Rainbows and Hard Hats

Rainbows and Hard Hats

When construction workers went on strike over queer rights

originally published in Honi Soit, 15 April 2018

Andy Mason is a builders labourer, CFMEU member and huge gay greenie communist

Building sites are not something that most people would usually associate with the queer community, Village People videos aside. But in the early 1970s, builders labourers in Sydney went on strike in order to defend the rights of a gay student. How did this happen? What does it tell us about how we can link working class and queer struggles today?

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Construction workers don’t have a great reputation for social progressivism in queer- and feminist-influenced student circles. We are probably best known for crude, homophobic jokes and for sexually harassing women from the scaffolding. In some ways, this view is fair enough. The building industry is the most male-dominated industry in Australia, with almost 90% of workers being men, and has actually gone backwards in terms of gender equality in the last decade. Women in construction are concentrated in roles like admin, marketing and human resources. They are largely excluded from low-paid labouring work and more secure skilled trade work on site, as well as high-paid technical and managerial positions, and have poor prospects in terms of earnings and career progression compared with men. 60% of women in construction have experienced sexual harassment at work, while 85% of queer building workers report derogatory homophobic comments by their workmates.


On my first day on a building site, some other day-labourers and I were given the job of cleaning up around site, moving piles of fibreglass off-cuts and broken concrete bricks into a rubbish truck. One workmate was worried about inhaling dust from these materials, and asked the foreman if there were any spare dust masks on site for us to use. The foreman replied that “dust masks make you look like a fucking fag” and told us that “you’re never gonna pull chicks wearing that gay shit.”  Luckily, another worker overheard and showed us where to get protective gear on site.


This male-only environment, like the footy changing room, is an intensely macho place. Building sites are dirty, loud, dangerous places. They are run by money-hungry developers who need to exploit the workforce as much as possible, and will cut corners wherever they can to maximise their profit. Homophobic and sexist attitudes can be used to bully workers into accepting unsafe work conditions – if somebody speaks up about a safety issue, a manager will call them a pussy and demand they do it anyway. And if you are on a casual contract and can be dismissed at any time, it’s very difficult to speak up about discrimination at work. I’ve seen managers use sexist notions about women being incapable of doing physical work to pressure young female manual workers into quitting. But paradoxically, these attitudes can sometimes be used by workers to stick up for themselves. I will admit to laughing when a co-worker called a particularly obnoxious corporate visitor to one site a “useless fairy” who “couldn’t organise a handjob in a brothel.” This display of machismo forced the manager to back off, and stop trying to get me to work in an unsafe way. With a worker killed on a construction site in Australia once a week, there is a serious side behind the dumb jokes.


While sexist and homophobic comments are a daily reality in the industry, people can also surprise you. One day during the marriage equality campaign, I was working alongside a deeply Christian labourer called Albert who moved to Dulwich Hill from Tonga in the early 1980s. Given my own experiences with religious homophobia in my family, I was nervous that he would see the rainbow ‘VOTE YES!’ sticker on my hard hat and that we might have a problem. Instead, he told me that his community visit a local church run by a socially progressive priest, and that they would all be voting yes. “D’you see any conflict between Christian values and supporting queer people?” I asked him. “Didn’t Jesus say to love others as you love yourself?” he said. “I love my gay nieces and nephews. And anyway, the union supports it and I support the union, so I’ll vote yes.”


Albert’s attitude helped me to understand why building workers in the 1970s might have been prepared to walk off the job over a queer rights issue. Firstly, not every labourer is a homophobic meathead – many of us are queer, have queer friends and family and are already on side. Secondly, building workers are very loyal to their union and if the union comes out in support of an issue, many workers will back it.


The NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) in the early 70’s was an inspiring outfit in every possible way. The union had spent the previous decade taming the worst excesses within the industry, fighting for workers’ safety and for better conditions on site – sometimes things as basic as access to a toilet and a place out of the sun to eat lunch. 70% of the workers in the industry at that time were migrant workers, who were exploited terribly by employers. Building workers also succeeded in their fight for better wages. These struggles were hard fought, with employers, the government, the media and the police all demonising construction workers. But builders labourers discovered that they could be more powerful than all of these groups – ultimately, they built the city and if they refused to work, the place would come to a standstill.


Jack Mundey, secretary of the NSW BLF at the time, describes how after achieving a better life for their members at work, the union turned its attention to broader political issues. Most famously, the union issued ‘Green Bans’ on projects which were seen by the community as environmentally destructive. The Domain, the Botanic Gardens, Kelly’s Bush nature reserve and Centennial Park would all have been bulldozed if not for the union’s intervention. But the union was also prepared to use its industrial muscle to oppose the Vietnam War, demand land rights for Aboriginal people, and challenge Apartheid in South Africa. Union members would down tools and join protest marches, and the union’s leadership were regularly on TV and in jail for their participation in demonstrations. Union leaders were paid the same as everyone else in the industry and workers were consulted on every decision. Because the union had shown its members it was prepared to fight for them, they were happy to support the union’s involvement in other issues, in some of the most inspiring and radical displays of political solidarity in Australian history.


