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To Canberra, towards Reconciliation

Sarah Malik takes a bus into Canberra on a cold Tuesday morning to cover the protest rally against the Indigenous intervention in the Northern Territory and writes about it in the South Sydney Herald of March 2008.

It’s seven in the morning and huddled in a park I join dozens of protesters departing from Redfern to join the convergence in Canberra protesting the government’s Indigenous intervention in the Northern Territory.

Organisers estimate around 200 people have descended into Redfern from all over Sydney to cram into four coaches.

They come from all walks of life: students with blue hair, journalists and photographers, as well as activists and locals from Sydney’s Indigenous communities.

“I think that we have this huge history [with Indigenous people]. We need to do something about it. We need to start working to something better – a better future,” says Clare Kelly, a UTS nursing student.

The protest scheduled for the first day of parliament is on the eve of incumbent Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to Australia’s Stolen Generations.

For Greg Smith, the Chairperson for the Aboriginal Daruj Tribal Corporation, the journey is profoundly personal. His father, born of a white father and black mother, was removed at age seven to a “gully” or mission in 1935, during the government’s official “protectionist” policy. He endured years of physical abuse before running away as a teenager.

 “The government finally accepting it was wrong what their fathers done to us. It is wrong what the government even today is doing to us. It is wrong their students are not told – what does it mean to be not recognised, to be called a half-caste,” says Mr Smith.

“It’s not about money. It’s about respect, it’s about acceptance. It’s about reaching out – so our children they can move forward.”

It starts raining as we bump along the highway and Smith smiles, “This protest rally, the weather won’t stop it. This is mother Earth crying for her people.”

For Uncle Les Beckett, an Indigenous local from Lilyfield, the protest is also deeply personal.

“I was born in 1948 and I wasn’t a citizen in this country until 1967. This is another historical event and I want to be a part of it. It’s really important for Aboriginal people in Australia.”

The intervention, instigated by the Howard Government in June last year, included bans on alcohol and x-rated pornography in 73 Aboriginal townships and government takeover of Aboriginal community leases in the Northern Territory. At the time the intervention was justified as a way to tackle Indigenous disadvantage and child sex abuse.

The intervention laws, passed in August last year, required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in order to make modifications to the Liquor Act, leases of Aboriginal townships, and even changes to considerations in bail provisions.

The move was widely criticised by Indigenous leaders as a paternalistic land grab and an attempt to extinguish Indigenous culture.

As we arrive in Canberra’s Old Parliament House at 11.30am, a festival atmosphere prevails. Television crews mill about. Tents and small fires decorate the lawns interspersed with Rainbow chai and cake stands. Buses pull in periodically.

Jenny Ebsworth of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Penrith believes the apology is a good move, but she is against the continuing Intervention. “I think [protesting] is important because what happened with the intervention it seems like they’re going backwards not forwards,” she says.

“I think it’s damaging because the way they’re treating Aboriginal people as if they can’t take care of themselves. We want the government to move towards reconciliation and work with the Aboriginal people and listen rather than overrule us.”

At 12.30 crowds are called to hush as a large circle of leaves is placed around a sacred central fire. One by one participants are invited to place a leaf onto the fire symbolising the cause of peace and justice.

Speeches are made and a crowd of over 2000 now starts the protest to Parliament House with the rallying cry, “No to intervention! Human rights for all!”

The beat of Indigenous dances, didgeridoo and live music follow as protesters chant and sing along.

Photo: Ali Blogg - Caption: Waiting for the bus to Canberra

Source: South Sydney Herald March 2008 -