communities through the skilled use of fire, resulting in the fertile green pastures favoured by their prey. The countryside so resembled the classic English country estate, that it was described by early settlers as “the biggest estate on Earth.”
The first colonial posts centred around key ports, and were populated with a privileged officer class and a convict class, which laboured under harsh conditions to build the earliest infrastructure. Sheep pasturing soon followed as ‘squatters’, a landed class granted huge properties by the state, known as stations, moved inland from the coast. Large cattle stations followed, and coal became an important commodity. Fast forward to the present day and the Australian economy continues to rely heavily on the export of key raw materials, including grains and other agricultural products, and, most lucratively, mining materials such as iron ore and other extracted minerals.
Now a nation of 26.5 million people, of which 3% are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, there is no escaping the fact that Australia was founded on the wholesale theft of the land of the original inhabitants. The economic and social structure of these First Nations societies was not based on private property or any form of inequality. Tribal elders were not a privileged group in any material sense. Material needs were met through deep and extensive knowledge of animals, plants, weather patterns and astrology, alongside a keen awareness of their role as custodians of the land. Practices based on this long-accrued wisdom ensured a harmonious relationship with the environment, successfully reproducing their communities for millennia. This approach to nature, and to reciprocal relationships with each other, was antithetical to the hierarchical class-based system the British arrived with and intended to impose – a system in which land and people alike are viewed by a tiny minority as nothing more than means of further enrichment.
After realising the malicious intent of the invaders, the people of the first Aboriginal Nations did not go quietly. Accounts abound of determined armed resistance to the brutal takeover of their lands, first by colonial soldiers, and, increasingly, from ‘squatter’ settler farmers. This resistance was ultimately defeated due to a mismatch of weaponry but gave rise to the enduring sentiment, “sovereignty never ceded”. Survivors were herded onto reserves, given substandard food and denied access to once-bountiful traditional foods and medicines. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, they suffered through various iterations of bureaucratic approaches to assimilation including many generations of children forcibly taken from their families, destined to become unpaid domestic servants and farm hands.
As First Nations people became increasingly integrated into the Australian working class, their methods of struggle shifted to reflect their social power as workers. They used their concentration in outback station work as stockmen to stop the flow of their employer’s profits, most conspicuously with a three year victorious strike in the Pilbara from 1946 for the payment of wages; the great Wave Hill station strike of 1966-67; as well as strikes by black government workers on reserves in the Northern Territory for improved conditions on the reserves, improved wages and equal citizenship rights, despite banishment and the jailing of strike leaders.
The Wave Hill strike, which won in part due to widespread support from the Australian trade union movement, and occurred in the context of the US civil rights movement and movements of indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, was mostly waged by members of the Gurindji people, who went on to establish a camp and claim land rights over their traditional homelands, giving birth to the modern land rights movement. Since 1972, Aboriginal ‘tent embassies’ have been periodically erected on the grounds of Parliament House to protest the slow progress of the establishment of land rights.
Despite gains in legal and political rights, including the 1967 referendum establishing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as citizens (Australia’s most highly supported referendum at 90.77%), the ongoing legacy of dispossession alongside systemic racism in Australian judicial and bureaucratic structures has ensured that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia endure poor outcomes on virtually all measures, documented in Close the Gap data. Governments have come and gone, some promising to address inequality differently, others simply continuing proven failed approaches. Pressure from Aboriginal groups, and supporters in the wider community, to do more to address systemic disadvantage is the context of the Voice referendum, likely to be held in October. Australians must compulsorily vote on a question of whether to approve an amendment to the Constitution. To pass, a referendum must achieve a majority of both the population and the six states.
The current proposal for the amendment to be inserted into the Constitution is:
Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
- There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
- The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
- The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
At face value, in the context of the long struggle for justice, the Voice referendum seems innocuous. It is purportedly one of the fruits born of a consultation process culminating in a message to the nation in 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which lobbies for three things: constitutional recognition through the Voice, truth-telling and Makarrata (treaty).
The forces driving the Yes vote
In reality, the Voice is an astroturfing operation, hatched through a process beginning in 2007, led by conservative Aboriginal lawyer, Noel Pearson, working closely with the (conservative) Liberal Party, with business backing. Nineteen out of 100 participants walked out of the convention to establish the Uluru Statement, frustrated at the complete lack of power such a body would have to compel the government on anything. Indeed, an advisory body to parliament with no legislative power became an attractive means for the state to head off a growing, and potentially militant, grassroots movement, fed up with government inaction, one that could mobilise many tens of thousands onto the streets on ’Invasion Day’ over recent years, dwarfing official Australia Day events.
The Labor party came to power in 2022 after 10 years in opposition. Labor leadership, always under some pressure to deliver to its base on matters of solidarity, saw the opportunity to appear to be doing something about Aboriginal inequality while reassuring local mining magnates with a measure that would have no teeth. Lacking concrete measures to address Aboriginal inequality, the Voice is essentially a cynical act of tokenism designed to merely quell the appetite within the Labor base for addressing inequality. In floating the idea, new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has calculated upon well-established widespread support in the wider Australian community for action to address Aboriginal disadvantage.
