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Indigenous Protest, 1988 Australian Bicentenary

Reference image HT 775

Image: Reference image HT 775

Source: Museum Victoria

On 26 January 1988, more than 40,000 people, including Aborigines from across the country and non-Indigenous supporters, staged what was the largest march in Sydney since the Vietnam moratorium. There were around a dozen buses of Victorian Aborigines among those congregated. The protesters marched through Sydney chanting for land rights. The march ended at Hyde Park where several prominent Aboriginal leaders and activists spoke, among them activist Gary Foley; 'Let's hope Bob Hawke and his Government gets this message loud and clear from all these people here today. It's so magnificent to see black and white Australians together in harmony?This is what Australia could and should be like.'

The march was seen as a challenge to the dominant society's hegemonic construction of Australia day and what it represented. It was a statement of survival, demonstrating that although Australian history had excluded the indigenous voice, Aborigines as the original inhabitants of this place were not going to continue to be beggars in their own country. The march served to draw both national and international attention to Australia's appalling human rights record. It aimed to educate the public about the poor conditions of Aboriginal health, education and welfare, of the high imprisonment rates and the number of deaths in custody suffered by Indigenous Australians. Activists such as Gary Foley called on Australians to join the aboriginal protests and to make the point to the rest of Australia that the whole concept of the Bicentennial is based on hypocrisy and lies. Rev. Charles Harris, a member of the March '88 Committee also wished to expose the celebrations as a farce. According to Robert Tickner, the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in both the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, the protest was a response to the exclusion of an indigenous agenda in the lead up to 1988. There had been little emphasis on the need to address indigenous aspirations as a precondition to celebrating the bicentenary. The protest march was both an affirmation of indigenous Australians' survival and a stark reminder of the falsity on which the celebration was premised. Celebrations focused on the discovery of Australia with a re-enactment of the arrival of the first fleet. However, the Aboriginal protest was a reminder that Australia had been inhabited at least 40,000 years before European arrival.

Indigenous protest over the 'celebration of a nation' instigated public debate concerning white and indigenous Australian history, the position of Aborigines in contemporary society and the possibilities of land rights and reconciliation in the future. This debate was mostly played out in the media; as the Sydney Morning Herald stated in its editorial on January 19 1988; 'scarcely a day of the Bicentenary has passed when issues involving Aborigines and their "Year of Mourning" protests have not featured prominently'. The long march for justice, freedom and hope was successful in placing indigenous issues in the public consciousness.

References
Editorial. Sydney Morning Herald. January 19, 1988

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