Most extraordinary of all are the union’s ‘Pink Bans’, one of the first ever industrial actions taken around a queer rights issue. In 1973, gay activist Jeremy Fisher was expelled from a Macquarie University college after the Anglican dean found out about his sexuality. Despite the fact that it was a secular college, management insisted that they had a religious right to expel Fisher for being a sexual deviant, and refused to re-admit him unless he signed up to gay conversion therapy. Students tried to petition the college to change its mind, but they wouldn’t budge.


Enter the BLF. Macquarie Uni was engaged in extensive construction on campus, building new college accommodation and lecture facilities worth nearly $8 million in today’s money. Fisher and other student activists approached the BLF and asked if the union would support them. Mundey put it to workers on site that the university’s actions were discriminatory since “the university should allow homosexuals to study there the same as anyone else.” Workers agreed, and a total ban was placed on all construction work unless Fisher was allowed to return to study. The university needed the buildings completed urgently, and management caved.



The union also became active on feminist issues, arguing for the right of women to work as builders labourers, leading to hundreds of women taking up the work. BLF members also supported a strike by strippers in Kings Cross, and refused to build buildings at USyd unless the Philosophy department agreed to run the world’s first feminist philosophy course.  


The BLF’s example shows us that struggles for recognition of social difference and struggles for a better deal at work are not separate. As Jack Mundey put it, what is the point of getting better wages and conditions at work if you have to live in a polluted environment and put up with social discrimination? Builders labourers’ visionary stance on these issues pioneered a new ‘social movement unionism’, which saw workers’ role as not just agitating for pay increases and more control over their labour but agitating for a better society for everyone. Some in the union movement opposed this, arguing that unions should limit themselves to bargaining within the workplace and not concern themselves with broader political campaigning. On the other side, more recent identity movements have often dismissed the potential for working-class solidarity with their goals, seeing class politics as ‘economistic’ and blind to social difference. The BLF demonstrates that both of these views are wrong – unions can and should engage in wider social issues.


The CFMEU lived up to this proud tradition during the recent campaign on marriage equality, unequivocally giving its support for queer rights. CFMEU officials spoke at the enormous demonstrations around the country, and organised workplace meetings to discuss the issue and urge members to vote yes. Officials and union activists explained to members that queer people and building workers share a common experience of discrimination at the hands of the hypocritical rich and powerful in this country, and that building workers need to support equality for everyone and oppose discrimination wherever it is found. Some members were upset with this, repeating the idea that gay rights is something outside the workplace and the union shouldn’t get involved. But the union has stood firm in arguing that equality is union business – how can we care about our safety and conditions at work but not care about safety for other forms of exploitation and discrimination? Knowing that the union supports me, I’ve never worried about the rainbow stickers on my hard hat since.




Invasion Day 2016

The absurd contradiction of January 26 has been displayed vividly today as Aboriginal activists and their supporters have taken to the streets across the country, and meanwhile shirtless white idiots have emerged into parks and beaches to wave flags and sink tinnies of VB.

More than 3000 protesters, including hundreds of Aboriginal people young and old, gathered in Sydney to march from The Block in Redfern to Town Hall station, chanting “Always was, always will be – Aboriginal land!” and occupying intersections along the way. Aboriginal speakers highlighted a range of issues, from the historical basis of modern Australia in violent colonisation to present struggles over remote community closures, mining, land rights, astonishing rates of Aboriginal incarceration, Aboriginal deaths in custody, lack of access to housing, health and jobs, and the continuing removal of Aboriginal children from their families. Among the speakers was Aunty Jenny Munro, leader of last year’s Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy which successfully campaigned for affordable Aboriginal housing in the inner city. The size of today’s protests is a reflection of the momentum that has been building since the Embassy’s victory last September.


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Thousands attend the Invasion Day protest in Sydney earlier today

Meanwhile, in one of the most offensive displays of hegemonic nationalism, an annual re-enactment of the 1788 landing of the First Fleet took place across the harbour at Balmoral. The Daily Telegraph’s “Ultimate guide to celebrations” for Australia Day advertises the gathering as “one of the most creative events of the day” and seems to promise a day of “beach fun” for the whole family.

Events like these construct a particular version of our history – one in which the continent was unknown before Europeans laid eyes on it, and uninhabited before Europeans settled here. This erases more than 60,000 years of Aboriginal occupation, and provides the ideological underpinnings for a structural racism which continues to pervade every part of Australian settler society.

Of course, many Aboriginal people see Australia Day as a tragic day, preferring to refer to it as Invasion Day or Survival Day. I asked Uncle Ken Canning, from the Kunja clan of the Bidjara people and a stalwart of the Aboriginal justice movement in Sydney, what such an event means to him. He told me that “Invasion day is the start of the wars that were waged on every Tribal nation in this country and has yet to be resolved.”Uncle Ken asks non-Aboriginal people to walk a mile in his people’s shoes, saying “What if a group of us took over a Sydney suburb, say Marrickville, murdered most of the people, claimed ownership of that suburb, committed centuries of atrocities and then to make matters worse, celebrate the whole thing over and over again. It is horrendous.”