However, he has miscalculated on two important fronts. First, the opposing No camp has been able to exploit the vagueness in the construction of the referendum question which invites far more questions than answers. Second and more importantly, the party has alienated a significant section of its base by waging war against Australian workers and small business people through the authoritarian Covid response in this country. This has allowed the mainstream Right, in the form of the opposition coalition parties, Liberal and National, as well as the populist Right like the One Nation party, once considered fringe due to the formerly overt racism of their policies, to gain a large hearing which now threatens the very success of the vote. There are even whispers the referendum may be cancelled altogether.
The Yes campaign is supported by the usual suspects in the new overt collaboration between big business, mainstream liberal media and the trade union movement. This includes the academics, bureaucrats, NGO and land council leaders of the black middle class. It also includes a small number of Liberal/National coalition MP’s who rely on urban professional voters for their seats. Pro-Yes forces are now in overdrive to try to stem the losses and are clearly lobbying hard behind the scenes. No doubt the big mining companies are secretly hoping the Voice fails, setting back hopes for further land rights for a long time to come.
The forces driving the No vote
Driving the official No campaign is the Liberal-National coalition, flailing in opposition federally and all states and territories bar one, which latched onto this issue in an attempt to claw back relevance. It was a no-brainer for opposition leader Peter Dutton to try to make a dent in the standing of his rival. His Aboriginal colleague, Country Liberal Party MP, Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, has lent strong credibility to the opposition camp with her slogan: “The Voice will divide, not unite us.”
The No case repeats the classic racist dog-whistle that bad things happened in the past but now Aboriginal people need to stop complaining, stop asking for government handouts and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This is what is behind former Liberal prime minister, Tony Abbott’s, comments “This assumption that Indigenous people are ‘different’ and need to be treated differently—this separatist mindset—is at the heart of the problem”. Worse, he claims the Voice is a “Trojan horse” and a “power grab”. Dutton outright lied when he suggested the Voice would be “a new arm of government.”
These latter statements play on financial insecurities, especially among the lower middle class, about the small amounts of property ordinary people own. In classic divide and rule tactics, the land rights movement has always been attacked from the Right with fear-mongering warnings to the general population that your home, the ‘great Australian dream’, is at risk (‘they’re after your backyard’). For months, dire warnings have spread through social media like wildfire, with messages summed up in a mysterious leaflet predicting everyday Australians will have to pay reparations through increased taxes to compensate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for land theft, stolen wages and stolen children. Never mind that there have already been some successful legal claims to compensate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for these injustices . These flames are fanned by populist Right politicians and most of the leaders of the ‘freedom movement’.
There is always a grain of truth in populist Right propaganda. The question of Treaty, seen by grassroots black activists as a necessary precondition to self-determination, is problematic. Treaties now exist in several states but few voters are aware of them and they were not brought about through public consultation. Consider the recently introduced law in WA, mandating landowners of any property larger than a house block to consult with, at their own expense, aboriginal cultural heritage inspectors before building any new, or altering existing, infrastructure on their land. It was such a disaster the government of that state scrapped it after mere weeks.
When a response and fightback was desperately needed to Covid repression, the entire spectrum of the ‘Left’ not only applauded the erosion of basic rights but, in some cases, helped implement the state and corporate agenda. This political merger of the so-called Left and the state created a vacuum that was quickly filled by already-organised right-wing forces. The problem now facing the faux Left as represented by the incumbent government is that the few populist Right MPs who sit in Australian parliaments have gained a huge audience of disaffected people, including many workers, who rightly do not trust government and are looking for leadership. They deeply distrust the ‘Left’ of all stripes for abandoning them, and then policing Covid authoritarianism.
Most, however, are not motivated by racism. They are worried that even more small farmers will be driven from the land; access to natural recreational places will be limited; water may be taxed etc. There are no respectful or convincing reassurances from the Yes camp that their fears are misplaced. Rather, they are dismissed as stupid racists by smug elites they can’t relate to. Instead of waging a determined battle for improved infrastructure and to halt the fall in living standards, the current leadership of the trade union movement is allowing inflation to far outstrip wages. This does nothing to relieve the insecurity of ordinary people in an uncertain world of financial insecurity and extreme censorship of their concerns. My warnings in 2020 to the leadership of the largest socialist group in Australia of the likelihood of this scenario playing out fell on deaf ears. In suppressing the fight against Covid mandates, the state and its false-Left allies have created a vast amorphous movement that is finding political expression through opposition to the Voice.
Then there are the black nationalists, who rightly claim the Voice will not deliver concrete gains but have a classless approach to the question of black liberation. The right-wing forces of the official No campaign, who have only ever stood in the way of justice, are aware that younger voters and liberal-left supporters of genuine progress will doubt the Voice if prominent grassroots black voices oppose it. The mainstream No campaign has thus cynically co-opted black nationalist opposition and amplified it through marketing strategies that specifically target different demographics with different messaging. The Right may well indeed pull off a victory by exposing the Voice as the empty gesture that it is, and by opportunistically galvanising vast anti-woke sentiment exacerbated by the mandates, lies and virtue signalling of Covid fanaticism.
