A year all hope almost vanished

I can’t remember a year when the challenges of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have so forcefully thrust themselves into the public consciousness.

It was a year that saw numerous high profile cases of racism against First Peoples emerge, in a nation that should have stared down and ended such discrimination long ago.

A year where a horrific image of a hooded and shackled 17 year old Dylan Voller spoke to us of a lost generation of Aboriginal young people being incarcerated.

A year where a Federal Election was all but silent on how government would work with First Peoples to turn around the many disadvantage gaps that continue to be experienced.

It would be easy to succumb to despair and impassivity, to give up.

Instead, the movement for justice, rights and respect was unwavering in standing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their struggles.

As I pulled together a few themes for the year below, I was struck by the strength of our movement in standing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, whatever the challenge.

Together, we are making a difference in an unforgiving political environment.

The scourge of incarceration

The 15th of April marked the 25th Anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. In those 25 years we have seen incarceration of First Peoples go from seven times that of other Australians to 13 times the rate.

In July, the Four Corners program on the shocking treatment of detainees at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the NT was aired. The image of 17 year old Aboriginal youth, Dylan Voller shackled and hooded in a chair is now burned into our consciousness. Aboriginal youth incarceration is 26 times that of other young people.

Throughout the year, we learned more from the WA Coronial inquest into the shocking death in custody of Ms Dhu, a 22 year old Yamatji Aboriginal woman, who died in 2014 from septicemia and pneumonia three days after she was locked up in a South Hedland police station for failing to pay her fines.

We were relentless in our work on incarceration throughout the year. We stood with our partners on the Change the Record Campaign to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody with an event at Old Parliament House and Sea of Hands commemoration outside Parliament House, Canberra.

4,000 of our supporters signed our Change the Record Pledge to close the gap in incarceration and family violence rates experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

We also responded immediately to the report of abuse at Don Dale, demanding action from government and informing our movement of the issue and what was needed to address Aboriginal youth incarceration. We worked with allies in the Northern Territory to influence the formation of the Royal Commission, worked with the Change the Record Coalition partners to respond to developments as they occurred, and drew attention to the systemic issues driving the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth across the country. The Change the Record Campaign made a submission to the Royal Commission and will continue to highlight the over-incarceration of First Peoples and the solutions to it.

Racism

In January, the year had hardly begun when a video game app ‘Survival Island 3’, in which players were encouraged to bludgeon Aboriginal people to death, emerged.

In March, a media fuelled public backlash erupted over university guidelines that truthfully referred to the invasion of Aboriginal lands, returned us to the history wars of the 1980 and 90s.

In August, we saw more instances of ‘blackface’, demonstrating an undercurrent of racism that the nation has yet to move on from.

In October, we witnessed renewed attempts to water down vital protections against racial discrimination through a dishonest Inquiry into Freedom of Speech.

Our movement responded at every turn to racism, challenging it, calling it out, and expressing our support for building relationships of respect with First Peoples. We did countless media interviews, appeared on an NITV program called Stories of Survival, participated in Survival Day events, and celebrated and commemorated significant dates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 4,500 ANTaR supporters signed our petition calling for no change to the Racial Discrimination Act, and 470 used our submission writing tool to write directly to the current senate Inquiry on this issue.  

We will never cede to racism as being an acceptable part of the treatment of First Peoples (or anyone else). We continue to encourage our supporters to stand with us against changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, and we expect to appear before the current Senate Inquiry on this issue as a witness. We will continue to speak up at every turn when racism rears its ugly head.

Fighting for progress

In February we heard of limited progress towards closing the many disadvantage gaps faced by First Peoples in the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap report.

July saw a Federal Election campaign where hardly a word was spoken about how the nation would prioritise addressing First Peoples disadvantage.

Throughout the year, we saw great recalcitrance from a government that refused to fund the national voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (National Congress of Australia’s First People), or engage with and listen to First Peoples representatives.

Our movement played an instrumental role in maintaining the Close the Gap Campaign coalition, developing the Close the Gap Campaign Progress and Priorities report, presenting it at a parliamentary event attended by 160 MPs, and delivering the report directly to the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader.

During the Federal Election Campaign we helped develop and launch the historic Redfern Statement, signed by 18 peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, and supported by a further 30 organisations.

1,000 of our supporters used our Sea of Hands election campaign toolkit to engage with local members on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

Since the Election, we made our presence felt on the first day of the 45th Parliament with a Sea of Hands display and a press conference of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, attended by the newly elected Aboriginal Members of Parliament.

We’ve campaigned relentlessly for the PM to meet with National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples on the Redfern Statement.

We’ve now seen the government commit to six workshops and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander National Summit to work in partnership on the Redfern Statement. The Prime Minister finally met with National Congress of Australia’s First peoples to discuss the Redfern Statement.

We will continue to advocate for government to engage with First Peoples on the Redfern Statement and will hold a parliamentary event in February on this issue to drive this agenda forward. We’ll continue our Close the Gap Campaign work of holding government to account for its failures, and advocate for solutions led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Finally, we will continue to support the national representative body - National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and stand with them to be funded and be the point of engagement with government.  

This is just a snapshot of some of the challenges that our movement has taken on this year.  

Together, we’re made progress in a difficult year.

We forced the closed doors of power open on countless issues and influenced outcomes.   

And we’ve made clear to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that we stand with them in their struggles.

For this, I thank you.

I wish you all the best for the holiday period, and I look forward to standing with you again for justice, rights and respect of Australia’s First People in the new year.

In Solidarity,

Andrew Meehan

ANTaR National Director

Author: 
Michael