Georgia Mantle, one of the Indigenous Officers at the University of Sydney (and one of the activists responsible for a recent campaign which successfully removed a racist video game in which the player was encouraged to kill Aboriginal people), belongs to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, who were the first to suffer under the British invasion. She finds it “sickening” that people would turn this deeply traumatic event for her people into a celebration, and reminds non-Aboriginal people that “my ancestors and the people of the Eora nation were slaughtered and raped” and that “to celebrate that in anyway is disgusting and inhumane”.

Uncle Ken urges non-Aboriginal people to “research their own history and find out exactly what the British did in this country”. So, I did some digging. Naval Lieutenant Watkin Tench, in his 1789  and 1793 accounts of the settlement in Sydney, describes how relationships between British and Eora were initially friendly, with Aboriginal people showing the newcomers where to find water, food and shelter. However, relationships began to sour as the British intention of conquest became clear. The British cleared large tracts of land, trawled the harbour for fish, and hunted kangaroos on a large scale. As Eora people lost access to their resources, they began to actively resist any further encroachment of the settlement on their traditional territory. Many Eora attacks were also direct responses to the barbaric behaviour of settlers and convicts, some of whom Tench describes as having a taste for raping and murdering Aboriginal people.

Even supposedly enlightened, educated settlers like Tench could not conceive of Aboriginal people as their equals, and though he sometimes expresses pity for the Eora as he describes their treatment, he clearly sees their subjugation as inevitable and justifiable. By 1789 there was open warfare between Aboriginal people and the British invaders, with Tench expressing serious concerns for the future of the colony given the lack of military manpower. At this critical point, a smallpox epidemic killed more than half of the Eora, and a historical debate continues to rage about whether or not it was deliberately introduced. Undoubtedly the colony benefited, and this pattern of violence and dispossession was then repeated throughout the next 150 years as the British settled over the entire continent.



While January 26th symbolises this brutal historical reality, it also represents 228 years of Aboriginal resistance and protest. The first national Aboriginal organisation, the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), was formed by seminal Aboriginal activists like Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson and Margaret Tucker in 1938 to organise a “Day of Mourning” on January 26th of that year. They declared:  

“We, representing the Aborigines of Australia…on the 150th Anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people…and we appeal to the Australian nation of today…for full citizen status and equality within the community.” Today’s protest in Sydney paid homage to the legacy of these activists, marching in silence from Town Hall to Australia Hall on Elizabeth St and listening as the original APA proclamation from 78 years ago was read out.


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At that time, Aboriginal people could not vote in elections or hold public office, and were barred from entry to schools, pubs, pools, parks and other public places. Aboriginal children were routinely taken from their families and placed in institutions, and Aboriginal families punished for speaking their languages and practicing their culture. The Aborigines Protection Board (APB) was the legal guardian of all Aboriginal people in NSW, and had almost total control over Aboriginal lives. Aboriginal people required special “exemption” certificates to be free of APB restrictions on where they could live, what kind of work they could do and who they could marry. These restrictions were still in place until the 1960s, when a national Aboriginal civil rights movement, supported by trade unionists and students, successfuly campaigned to give Aboriginal people citizenship.

In 1938, the official January 26th celebrations included a re-enactment of the landing in Sydney Cove, in which Aboriginal people were brought in off missions in Western NSW and forced to participate. Before and after the performance they were imprisoned in police barracks. Such re-enactments remained common until 1988, when large Aboriginal protests on the 200th anniversary of the invasion redefined Australia Day as Invasion Day.


1938 re-enactment of the landing at Sydney Cove

Young activists like Georgia Mantle continue in this tradition of resistance, arguing that “the so called birth of this nation is nothing to be proud of” and that non-Aboriginal people “need to face the realities of colonisation.” The fact that a re-enactment of the invasion can occur is an indictment on modern Australia and a symptom of a deep alienation of most of our society from the reality of our history. Such events shows how far we need to go to achieve justice in this country. Non-Aboriginal people should show respect for the original and rightful custodians of this land by attending one of the many Aboriginal events on this day, and use the occasion as an opportunity to reflect on our place here on Aboriginal country.



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Aboriginal activists and supporters occupy George St intersection to practice traditional dance

History shows that justice can only be achieved when diverse groups stand together with Aboriginal people, forming a national social movement agitating for change. Students, unions, environmentalists and others must unite behind Aboriginal people in demanding that Aboriginal sovereignty be recognised, and that treaties be negotiated between settler society and every Aboriginal nation across this continent as the legal basis for a just future here.

Some suggestions for further reading for anybody interested:

Heather Goodall – Invasion to Embassy

Heather Goodall & Alison Cadzow – Rivers and Resilience

Bruce Pascoe – Dark Emu

Any of Henry Reynolds’ books

Kevin Gilbert – Because A White Man’ll Never Do It







Ken Canning’s Speech at Cinema Politica Launch


Uncle Ken Canning speaking at the CP launch

I’ll start with a poem. This is called ‘Advance australia what?’

