After jim hagan’s historic un address 35 years ago nothing changes

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After Jim Hagan’s historic UN address 35 years ago, nothing changes

Note from the editor: With the savagery of attacks on Indigenous Australians through financial cuts by federal and state administrations, especially the forceful closure and relocation of remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia, I thought it timely to provide readers with a full transcript of the historic paper delivered by my father to the United Nations in Geneva in 1980. In fact Jim Hagan, in his capacity as Chairman of the National Aboriginal Conference, was the first ever Aboriginal Australian to deliver

Jim Hagan, Chairman, National Aboriginal Conference, being interviewed in Geneva on 3 September 1980 after making history as the first Australian Aboriginal to address the United Nations. Image: supplied

an official paper on the plight of Aboriginal people to the United Nations, in Geneva, when he addressed the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Protection of Minorities and Prevention of Discrimination on 3 September 1980. In attendance for this historic address were Jim’s fellow NAC delegates from Western Australia, Reg Birch and Jim Bieundurry. The catalyst for the address was the failure of the Fraser federal administration to intervene in the Charles Court

WA government’s approval for exploration mining to go ahead on sacred land of the Noonkanbah Traditional Owners. This address confirms the old Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr 1849 epigram: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Address to the United Nations Sub-Commission on Protection of Minorities and prevention of discrimination, Geneva, by The Chairman of the National Aboriginal Conference, Mr J P

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Hagan, delivered 3 September 1980


r Chairman. We would like to thank the subcommission very much for the special favour of allowing us to speak at this time. I address you today, as an affiliate of the World Council of Indigenous People. I am Chairman of the National Aboriginal Conference of Australia, the body elected by the Aboriginal people, to advise the Commonwealth of Australia on all matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in that country. My name is Jim Hagan, other members of the delegation are Jim Bieundurry and Reg Birch, both National Aboriginal Conference members from the state of Western Australia. The history of the Aboriginal people of Australia in the 200 years since European occupation of the country, is well documented. It is history of constant struggle to survive the encounter and emerge with our culture intact and with basic human rights. The first European settlers on Australia soil found themselves confronted with a culture beyond anything in European experience. Ignorant of the deeply spiritual relationship between the Aborigine and his land, their response almost wiped the Aboriginal race from the face of the earth. In one state, Tasmania, they almost succeeded. In others, superior technology and the irrationality of fear, combined to bludgeon the people into subservience. A major proportion of a once proud race had almost vanished. Today, 200 years later, that raw violence has abated, leaving a residue of mindless intolerance as a reminder of that brutal past and as a barrier to progress, present and future. Prejudice, bigotry and racial discrimination are the insidious

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Jim Hagan, with NAC colleague from Kimberley, Jim Bieundurry, with members of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Image: supplied

weapons of the ensuing cold war The Aboriginals that survived the initial holocaust, faced a daunting task in gathering together the remnants of their civilisation. With endurance born of timeless experience, these shattered people set out on a lonely march of recovery, through a society still hostile, still suspicious, but tempered by the growing enlightened consciousness of the pitiful few supporters of their cause. We the remaining Aboriginals are still subject to various repressive policies of management, by colonial, state and federal governments clinging to a frontier philosophy. Paternalistic policies of protection and assimilation have denied totally the responsibility to recognise Aboriginals as human beings, or accord them the fundamental rights of human beings. State government have randomly adopted conflicting policies for the ‘control’ of Aboriginals, with the result that Aboriginal freedom of movement was severely inhibited. In 1967, however, the effects of a growing self-awareness among Aboriginal people, had penetrated the conscience of white Australians with such force that a Referendum was called to change the Australian constitution in order to give the

Australian Federal government overriding power and responsibility in Aboriginal Affairs. In that stage in Australia’s history, it had become increasingly evident, to formerly complacent Australians, that the Aboriginal voice could no longer be ignored or totally denied. In this unprecedented watershed in Aboriginal Affairs, our proud but battered people felt themselves on the first steps of the march towards real progress. But their hope was short-lived. Almost immediately it became evident that the states were reluctant to passively surrender their powers to the federal government. What had been achieved on paper was not to be what was achieved in practice. The states would jealously guard their ownership of the land. Thus, while nationally some real advances were to occur in the fields of health, welfare, education and social programmes, the one right paramount to the total fulfilment of the Aboriginal people – the right to their own land – was categorically withheld. In most states today, this situation has not changed. Fearing an erosion of their authority, and their absolute control of the land’s resources, these states continue their pursuit of economic power

