Invasion Day protests speak of the sadness felt by Aboriginal people when Australians celebrate the date that the British laid claim to their land. For them this date also marks the beginning of Australia’s policies and practices of genocide against First Nations’ people. The Invasion Day protests confront the issue of ongoing disadvantage and oppression experienced by Aboriginal people, as a result of Australia’s colonial history.
In Perth, a young Nyungar man and political activist Clinton Pryor organised the city’s Invasion Day march 2016 and he describes his reasoning behind Aboriginal people’s rejection of Australia Day on January 26th.
Australia Day is a day that (signifies) when the British came in and took our land and did all their wrongdoings by our people. It hurts us. If someone has gone into your house that you worked so hard to build … invade your house, take over your house and then go on to say that every once a year we are going to celebrate that day when we took your house off you, it really hurts us.
Due diligence gone wrong
This year, the City of Perth chose to store their Australia Day fireworks on Heirisson Island, also known to Nyungar people as Matagarup. The island is listed as a Registered Aboriginal Heritage Site under the 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act. The Department for Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) advised the City of Perth that no approval was needed for them to store fireworks on Matagarup and therefore no consultation with any relevant Aboriginal people, let alone with any of the 70 odd Aboriginal people living on Matagarup occurred.
It is unclear how the DAA came to this decision when their own Aboriginal Heritage Due Diligence Guidelines states in its preamble that a precautionary approach to the assessment of risk to Aboriginal heritage ensures all aspects of potential risk are considered and appropriate steps are applied to avoid or minimise damage to Aboriginal sites. Section 2.18 suggests that Information about the Aboriginal heritage for a particular area is best obtained through consultation with the relevant Aboriginal people and 2.19 Consultation in this context means engaging meaningfully with the relevant Aboriginal people. The purpose of such consultation could be: (a) to provide easily understood information about the proposed land use and to seek responses from the relevant Aboriginal people
Matagarup is located in the centre of Perth city and is currently occupied on the north side by Aboriginal people from two groups, the First Nations’ Refugee Camp occupants as well as members of the original Nyoongar Tent Embassy. The island is also a refuge and a sanctuary for Perth’s homeless people who have been welcomed by Nyungar Elder Bella Bropho to Matagarup. The storage of fireworks on the south side of the island was felt by the community to place its people at risk, as well as the natural environment including a small population of protected kangaroos. Pryor is an advocate and an activist working in association with the Maragarup people. As he explained, It could be a very dangerous place to put (the fireworks) as it only takes one spark to ignite the whole thing. The island is a sacred site of a woman’s birthing ground where women have been having babies for 50,000 years. Placing such a site at risk with 10 tonnes of fireworks appears to be at odds with the DAA’s own Aboriginal Heritage Due Diligence Guidelines. The Matagarup people sought answers from the DAA, however they were advised that the City of Perth did not require approval of any kind.
Despite nine raids by the City of Perth on this vulnerable community over the past year, and more raids prior – throughout 2012, the people remain camped on the island in protest against government policies such as the forced closures of Aboriginal communities. Their presence on the island brings to light the lack of respect and recognition given to heritage-listed sites such as Matagarup, as evidenced by the Australia Day fireworks fiasco. Matagarup First Nations Refugee Camp members also offer care, protection and safety to Perth’s homeless community, the majority of whom are Aboriginal. For the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to ignore the requests of the island community who argued against the storage of fireworks on Aboriginal Heritage Registered land validates the broader social concerns of those involved in Invasion Day rallies across Australia – that Aboriginal people continue to be marginalised, ignored and disrespected in Australia today.
The long road ahead
The lack of governmental consultation with the Matagarup community is just another example of the blatant disregard Aboriginal people so often face as part of their daily lives and is part of what drives Invasion Day rallies across Australia each Australia day. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ approval of the storage of fireworks on Matagarup appears to be based on their own interpretation of the 1972 Native Title Act, an interpretation the people of Matagarup disagreed with. This action by a government agency whose purpose should be to uphold the rights and protection of Aboriginal people and their land, demonstrates the misuse of power and privilege in Australian society today.
Unless we consult with Aboriginal people in decision-making that affects them on every level, Australia will remain divided. To end with the words of Clinton Pryor It’s the people in power who choose not to listen.