Who is going to sing?
Come let us all rejoice
for we are young and free —
To the young mother
sitting in red dust
beside a dry river
in 4th world conditions
in a nation
apalled by the 3rd world
Who will tell her,
advance australia fair
as her dying child
suckles from
a malnourished breast.
Is this fair?
The death toll increases.
Will this child
be remembered
as a victim of war
by a nation obsessed
with remembering the dead!!
At the going down of the sun
we will remember them.
lest we forget.
How many more
will die
before we stand as one
and demand —–
Our babies be given
a chance to live.
She will mourn alone.
Another death
of a child
whose only crime
was to be born
in a country
Refusing to acknowledge
he or she ever existed
aussie aussie aussie

What’s been happening in australia for the last couple of years? We’ve been working together for the last couple of years with regards to a lot of things that have been happening. We knew for some time about the decision to remove communities in Western Australia, it was to follow the illegal Intervention.

Although the public wasn’t aware, we had our ideas through the Aboriginal grapevine that this was going to happen. So we started using social media to get a collective of like-minded people together. When I got back the rallies started, and we started demonstrating – at first with the March in March people that went around Australia. The genesis of our own demonstrations against the forced removals was also what was happening in Redfern. So just over a year ago, we set up a Tent Embassy, Jenny Munro and the grandmothers set up a Tent Embassy – Cherly and I were there. Quite a funny story – Jenny said, “we’re setting up a tent Embassy today” and she turned around and said “Oh, but I forgot the tent” *laughter*. Cheryl and I went and bought the tent and so that was the start of the tent embassy.
And so it’s grown and grown and some of the students who’ve supported it are here tonight so I might be preaching to the converted. But, basically, a corrupt organisation called the Aboriginal Housing Company jumped into bed with Deicorp and they wanted to build businesses there with student accommodation on top. And possibly further down the line, when they can afford it from the profits they make with the businesses build on the land, they’d then build Aboriginal housing. It was found out that this would’t happen for another ten years.
To their credit, people occupied their land and they’re still not off. We’ve got another court hearing on Monday, to see whether we’re going to get evicted. But if we get evicted we’ll disobey that law anyway. The only evictions that’ll happen off that land will be forced evictions. Again. Forced removals. The way I look at it, it’s all the same thing. Whether it’s in Redfern, or West Australia or South Australia – it’s not a new issue.

People might remember ten years ago the Gordon Estate was shut down in Dubbo. I went down there to give a talk last year, and all the Aboriginal families were gone, moved. They had been moved there from other places before – some of them had been there for twenty years – and they’d been moved again. I asked the locals if they knew whether they were and they said ‘no’.
Mount Druitt – a lot of people have been moved out of there. Where I live in Glebe, a lot of Aboriginal people have been moved to of the top end of Glebe Point Road. I don’t know where they’re being moved to.

This is not a new issue, and it’s happening to non-Aboriginal people too. If you look down to Millers Point, whole communities are being moved. They didn’t want that land when it was all industrial, but now that it looks beautiful and they’ve got parklands planned, they want to move out all the people who’ve grown up there. This is symptomatic of the super-conservative government that we’ve now got.

I won’t mince with words. If you look at the Northern Territory intervention – it’s not an intervention, it was based on lies. Based on the lies of Howard, using one of his staffers who went on Tony Jones’ Lateline to say that there were pedophile rings running out of Central Australia, which became the genesis of the Intervention.
Step back from that. Howard had tried to bribe communities to sign over their land to mining companies on 99-year leases so they could get good access. Now we’re looking at what’s happening in modern times, and we see that they’re cutting off water, electricity. John Howard did that in the 1990s to communities who were refusing to sign over their land. In fact, he cut off their food supply. These are not new tactics – it’s not coincidental that the person he mentored, who is now the prime minister, is hell bent on driving people off their land with the same tactics. Cut off their water. Cut off their electricity. Move the people out. We’re not hearing the full story in this country. We have people who go over to Western Australia and are in the ground in the northern Territory constantly, and things are not pretty.

What’s the first thing Abbott did as he came to power? $14 million out of the Aboriginal legal service, straight away. And $534 million out of Aboriginal affairs. The difference between those fund cuts and others, were that most of the others were argued about in Parliament, and some didn’t make it – for the Dole and pensions, for instance. The Aboriginal affairs fund cuts went straight through parliament without an argument from Labor or the Greens. And that’s something I’ve been very hostile about with the Greens. We’re sitting down to try and talk some peace at the moment, but I’m very hostile that they’re pretending to be a different party yet they haven’t spoken out enough about what’s happening in Aboriginal communities.
Some Greens members have been out to remote communities and they know very well what’s happening out there. There are nightly raids on communities; and the police are dressed as something out of Desert Storm. They come into the communities, put guns to the kids’ heads and ask them, “Does your father smoke marijuana? Does your mother drink alcohol?” This is terror going on in our own land, this is happening in Western Australia as well.

Howard brought up the lie, that was later completely disproven, about pedophile rings being run out of the Northern Territory – every Aboriginal male in the country was vilified over that. It’s not coincidental that the West Australian media are now coming out with the same story. Let’s say, for arguments sake, that some of these communities are dysfunctional, and that the biased Abbott media could somehow tell some semblance of truth. Moving a community from one area to another, larger community, does not solve the problem. It hides the problem. If there were perpetrators, wouldn’t you think hiding them in a larger community would give them more targets? SO this is not about dysfunctionalism in communities, it’s about getting people off land to mine it. That’s all it’s about. You don’t want to fix dysfunctionalism by cutting out half a billion dollars from Aboriginal affairs.