Furthermore, a successful No vote will embolden the populist and hard Right in Australia, and is likely to demoralise and further fracture the struggle for justice for First Nations peoples. The increasingly polarised atmosphere must be blamed on both the Right (initiators of the Culture Wars) and the so-called Left, who have largely abandoned class struggle for the far less challenging arena of identity politics.
The Real Left Australia position
Much more effective than to advocate for a principled No vote would be for the real Left to call for a boycott of the referendum itself. This would split the vote into three camps: the obsequious Yes crowd, the cynical right wing No, and a genuine expression of support for real action on Aboriginal oppression. A serious boycott campaign is needed in order for people to be confident to break the law, in defiance of compulsory voting laws in Australia. Alternatively, an informal voting block would likewise indicate support for continued grassroots struggle, regardless of the formal outcome of the referendum. In the context of the Voice, this points the way forward.
Real Left Australia is an informal group for people with genuine left principles that embrace support for workers’ rights, anti-authoritarianism and anti-censorship. We don’t agree with each other on everything, but in the current composition, we advocate for:
A boycott of the Voice referendum.
Proper infrastructure funding and jobs for all in remote and regional communities.
Complete payment of stolen wages and compensation to the Stolen Generations.
Funded language and cultural programs.
Stop Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Grassroots decision-making processes and implementation of the programs addressing the systemic disadvantage of First Nations people.
All of the above can be funded by a modest increase in corporate taxes and redirection of military spending.
We do not support a Treaty. It is not possible to satisfy Aboriginal aspirations for full self-determination and autonomy within capitalist Australia. A classless economic and social system cannot be overlaid onto the current class system, one that’s based on the control of land and workplaces by unelected billionaires. Nor can a transfer of wealth from members of the existing ruling class to an aspiring black ruling class be justified. Today, most First Nations people live and work in cities and towns and are dispersed throughout the working class. The struggle to overcome Aboriginal oppression is bound up with the wider working-class struggle against capitalism and for full democratic rights for all working people, of all colours and backgrounds.
 these plains quickly degraded through sheep and cattle pasturing on a fragile shallow topsoil not yet adapted to hoofed herbivores.
https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/book/Bill-Gammage-Biggest-Estate-on-Earth-9781743311325 Australia’s largest sheep station is ⅙ the size of England. The largest cattle station, at 5 times this size, is the largest in the world.
 Labor has come to the rescue of the nation’s extraction corporations many times by implementing legislation to curtail the gains of the Aboriginal rights movements, from Wik to the Northern Territory Intervention to the Indue card.
 While both major parties spread lies and suppressed alternative expert opinion on Covid-19, and despite the Liberal Party being in power federally, the predominantly state Labor governments were the most draconian.
 Support has declined from 67% to 51% to 44% in the past 11 months https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2023_Australian_Indigenous_Voice_referendum, including amongst Aboriginal people, although still higher than non https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-08-02/fact-check-indigenous-australians-support-for-the-voice/102673042
 Prominent Aboriginal activist in Western Australia who has vocally called for a no vote, describing the Voice as ‘tokenistic’ and ‘distraction politics’, has recently come out for Yes. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-08-04/megan-krakouer-voice-activist-changes-mind-on-voting-no/102685454
https://www.theage.com.au/national/albanese-doing-his-best-to-hold-onto-the-west-20230420-p5d220.html Warren Mundine, along with other former Labor heavyweights, is director of a lucrative legal firm recovering stolen wages and winning compensating stolen generations
 Much more influential since the government’s ‘pandemic’ response include forces such as Liberals who don’t always toe the corporate line like Alex Antic, Gerard Rennick and others; the Libertarian Party; One Nation Party – all of whom work tirelessly work to expose vaccine injuries, excess deaths and the medical castration of minors in the name of ‘gender affirmation’. Also influential is a large number of ‘freedom’ influencers. The fraudulent organised pseudo-legal movement, an anti-social ideology against the payment of fines and taxes, brilliantly and painstakingly exposed and debunked by Robert Sudy https://freemandelusion.com/, is also now enormously more influential than before Covid..
 Indeed, I have no doubt the polarised atmosphere in Australian society the false Left helped create is suiting this particular group very well as they focus their activity on campaigning against a mostly imaginary far right. They operate through these front groups: https://www.facebook.com/campaignarf, https://www.facebook.com/sydneyCAAH
https://umbrellanews.com.au/featured/2023/01/speaking-out-gary-foley-lends-his-voice-to-the-indigenous-community-opposing-the-voice/?fbclid=IwAR0YOpZPwW-J_HJkZIjL7xKyMKA9sx8WNKYtONtZwTOIPky1j9e2Kx8Nn6s interview with legend, Gary Foley, in which he outlines a classic black nationalist proposed solution
 Improperly completed ballot papers are rendered invalid but still counted, as ‘informal’ votes, most of which are considered intentional by electoral analysts. Voters may even, for example, scrawl a political message across the ballot paper.
 Much of the most contested land in Australia is now in remote areas, sites of huge extractive mineral wealth.