New Economy Journal

Pay the Rent Part 2: The Indigenous Self-Determination Movement and where Pay the Rent Came From

Volume 1, Issue 2

May 4, 2019

By - Duncan Wallace

Piece length: 850 words

Cover image: The Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern was part of the self-determination movement of the 1970s
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This is the second (read part 1 and part 3) in a series of articles exploring the history and context of the Pay the Rent idea. 

The same week I attended the Uluru Statement event, the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne hosted a public discussion with Professor Gary Foley, whom they described, not without justification, as ”one of the greatest activists in Australia”. Foley has been closely involved in seminal events over the course of his life, from the design of the Aboriginal flag, to the founding of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, to the establishment of the first Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services. He is now also a historian of great importance.

Foley is an engaging speaker – conversational, quick witted and deeply insightful. The Malthouse discussion ranged from the story of his entry into the academy to his acting role in A Country Practice. The latter, he said (perhaps tongue in cheek), was his most effective piece of activism ever. The story is worth a brief recitation. He had been targeted by evangelicals, funded from the United States, who had distributed literature in Aboriginal communities in South and Central Australia proclaiming Foley and land rights as the devil. When asked by A Country Practice to take up a role he agreed on the condition he be allowed to write his own character. They acquiesced. So, to get back at the evangelicals, what did he do? He played a pastor who prosthelytized land rights. In so doing, he brought the concept of land rights into living rooms across the country. He was often approached in public after the airing of the episodes – “you’re the pastor from A Country Practice!” “Yes”, he’d say, “and what did I talk about?” “You spoke about land rights!”

Foley was a member of what he has described as the “landless refugees” who moved from rural areas to city slums in a “mass exodus to escape the concentration camp system” of the various State and Territory Aboriginal Protection Boards.[1] This trend was most pronounced in NSW: by 1971, Redfern had become the “largest Aboriginal community in Australia”, with around 25,000 people. Such communities experienced regular, arbitrary police violence, sometimes including murder. This changed little following the success of the 1967 referendum, which expedited, what Richard Broome has called, a “dramatic” re-emergence of a self-determination and land rights focus in Aboriginal political advocacy,[2] and signalled the end of the interlude of the civil rights phase, which Foley marks as stretching back to the 1920s.[3]

In the context of global social and political upheaval, with protests against the Vietnam war, anti-colonial movements, and the African-American political struggle, young Aboriginal activists had much to draw from. In part inspired by writers such as Malcolm X, their analysis concluded that self-determination was conditional on economic independence.

In the discussion, Foley outlined the practical program they devised. There was a need to develop economic enterprises to generate employment and resources, and what was needed for that was land. He emphasised the land rights movement wasn’t about disenfranchising white settlers – what they wanted was the vacant Crown Land and national parks which weren’t privately owned, and appropriate compensation for land alienated from traditional owners. With land and compensation payments, they could set up the necessary economic projects needed for income and employment; but, unlike Noel Pearson, said Foley, they were not advocating enterprises be capitalist in nature. Rather, they wanted an economic model consistent with traditional Aboriginal culture; something more socialist, with money pooled to facilitate the functioning of self-sustaining, self-reliant communities.

The self-determination phase gave way at the end of the 1980s to the “bureaucratic era of Aboriginal affairs”,[4] with land rights yet to be realised (parts of the Northern Territory an exception). Nevertheless, the self-determination movement was extraordinarily successful in the pursuit of its aims.

“Through examination of the obvious problems facing these urban communities, a focus on legal and medical issues became central”, writes Foley. On a shoestring budget, they set up Aboriginal legal services, which inspired the community legal centres which are now core service providers for all Australians. They set up Aboriginal community controlled medical services, which spread across Australia, and are now a powerful national network, pioneering new forms of medical practice. They also set up housing co-operatives and education institutions, the latter helping to promulgate their learnings across generations. Jacqui Katona, for example, a friend who I attended Foley’s talk with and herself an activist of some import, got her political education from the hanging out in Fitzroy at the Koori Information Centre. She sought to institute the kind of analysis described above in the successful campaign to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory – build community controlled economic enterprises; use the income to escape economic reliance on mining company payments; undermine mining company negotiating power; protect autonomy.

Like Redfern, Fitzroy was a focal point of immigration from rural areas, becoming the largest Aboriginal community in Victoria by the late 1940s.[5] Ironically, one Fitzroy councillor declared Gertrude Street had  “been invaded by an Aboriginal Colony”.[6] Following Redfern’s lead, Fitzroy saw the flowering of self-help institutions in the 1970s,[7] and it was out of this milieu that, in Fitzroy, ‘Pay the Rent’ was first proposed.

  • [1] See also Broome, Aboriginal Australians: A history since 1788 (Allen & Unwin, 4th ed., 2010) 172; 195-6.
  • [2] Broome, Aboriginal Australians: A history since 1788 (Allen & Unwin, 4th ed., 2010) 227.
  • [3] Foley; Anderson, ‘Land Rights and Aboriginal Voices’ (2006) 12(1) AJHR 84.
  • [4] Foley; Anderson, ‘Land Rights and Aboriginal Voices’ (2006) 12(1) AJHR 84.
  • [5] Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: A history since 1800 (Allen & Unwin, 1st ed, 2005) 295.
  • [6] Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: A history since 1800 (Allen & Unwin, 1st ed, 2005) 294.
  • [7] Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: A history since 1800 (Allen & Unwin, 1st ed, 2005) 351.

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