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To be a leader you need followers

Matilda House giving a Welcome to Country address at the Inside Out Forum session at the Tent Embassy site in Canberra. To Matilda’s left is Cheryl Buchanan, original Tent Embassy activist, and her grand daughter Tiarna House. Image Rhonda Hagan

by Stephen Hagan


s a speaker of a panel at the Inside Out Forum in Canberra recently I experienced an extraordinary incident where people in the audience claiming the mantle of radicals questioned my panel on our rights to speak on the subject of ‘kicking down doors’ as old radicals. As with all invitations I receive to speak at public forums I was keen to find out what the forum was about and to view the list of other speakers on the program. The Forum coordinator advertised the Inside Out as a forum of powerful ideas that explores new directions for social and political change. From the streets to the boardroom, the change-makers of today work from inside the political

structures that once kept them out. How has activism given way to new forms of campaigning? What is the new-look radicalism and the role of advocacy and diplomacy? The audience will interact with diverse panels of critical thinkers to exchange and contest ideas in a supportive and progressive format. All this sounded fine, but at the end of the day I wasn’t particularly interested in sharing a stage with people who are at the opposite end of the political spectrum as me on all things First Nation. But again the line up of speakers spoke for itself and I was happy to sign off on the invitation that included: a Tent Embassy session featuring co founder, Michael Anderson and Cheryl Buchanan; prominent campaigners Jackie

Huggins, award winning author Kim Scott; artists Adam Hill and Julie Gough; media experts Dot West, Kirstie Parker and Luke Pearson; the next generation of leaders including Benson Saulo, Australia’s 2011 youth representative to the United Nations; singer Kutcha Edwards and the Future Forum facilitated by Jenny Brockie of the SBS program Insight. In addition to the speakers there was also a celebratory Cabaret Dinner featuring Diva D with Lou Bennett, Deline Briscoe & Neda Rahmani; comedian Kevin Kropinyeri and flamboyant drag queen Constantina Bush and her Bushettes. I was most impressed to be sharing the opening morning Page 1

session with two leaders: Sam Watson and Monica Morgan, who I’ve admired and have worked with over a couple of decades on proactive advocacy on First Nations Peoples’ rights. Professor John Maynard facilitated our session Kicking Down the Doors: ratbags and rascals of the activist movement 1970s-2000. Monica spoke first and was her exquisite self in sharing her intimate history of working with and learning from her mother and aunties on the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FACAATSI). She spoke of how she traveled as young girl to their meetings around the country and learnt from the powerful women who took the lead back then when delegates didn’t have travel allowance and well paying jobs to support their trips. Sam also spoke of his involvement in FACAATSI and how he also was blessed to have so many role models, including his mum and dad and aunties and uncles, who were all part of the battle for equal rights in the 70s. He spoke of his time in the Black Panther Movement in Brisbane with Dennis Walker and Pastor Don Brady and of the Tent Embassy and Commonwealth Games protests in Canberra and Brisbane respectively. I spoke last and shared similar experiences of learning from father Jim, who was taught by his father Albert, about the need to lead from the front in bringing about real change for our mob. I also shared my 10 year legal battle thought the domestic and international courts to remove the offending word Nigger from the E.S ‘Nigger’ Brown Stand public sign in my home town of Toowoomba in Queensland. Then the most bizarre and totally unexpected thing happened during question time of our session that had a profound effect on me and I’m sure mystified and offended my fellow speakers as well.

A speaker from the floor in posing her questions asked: “Where were you people when we were banging on the windows at the restaurant protesting against Julie Gillard? I didn’t see you at the 40th Tent Embassy march in Canberra or any other protest marches for that matter and yet you’re all sitting up there making out you’re activist. I saw a lot of heads drop from the couple of hundred people sitting in the audience and a few smiles from conference organizers - who expected interruption from people who found their way into the forum proclaiming to be campers at the present day site of the Tent Embassy in Canberra – as they anticipated a strong reaction from the panel to the question. “For your information I was also banging on the window at the restaurant where the former Prime Minister was speaking and was also in the march with Sam and Monica earlier that day,” I commenced my counter to the questions. “If you want to go down the path of the panel showing their battle scars from decades of protests to your battle scars of your years in the struggle, well I’m sure this panel would oblige. “But most importantly – in this age of internet – you should avail yourself of a few minutes of looking up people you chose to attack to find out who they are and what they’ve done in the movement, before you embarrass yourself in the eyes of many in this room who’ve marched with us and can vouch for our involvement.” Renowned campaigner, Cheryl Buchanan – from the original Tent Embassy and Black Panther days – was quite scathing of her attack on the young woman. “How dare you show disrespect to these leaders on the stage who’ve all been there and done that,” Cheryl said. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” To the young woman’s credit she eventually apologized to the panel

in front of all delegates. The last session on the opening day was a special trip to the Tent Embassy site – from the Convention Centre by a fleet of buses – to hear a panel speak to the theme of Back to the Barricades: The Tent Embassy revisited, then and now. This session was a real treat for those wanting to reminisce of the past and listen to some of our original campaigners in Michael Anderson, Cheryl Buchanan and Kerry Reed-Gilbert. As expected Michael and Cheryl’s historical perspective of the 1972 event that changed the course of politics in this country for our mob was riveting. Kerry sharing her experiences, as a young teenager witnessing the savagery of attacks by police on the protesters, back then was most insightful. It was the powerful oratory from Matilda House in providing her Welcome to Country address before the Back to the Barricades session kicked off that had everyone talking at the formal dinner that evening. Matilda was ferocious in her condemnation of “you bludgers and your druggy supporters who still camp at this significant site give us all a bad name”. Surprisingly those people Matilda referred to in her address – who were in the crowd when she spoke – didn’t dare challenge her unsparing vitriolic commentary of them. Matilda’s prophetic line “to be a leader you have to have followers” and “I know that none of you idiots camping here have any followers”. Inside Out coordinators breathed a little easier after day one knowing that the vocal few who had big plans in disrupting the conference program only succeeded in embarrassing themselves. The emphatic words of Matilda House: “to be a leader you have to have followers” and “I know that none of you idiots camping here have any followers” are probably still reverberating at volume in the aspiring radicals’ ears today. Page 2

To be a leader you need followers  
To be a leader you need followers  

Matilda’s prophetic line “to be a leader you have to have followers” and “I know that none of you idiots camping here have any followers”.