We’re seeing the fallout now in Western Australia, in many many places which had suicide prevention centres – they’ve been shut down. When we had the rally recently here in Sydney, ‘Eight Years of Intervention’, Gerry Georgatos, who’s been instrumental in trying to reopen them, was in tears. He said, “how do you think I feel when one of our centres closes down and shortly later an eight year old boy kills himself?” The media is not telling you of the whole horror that is happening in this country. He said, in the same speech, “we’ve lost count of the amount of children between the ages of eleven and thirteen, who’ve killed themselves.”

Surely, as a country, we’ve got to do more. Make a commitment to the First Nations people in this country. There are a lot of good people in this country (when I was younger, I was a little anti-White. I can’t see why, I was brought up in segregation…). But we don’t want good people living in country known internationally as one of the most racist places on the planet. We organised a national march on the 1st of May, we had 96 marches around Australia and overseas. The American and Canadian Indian movement staged six or seven marches there, two in Hong Kong, two in London, we had a two page story in the Bulgarian newspapers, and we’ve now got two Facebook pages that are against the removals. We’re winning the battle with the overseas media, but the local media does not report the truth of what is happening.

This is why I say we’ve got no friends in politics. Does anybody remember Peter Garrett the great activist? *Laughter* One of the first things he did in the Labor party was to reopen the Zinc mine on the McCarthy river, right through the Borraloola peoples’ lands, which had been shut down because it was toxic. His signature is on the document that reopened the mine. Young children now run around the mine and contract spasmodic nosebleeds, ear and eye infections. They’re very sick. Older people are dying. These people are refusing to sign over their land to the federal government, which has surrounded them and is now simply waiting for them to die or leave. We’ve got documentarians working in that community who’ll hopefully bring to light what goes on there.

I can’t reiterate hard enough, how, as a community of good-willed people to allow this to happen. We can’t allow Abbott and his rubbish media to distract the community with constitutional recognition. Why would you want to recognise people in the constitution when they’re the same people upon whom you’re committing genocide.
Tony Abbott’s policies are genocidal. Mike Baird’s policies are genocidal. The cuts to the custody notifications services (CNS) are murderous. It’s not longer people dying; it’s murder at the hands of government policy. The CNS was the recommended outcome of a royal commission of deaths in custody. It states that t when an Aboriginal person is arrested, a family or community member has to be notified and come to the cell. For some reason, Aboriginal people get very depressed their first hour in custody. And they commit suicide. The CNS effectively stopped these deaths. There’d been none since it was put in place.
Baird defunded the CNS. We protested, and he’s reluctantly agreed to extend it by six months. Reason tells us, if you’ve got something that saves lives – which is not a costly service- and you remove it, you want to kill those people. So I accuse the state government of murder by policy.

The government is committing genocide and murder, and they have blood on their hands. The only way to get at this government is to tell them who they are. They’re not an inept, racist government – they’re a gang of murderous thieves. You look at Labor and see the same thing. When Bill Shorten came out to speak about the half a billion dollars cut from Aboriginal services he was about effective as a wet tissue.
We are way off the political radar. If people think constitutional recognition is the answer, you’re way off. When you’ve got children as young as eight killing themselves, you shouldn’t be having this debate – we should be fixing these material problems that exist. That should be our priority. All Abbott’s trying to do with constitutional recognition is to distract people from the truth of what’s happening.
There’s been almost a billion dollars put into advertising for constitutional recognition. He cuts half a billion from our funding and puts a billion into recognition. We debated the pro-recognition people last Friday night at Town HalI. When asked about their funding, one representative told me they operated on a budget of five million. I prodded them on this, and they admitted they had sponsorship. I asked him about his sponsors, Telstra was one, he said. Name the rest? Transfield. Transfield as one of their sponsors.

Why would these major companies support constitutional recognition? Once we’re in the constitution, we’ll lose all sovereign rights. We’ll lose native title, we’ll lose land rights. This is one of the biggest frauds the government has tried to pull on the public. Once we’re in there, we’ll become assimilated. Any of our sovereign rights are completely gone. This is why the big companies are pumping money into it: because we cannot then claim on these big companies’ land.
Thank you.


Beyond ‘Acknowledgment’ – To Action!

The sun comes up on the land of red dirt,
the land where the black man done the leg work…

‘Change the Game’ – Colli Crew

(song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0rJajbIs-o)

People in australian radical/left spaces pay a fair amount of lip service to the Aboriginal struggle for justice. Formal recognitions at meetings and events that the land we live and work on is the rightful property of Aboriginal groups are ubiquitous in our organising, to the point where we aggressively (and rightly) criticise people for forgetting to “do an acknowledgement”. Also very common in the social justice scene are statements about how as settler people “we all benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous people” and how it is therefore “everyones responsibility to work to undo this injustice”. This is very encouraging and certainly a vast improvement over the norm in white society, which is to totally ignore Aboriginal perspectives.

