50 Years of Indigenous Resistance: Interview with Gary Foley

January 26th 2022

Invasion Day rally 2021. Photo courtesy of Christopher Hanna

Gary Foley is a Gumbainggir activist, writer and actor. He plays an integral role in this country’s history: both as a history professor and as a part of the Australian Black Power Movement. It’s a movement that saw First Nations activists change the course of history. On the 26th of January 1972, they established the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House. Now the  the world’s longest ongoing Indigenous protest, it brought an end to the assimilation era and prominence to the issue of Land Rights.
On the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Backchat‘s Eddy Diamond sat down with Gary to reflect on the achievements of the movement.

A day that has seen a lot of attention for action and protest is the 26th January. Although some may think it as being a recent conversation, this day has been a date of protest throughout history. 38’s Day of Mourning, 72’s Tent Embassy, 88’s bicentennial opposition by First Nations Peoples. Can you walk us through some of these monumental moments?

The person who deemed the 26th of January a day of mourning was William Cooper in 1938 on the occasion of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the arrival in Australia of the British.The next significant time was in 1970, there was a significant sort of demonstration held on the shores of Botany Bay. And then the big one was the Aboriginal Embassy which only came into being sort of accidentally. Billy Craigie, Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams went to Canberra with the simple intent to get a photograph taken of a protest on the lawns of parliament house. The expectation was they’d be arrested, they’d spend the night in the cells and we would go bail them out the next day. 
However when the police arrived and the boys expected to be arrested, instead the copper told them there didn’t didn’t seem to be any laws against camping on the lawn of parliament house. And so the boys had accidentally discovered a loophole in Canberra law which became legend. Here was the the ultimate legal and peaceful protest under the nose of the Australian government and there was nothing they could do about it without changing the law. 
And so it captured the imagination, not only of most Australians, but a lot of people overseas as well, which is one of the reasons it became regarded as so successful. Because it not only brought an end to the assimilation policy and assimilation era, it also made the whole world aware of the struggle for justice in Australia.

A huge focus of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was the issue of land rights. Can you talk us through the promise made 50 years ago for land rights?

In the 1972 federal election campaign Gough Whitlam loudly proclaimed in his election speech that he would grant land rights to Aboriginal people, as he said ‘all of us are diminished whilst the Aboriginal people are denied their rightful place in this nation’. And so when he became Prime Minister there were great expectations that he would deliver on this loudly proclaimed promise. However within less than 12 months he had reneged on that promise and that led to the Aboriginal Embassy returning to the lawns of parliament house which is where it’s been ever since. When Whitlam broke that promise that was the last time that I ever believed politicians when they opened their mouths. 

Invasion Day rally 2021. Photo courtesy of Christopher Hanna

Alongside the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra landmark achievements were being made in Redfern by a group of Aboriginal activists including yourself with the establishment of the Redfern Legal Centre & Aboriginal Medical Service – what was the push for these services to be established?

Well in the first instance there was a campaign of ruthless police brutality, harassment and intimidation of the Aboriginal community in Redfern in the late 1960s. And what emerged from that was Aboriginal activists developing their political consciousness looking to other situations around the world that might be comparable to their lives. And so we looked at the example of the Black Panther Party of America to see if their ways and some of the ideas they were developing would counter this police harassment campaign here. In the United States that led to lots of shootouts between Black Panthers and police which largely wiped out the party. But in Australia it led to the creation of the first free shop front legal aid centre in Australia for anyone (Redfern Legal Centre). I mean, we introduced the concept of free legal aid into the Australian context. 

Why are Aboriginal owned and operated services important?

It’s about self determination. We demand the right to control our own affairs, do things our own way, determine our own destiny and you can’t do that if you got some fucking bunch of white people doing stuff for you, you do it yourself. For the greater part of the 20th century Aboriginal people were subject to the dictates of white managers and white scoundrels and white governments, and we want to shake off those shackles. It’s as simple as that.
And not only that when you’ve got Aboriginal people drawn from the community running the services they’re more likely to deliver a much more sensitive service to the people. And an overall more effective and efficient service with a much more caring way of operating.And this is why Aboriginal people voted with their feet when the community controlled Aboriginal Health Service was set up in Redfern.The numbers attending that service was such that we had to almost immediately try and find a building triple the size to cope with the demand. And people were coming to the Aboriginal Medical Service rather than going to the local white hospital where they got treated like shit,, which is part of the reason why the medical service was set up in the first place.
And the other aspect is that by creating these organisations, it helped enhance our credibility as a political activist. And that enabled us to recruit large numbers of Aboriginal people onto the streets in 1971 to hold really major Aboriginal land rights demonstrations. All of which throughout 1971 scared the shit out of the prime minister so much, this was nervous little Billy McMahon. This prompted Prime Minister Billy McMahon into making the greatest mistake of his political career; when he decided he needed to make a statement on Aboriginal land rights on the most sensitive day in the political calendar for Aboriginal people, the 26th January, Invasion day. And so on Invasion day 1972, he made this grand prime ministerial statement that his government will never grant Aboriginal land rights. And that’s what prompted the Aboriginal Embassy.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, RLS, AMS were all extremely effective forms of protest. Do you see anything like this happening today and what can young people learn from these protests and community organising?

The best thing they can learn from us is not to learn from us. I mean one of the reasons my generation was successful in pulling off stunts like the Embassy and many other things was because we had looked at the tactics and strategies of the older generation, the people who brought about the 1967 referendum. Those old people had told us younger generations to help them with the ‘67 referendum campaign because if we get a yes vote that things will change for the better.
Well, we got a yes, the biggest yes vote for any referendum in Australian history and still nothing changed. So we decided to abandon the tactics and strategies of the older generation and seek our own. So young people have to look at the world that confronts them and they need to develop their own understanding of the world around them. And figure out their own tactics and strategies from there. My only word of advice is if you want to go ahead and change the world, remember one thing – you can’t do it by yourself, you gotta get together with other like-minded people and get organised.

Want to support First Nations peoples? Here are a few resources to get behind:

Path to Equity – pathtoequity
Reconciliation  – Reconciliation Australia
Grow Your Awareness: Share Our Pride – Reconciliation Australia
How to be an Ally – NITV / SBS
Donate: Aboriginal Legal Service – Aboriginal Legal Service

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