John Pilger on the Indigenous struggle: 'There is no alternative now'

26 January 2016

On 26 January 2016, John Pilger spoke at a rally at Sydney Town Hall on the hidden meaning of 'Survival Day'. You can also watch a video of the speech here

Why are we here? Why are we doing this every 26th January - year after year? Of course, we know why - Indigenous people are saying to Australia: 'Look, we are still here. We have survived the massacres and the cynicism. We have survived.'

But is that enough, I wonder? Is survival without action ever enough?

The sources of power in Australia - especially political and media power -- draw both comfort and delusion from the very idea of Survival Day.

Yes, yes, they say, we understand. We have a place for you on the great Australian facade, next to Qantas and Anzac and Fair Go. Their delusion is that as long as Indigenous people have a token role in the theatre of Australia Day, then all is well. As long as there's a bit of dancing and a smoking ceremony down by the Harbour Bridge, then all is well.

Societies like Australia - with dark secrets and dishonest politics - feed off image and tokenism. They admire their own image of gormless, unthinking patriotism, while secretly admiring their capacity to silence and divert dissent and to control and co-opt people and never to change. It's a clever system of divisiveness. How does it work?

Take the idea of 'reconciliation'. It sounds good, but what does it mean? What is there to reconcile between oppression and suffering, poverty and privilege? Does it include 'justice'? Of course not. Reconciliation is to make the majority feel good with symbolic gestures and symbolic speeches. Nothing more.

Is this acceptable to us, here today?

Is this acceptable to those of us who know that Australia is a version of apartheid South Africa? Ask a black South African who has looked behind the facades.

Is the idea of Survival Day enough for the young Indigenous men who die before they reach the age of 40?

Is it enough for those who succumb to terrible sadness and violence in prison and police custody?

Is it enough for a 22-year-old Indigenous woman from Western Australia - her name was Ms. Dhu - who died in custody and who was laughed at by police officers as she lay in her own vomit?

Is it enough for the children who go deaf and blind from diseases of poverty?

Is it enough for the hundreds of families who are raided in the early morning and their children stolen from them?

The Australia Day banners out there in George Street, Sydney, tell us to: Chill. Enjoy. Reflect. I would add another banner, blood-red in colour, on which is printed the following: 'No country since apartheid South Africa has been more condemned by the UN for its racism than Australia.' It's time to tear down the facades. The image is a lie. No other settler nation has done so little to come to terms with its indigenous people. No other settler nation has done so little to discharge the colonial mentality that imprisons all of us in the past.

What I find especially tragic is the unspoken fear instilled into the tiny Indigenous educated class. This fear says that that, unless they wave the flag, however defensively, they'll be dropped off the bus of white privilege. For until a moral and legal treaty is signed with the first nations of this country, there'll be only pockets of privilege, and no justice whatsoever.

By treaty, I mean an historic series of laws that return to Indigenous people power over their own lives and communities, and a rightful share of the vast wealth of Australia... a treaty that carries the legal obligation of education and housing and health care.

And this will happen only if every day is not just survival day, but a day of action. Direct action. The kind of direct action that horrifies the media that guards a system of divide and rule.

Above all, you must not be afraid. Direct action is the only reason we have certain freedoms in Australia. Read the high court judgement of Lionel Murphy, the great reformer and jurist, who in 1982 said that Aboriginal people had every right to fight back. Murphy quoted Oscar Wilde that without what he called "agitation" - direct action - "there would be no advance towards civilisation." It's up to you how you take action. But you must do it. There is no alternative now.

One thing is absolutely certain: no matter how many flags are waved today, until Indigenous Australia can take back its nationhood, the rest of us can never claim our own.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library