However, I worry sometimes that the formality of “the acknowledgement” can act as a barrier to sincere engagement with the violent reality of our past & present, and to sincere engagement in solidarity work with Aboriginal people. Acknowledgements of country have a wide political currency in Australia, and are also a common prelude to the meetings in Parliament and meetings in the boardrooms of mining companies in which these institutions carry out the contemporary practice of colonialism. This should indicate to us that an acknowledgement alone is no guarantee of respect for Aboriginal people. It’s important to recognise that mere acknowledgement is not action – on their own, acknowledgements of country are at best tokenistic, and at worst they are dishonest excercies in excuse making. For white society, they mostly seem to function as a kind of moral pardon, a discursive wave of the hand which brushes away any discomfort about the obligation to substantially engage with difficult moral & political questions and helps white people to feel better about themselves. I’d encourage white people to see a formal acknowledgement of country as the bare minimum, and to reflect on how we can move beyond it.

I’m not intending to condemn any particular individual or group for this. I think it’s totally natural for us to think this way, given the way the white education system handles ‘Aboriginal issues’, and given the enormous social distance between mainstream settler Australia and Aboriginal people which ensures we don’t get the other side of the story. The curriculum tends to render colonisation as a historical event rather than an ongoing practice, assuming that it stopped after the invasion and settlement of the country, and ignoring the connection of contemporary policies of cultural assimilation and social-political-economic oppression with a history of extermination. Aboriginal culture is similarly rendered as a historical object, perhaps an object of curiosity or pity, but basically something primitive from the distant past and not relevant to the modern world. This denies the continuing strength and dynamism of Aboriginal culture and its relevance to contemporary Aboriginal people and their communities.

When acknowledged at all in the classroom and in public, the violence of the British invasion is constructed as a historical inevitability arising from the ‘clash of cultures’, rather than a conscious process which resulted from deliberate policies and choices made by real people and institutions. This can be seen as a subtle extension of the social-Darwinist logic which formed the ideological basis of colonisation from the beginning – the idea that Aboriginal societies were destined to vanish from history due to their inability to compete with the genetically and culturally ‘superior’ Europeans. These days when people say stuff like this, it might be about “technological” or “political” superiority instead, but the gist is the same – Aboriginal people were naturally and inevitably subsumed by a stronger society. This assertion of the inevitability of conflict denies the agency of the people who did the dispossessing, and who committed the violence, and thus denies their moral responsibility for the genocidal consequences of their abhorrent actions.

In reality, violence was never inevitable – the Australian frontier was not always a site of cut and dry black/white opposition, but a space of complex negotiations between societies. It was a space of intense contradictions, imbued with all the messiness of real people trying to make their lives in complicated circumstances. For example, at the height of the war between Wiradjuri people and early settlers in the 1820s, Wiradjuri resistance leader Windradyne had a good relationship with the Suttor family who owned one a cattle station near Bathurst. George Suttor, head of the family, had learned the Wiradjuri language and made an agreement with Windradyne that in return for the right of access to their traditional country for ceremony and harvesting, the Wiradjuri would not attack the Suttors or take their livestock. The genuine respect between the two is evidenced by the fact that the Suttors allowed Windradyne to be buried on their cattle station, in a time when actively destroying Aboriginal connections to their land was the norm. Such stories are not uncommon, and they demonstrate that there was nothing inevitable about violence. Mutual understanding was possible, even after settlers had taken land, if they made the effort to engage with Aboriginal communities on their terms. Violence prevailed because settler society chose violence.

As a kind of counter to the apologist narrative most of us absorb from high school, i’d like to explore in a bit of detail what people are getting at when they say this stuff about how as settlers “we all benefit from dispossession”. I hope that this might provide a bit of a basis of historical understanding to spur people into action, an understanding of how our past influences our present, but also an understanding of how history is created through struggle and how we can have a role in shaping it. I’ll talk about three aspects of history. Firstly, i’ll illustrate how the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land was and remains the ideological and practical underpinning of settler society. Secondly, i’ll discuss some insights from recent scholarship (though always known by Aboriginal people, of course) which demonstrate how Aboriginal management of country over millenia created the fertile lands so desirable for colonists. Thirdly, i’ll talk about how the early settler economy relied on Aboriginal expertise, knowledge of country and labour in order to survive. Ill then explain how each of these things is directly relevant to contemporary life in australia.

First of all, let’s look at how the theft of Aboriginal land was justified by the early colonists. While the mainstream understanding, embedded in the education system, is that dispossession was the result of misunderstandings or incomprehension on the part of white people, the reality is that the colonists were well aware of what they were doing. For some settlers, the violence may have been seen as a grubby underside to their new life pursuing riches in a “wild” continent. But others explicitly articulated a view that the conquest of the continent was not only necessary for the pursuit of white interests, but was the right thing to do. These people drew on hundreds of years of European legal and philosophical thought which had accompanied the expansion of European empires in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Elaborate moral justifications for the extreme violence of this process had been developed, often centered around the moral and cultural superiority of European people as Christians compared to the world’s Indigenous peoples, constructed as heathen ‘savages’. European colonists argued that by bringing Christianity and ‘civilisation’ to ‘backward peoples’, they were ultimately acting in the best interests of Indigenous peoples. Violence was excused as a necessary part of this process. For settlers, the imperative to economically exploit new territories was linked to a religious imperative to go forth and till the soil. In Australia, unique among all settler-colonial societies, colonists went so far as to assert that the continent was legally uninhabited and didn’t bother making formal agreements with Aboriginal groups about the acquisition of land. Colonists told themselves that a) Europeans and Christians, the entire world was their birthright; b) Aboriginal people needed to be brought under the yoke of ‘civilisation’ for their own good; and c) Aboriginal people were so “primitive” that they couldn’t even be considered to legally own the country – the land was thus terra nullius, latin for “land belonging to nobody”, and dispossession was morally acceptable.