at the expense of the Aboriginal people. They will not acknowledge as consequential in the lease, the intrinsic spiritual relationship with the land that makes the concept of ownership to an Aboriginal far more profound than that of mere possession They will not concede that which is known in the innermost soul of every aboriginal, that the land is his spiritual temple, the very centre of his heritage, his culture and his existence. As far as the state governments are concerned, mining and business interests dedicated to economic growth and the exploitation of natural resources are ruthlessly pursued in total disregard of the cultural heritage and basic human rights of the Aboriginal people. In one of these states, Western Australia, a small group of my people, about 200 from the ancient Walmadjeri and Nyigina tribes, presently occupy a part of their ancestral home that has nurtured them for many centuries. The history of these people and their land is the history of the Aboriginal people. 80 years ago, this area was gazetted as a pastoral lease by the Western Australian state government and handed over to European management. In 1971, harassed by mistreatment at the hands of the whites over many years, the people left the property to camp at a small town some 120 kilometres away, amid what can only be described as deplorable social conditions. In 1976 the Australia federal government Aboriginal Land Fund Commission provided funds for the people to acquire the pastoral lease to Noonkanbah – allowing them to graze cattle but giving them no real title. To the Noonkanbah community, it was a homecoming filled with promise. Again they were united with their source of spiritual

The famous Noonkanbah protests, where indigenous locals fought to protect sacred ground from an oil drilling project between 1979 and 1980. Images supplied

renewal, and now they had the chance of becoming at least semiindependent. Two years later, however, their

real nightmare started. A multinational mining consortium, the Amax Petroleum Corporation, with the permission of the Western

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Australian State Government, commenced an extensive petroleum exploration programmed on their ancestral land at Noonkanbah. To their utter distress and horror, the Noonkanbah people discovered that Amax was proposing to drill not only on their property, but on one of their utterly sacred areas representing the very essence of their law and their culture. Their protest was referred to the Western Australian Museum, which has statutory authority under the Aboriginal Heritage Act of Western Australia, to preserve such sacred sites. The museum reported to the government that the Aboriginal concern was totally justified, that the area chose by Amax, out of 400,000 hectares, was a site of great significance in the religious and mythological context of the Noonkanbah people. The museum recommended to the government that drilling should not take place there. The Western Australian government, however, chose to ignore their findings and instructed that drilling should proceed. In August of this year, under direction from the Western Australian State government, Amax with the protection of a massive convoy of state police, moved an oil drilling rig onto the area which had, by this time, along with an access road, been compulsorily acquired by the Western Australian State Government. Noonkanbah Aborigines, and many of their supporters, including ministers of religion, were arrested when they demonstrated peacefully against this intrusion. The rig now stands erected,

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surrounded by a three metre high barbed wire fence, and protected by a heavy police guard. But because of the intervention of the trade unions, the state government encouraged strike breakers to break a ban imposed on drilling at Noonkanbah, and drilling has commenced. This is despite the overwhelming chorus of protest from across the nation. The Western Australian government is a government that has broken the spirit of its own laws, a government that has resorted to force, a government that has scorned the Aboriginal viewpoint and culture, resulting in the total suppression of Aboriginal advancement. In the midst of this confrontation, the National Aboriginal Conference has called for sanity, conciliation and negotiation. In an attempt to achieve a settlement to bring the opposing parties to the discussion table to calmly, fairly, consider the implications, the options, the solutions, the National Aboriginal Conference has sat down and talk with the Australian federal government. It has reminded the government of its power and duties, granted it in the 1967 referendum by the will of the vast majority of Australians, both black and white, to have control over matters affecting Aboriginal people. The Australian federal government, however, has chosen to remain merely an observer to this gross injustice being perpetrated on an innocent people, and to ignore its responsibilities under the various international human rights covenants to which it is a party. In

a climate of despair, the Aboriginal people of Australia now turn to you, the men of International Law, to assist in their struggle for equality and for freedom. The Noonkanbah community have sought justice, and they have been given obstruction. They have sought negotiation, and they have been given confrontation. They have sought peace, and they have been given violence. The Australian government’s acquiescence in their continuing breach of human rights, must see it stand condemned in the eyes of the world. We ask this sub-Commission, having heard our submission, to urge the Australian government to take appropriate measures to protect the rights of the Noonkanbah Aboriginal people to freedom of their religion, and to the enjoyment of their own culture, as guaranteed by the international covenants to which Australia is a party. We also ask that this subCommission undertake a study of discrimination against Aborigines in Australia, and in particular the failure of the Australian government to provide for the right of Aborigines to obtain proper title to their traditional land, or compensation for the loss of that land in the states of Australia, and to make such recommendations to the Human Rights Commission arising out of that study as you see fit. Mr Chairman, in support of our submission, we would like to take this folio of documentary and illustrative material for the perusal of members. Thank you.