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A Life In Protest

Michael Anderson is an Aboriginal activist with a long career of defending people’s rights. From 1969 he was a leader in the Australian Black Power movement and was appointed by his peers as the first Aboriginal ambassador to white Australia after he and three comrades (BERTIE WILLIAMS, Billy Craigie AND Tony Coorey) established the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the front lawn of parliament house in 1972.

In 1979 he was appointed to the Office of the Public Prosecutions in criminal law as an instructing officer (the equivalent of a solicitor) in the state of NSW. He has had a long career of defending Indigenous rights on a national and international level.

Michael was in the headlines again recently for his involvement in the overturning of a conviction against a young Aboriginal woman. He used her case to challenge the jurisdiction of the courts in relation to Aboriginal people.

“In that case they squared the ledger. The original magistrate’s decision was that this lady had to pay a fine and she had a conviction recorded against her name,” Michael says.

“The Sydney District Court overturned the lower court’s decision and the case pointed out that across Australia’s states and territories there is legislation that says if you appear before courts and you don’t have a criminal record there is the opportunity to question the court about exercising their legal jurisdictions so that a criminal conviction is not recorded.”

The win was just the latest in a career of political highlights. Michael has been involved in the Tent Embassy and has called for the resignation of Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin over the NT Intervention.

He recalled those early years of the Tent Embassy to Deadly Vibe.

“There were a lot of policemen around and it was very cold and raining. It was 1am actually. We didn’t have a tent. We were given a beach umbrella and we also had some chaff bags and some plastic to wrap around the umbrella. The sign of the Aboriginal Embassy was written on a manila folder.”

He says the Tent Embassy was designed to be a permanent visual protest.

“We were saying sovereignty had never been ceded, that we wanted land rights, to stop the deaths of our children because at the time we had high infant-mortality rates and also we were calling for self-determination and to be compensated by the British for the loss of our land, so that we could develop ourselves without having to be beggars in our own country.

“It was full of emotion. We were young people riding off the back of the older ones who had been taking the struggle forward in terms of the political movement – and we became a bit more radical during the late ’60s and ’70s.

“We were influenced by the Charles Perkins Freedom Ride, and we thought instead of passing resolutions it was time to create more of a confrontational situation to let everyone know that we were serious about wanting change. It was a frightening time because

a lot of us had no idea of what lay ahead, but we got the job done and we got the world to listen.”

Many great things came out of that Tent Embassy. For many Australians it was one of the first times they had seen activism live from Canberra

in their lounge rooms on TV, and many of those involved in the struggle, including

the late Chicka Dixon and others such as Gary Foley, went on to do major things in organisations across the country.

Michael says he learnt a lot from the then Opposition leader Gough Whitlam, who became Prime Minister in 1972.

“I learnt a lot from him, diplomatically and politically, as well as being strategically tactical in the world of politics,” he says.

Michael first met Whitlam after he and a few others gatecrashed a party being held for a delegation from China to Australia in 1971.

“We got right into the hall where they were having dinner and the Chinese were impressed with seeing us there. The Chinese Ambassador and the leader of that delegation ordered some more chairs for us to sit there, and Gough Whitlam bumped me under the table and said: “We have to talk about this – you know that, don’t you?”

Michael then returned to his homelands and started organising the cotton workers around Wee Waa and Narrabri to strike.

“I organised a strike amongst the workers in the cotton fields, about 500 white people and 1500 Aboriginal people. They wanted higher wages. We got into the Arbitration Commission to argue our case and within three weeks we had raised the wage from 85 cents to $5.60 an hour, which was a massive increase,” he says.

He was then sent by Whitlam to work in the US State Department where he sat in on the end of the Kennedy inquiry into the causes and results of the race riots of the ’60s and ’70s.

“I learnt a lot from that. I stayed in the US and learnt about procedural matters within the United Nations. I was 23 at the time and it was a very steep learning curve for me,” he says.

In recent years, Michael has been a vocal critic of the NT Intervention, writing a letter in 2009 calling for Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin’s resignation. He says the Intervention is a major injustice against Indigenous people.

“This intervention, if you look at the legal technicalities of it, is martial law. It places the control of our peoples’ lands – and their whole decision-making has been taken from them – into the hands of ex-military personnel. It is a military exercise and it is a dictatorship.

“They look at income management, but they don’t look at the other factors operating here. Aboriginal people in the NT do not have the capacity under that law to lodge Native Title claims. The agent, who has been appointed by the Minister to supervise this has now taken control of all issues affecting Aboriginal people and he is the one that takes control over negotiation, so all decision-making by the people themselves has been eroded and that is not acceptable in a so-called democracy that we accept exists here in Australia.”

Michael says he is taking legal action against the Government in the international court in April/May next year to “settle these matters once and for all”.

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