The depth of Aboriginal connection to country has always been an enormous challenge to the legitimacy of the colonial project. White scientists now unanimously support Aboriginal people’s centuries-old argument that they have been the custodians of this country for an unimaginably long time. The vibrancy, dynamism, complexity and diversity of Aboriginal cultures put colonists’ conceits of their own superiority to shame. It was obvious from the beginning that Aboriginal societies knew, loved and were responsible for every metre of the continent. It was equally obvious that this fact had to be denied at all costs if the colony was to remain justifiable. Settlers set about waging two wars on Aboriginal people – firstly, a physical conflict in which the objective was to sever Aboriginal groups’ relationship to their country as quickly as possible. Colonists used the guns and biological weapons which had enabled them to succeed in conquering the Americas to shatter Aboriginal societies’ capacity to meet their own economic needs, reducing Aboriginal populations so that there weren’t enough people to produce food. They destroyed Aboriginal food sources, emptying harbours and rivers of fish, trapping and shooting game animals, and destroying Aboriginal crops like yams and native grains. The second front of this war was an ideological one, in which the awful stereotypes of Aboriginal people and communities as backward, lazy, violent, misogynist and so on were founded. Those settlers who bothered to make genuine connections with Aboriginal communities saw intelligent, complex people with a fierce devotion to their land, people deserving of humanity and respect, but this was an inconvenient truth in the context of the frontier and it was silenced by the crude jeers which remain a staple of mainstream Australia’s response to Aboriginal cries for justice.

Secondly, it’s important to understand how generations of Aboriginal labour embedded in the landscape was instrumental in creating the fertile country for which settlers were prepared to commit murder. Again, some strands of contemporary whitefella science have come out in support of what Aboriginal communities have always been saying – that they were not shiftless hunter-gatherers, wandering aimlessly around the continent hoping for their next meal to jump out of the scrub, but actively managed the continent over generations to promote animals & plants perceived as useful for food, medicine and other uses. Aboriginal groups used fire to distribute plant communities in ways which made food reliable and abundant – in this way, it was possible to create mosaics of forest & grassland which made it easy to predict where grazing animals like kangaroos would be, and to funnel them into areas where they were easily speared. In many places, Aboriginal societies farmed yams and native grains, which were nutritious and could be stored for use in periods of drought and hardship. Some groups, like the Gunditjmara, build dams and traps in order to harvest fish and eels. Many colonists were astonished by the seemingly endless plains of rich grasses, and soft, fertile soils, comparing the land they were seeing for the first time to the beauty of wealthy gentlemen’s estates in Britain. This comparison is key, because it conveys not only an appreciation for the productivity and beauty of the country, but a sense of order and regularity – a sense that the landscape was the product of human intervention. So successful was this management that Aboriginal people were documented by early colonists as setting aside the most stable water and food sources for use in times of hardship, and holding enormous feasts to accompany cultural festivals that could go for weeks – hardly the image of Aboriginal people as perpetually-starving nomads which is more familiar to whitefellas. The fertility grasslands, crop fields, and fish traps was highly prized by Aboriginal societies, and they were also recognised as extremely valuable by settlers, leading to some of the most bitter battles of the frontier war.

Thirdly, we should recognise the instrumental contribution of Aboriginal people to the early settler economy, which would have failed without them. In addition to managing the land for tens of thousands of years to produce the grazing land so prized by colonists, Aboriginal people provided expert labour to the first generations of European farmers and grazers seeking to make a living in unfamiliar country. After their lands were conquered, Aboriginal communities were brought into white settlements as pastoral workers, fishers, whalers, and domestic workers. Aboriginal people’s exhaustive knowledge of their lands, waters and resources made them invaluable in settler’s endeavours to turn profits in the colony. For example, Yuin people on the south coast of NSW saw work in fishing and whaling as an opportunity to maintain their ancestral connection with the sea, and in the days before technological improvements made them redundant they were the most important workers in these industries and lavishly praised for their skills. In the arid centre, Aboriginal knowledge of water sources was vital in keeping herds of cattle and sheep alive, and saved countless white pastoralists from bankruptcy or starvation. Although traditionally vital in customary harvests of fish and crops, Aboriginal women and girls were excluded by Victorian misogyny from work in the fields, and used instead as domestic labour which was vital in keeping households working. For generations after invasion, Aboriginal people were never paid for their work. They would be given rations, but no wages. It was not for another 180 years, in the 1960s, when Aboriginal people were finally guaranteed the legal right to equal pay for equal work, and even then it was often not enforced. The contemporary prosperity of Australia was literally build on the backs of countless Aboriginal workers, whose contributions were unrewarded in their lifetimes and which remain unremembered and uncelebrated. The fact that settler australia celebrates idiots like Burke & Wills, who died in the desert of hunger and thirst after shooting at local Yandruwandha people who were trying to help them, while we ignore the stories of the Aboriginal people who made the early settler economy work speaks volumes about the dishonesty at the heart of our national psyche.

So as we’ve seen, this country is indeed “the land where the black man done the leg work”. Settler society in australia is based in every sense on Aboriginal people’s relationship with their land – either in denial, through the concept of terra nullius and the denigration of Aboriginal culture, or on its exploitation in industry. These dynamics are in the very DNA of settler society and far from being historical curiosities, they are directly relevant to all sorts of struggles in 2015. The current push to close remote homelands communities in Western Australia is motivated by the desire to sever Aboriginal people’s connection to their lands in order to facilitate the expansion of mining activity in the area. Mining companies and conservative governments understand that living on country and practicing traditional culture gives Aboriginal homelands communities a great deal of strength to resist the destructive impact of mining on their country, and accordingly are trying to force the communities off their lands. In cities, Aboriginal communities are fighting for self-determination over housing, health and education services, struggling to build and maintain culturally and socially appropriate institutions owned and managed by Aboriginal people instead of the usual paternalism of white organisations. It’s important to remember that for Aboriginal people, the systemic removal of their children, destruction of their languages and cultural practices and degradation of their land are all contemporary experiences. Memories of violence of the frontier at the hands of the early police force only a few generations ago are disturbingly relatable for Aboriginal people today as they experience enormously disproportionate rates of incarceration and police violence. Every single block of land in the country was at some point stolen from an Aboriginal community, and their descendants remember and remain justifiably outraged.

As a whitefella, my journey to understanding this stuff has been challenging. It has involved a long process of self-reflection about my history and place in australia as a descendant of some of the early settlers, a challenging of all i’ve absorbed from my education and from the dominant paradigms of the society i’ve been raised in. But I believe it’s been absolutely necessary. I’ve found that Aboriginal communities are still fighting hard after 227 years to restore control over their lands and their lives. The legacy of colonialism lives on, but so does the legacy of resistance. The only moral way forward as descendants of settler colonists is to reconcile with our history, and support Aboriginal groups in their contemporary struggles by giving them our time, energy, organising capacity, resources, networks, and money. It’s the least we can do given all the work they’ve done, unpaid and uncelebrated, building for us.

For people interested in chasing stuff up, ive learned a lot of this stuff through books like the following:

henry reynolds – ‘the other side of the frontier’ & his other seminal books on frontier conflict in australia

bill gammage – ‘the biggest estate on earth’, which discusses Aboriginal land management before colonisation

mudrooroo – ‘us mob’, an introduction to black culture and politics

heather goodall – ‘invasion to embassy’, a history of struggles over land in NSW since 1788 – also her book ‘rivers and resilience’, which discusses Aboriginal people along sydney’s georges river and the complexities of their relationships with settler society

galarrawuy yunupingu – ‘our land is our life’, an anthology on the land rights movement in the NT and elsewhere

bruce pascoe – ‘dark emu’, which argues that Aboriginal communities farmed, built permanent settlements, and were not hunter-gatherers

as well as some docos and other stuff. But the main way i’ve learned about these things is at the campfire at the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, or out on country with Elders. The main thing to learn is that this knowledge is out there in the world, in real people, not just in books. If you want references or specifics on anything i’ve said just contact me and i’ll point you in the right direction.



more than the miles between our homes
those endless stretches of highway
winding through green hills,
fern gullies and iron-red plains
more than the numbers ticking down on signs by the road
yes, more than some tyranny of geographical distance
what keeps us apart is a distance in spirit.

you are from this country; it is yours.
born of it, part of it, your ancestors have sung it
since the beginning of time.
when it’s healthy, you’re healthy,
when it’s hurting, you hurt,
as you hear your old people crying from beyond.

us mob are new here, we don’t know the Law.
songs, dances, stories, all is alien to us
and we foreign to it.
we stumble around, not knowing the country
not seeing how by degrading it we also harm you
and how we harm ourselves.
our ancestors are elsewhere, far across the seas
and we feel ourselves groundless here, purposeless and adrift.

along with this distance in spirit
there is a distance of mind.
you know the country through experience and Law
most of us have only seen pictures.
your science teaches you that all is connected
that the cosmos is an inter-dependant whole
where all things have their place
you need this country, and your country needs you.

our science says our lives are meaningless
random occurences in a cold, cruel, indifferent universe
we miss the whole for the part
the forest for the trees
the trees for the leaves
the leaves for the chlorophyll
we focus ever smaller and finer
but then style ourselves impervious, impartial observers.

for 227 years we have behaved
as if us mob knew everything
and you mob knew nothing.
let’s have some time the other way around
accept us mob are clueless
and let you mob teach us a lesson or two
then we’ll see if that distance
isn’t so tyrannous after all.

– ADM, February 2015


These Boots Were Made For Walking

Sexuality, like the rest of life, is a complicated thing and attempts to simplify it by reducing people’s experiences and identities to static labels are often not only futile, but damaging. I’ve found that labels are a lot like boots – if you get the wrong ones you can expect a lot of chafing and tripping over yourself, but if eventually you find a pair that fit, as long as you look after them they’ll serve you well. They might wear out eventually, and you’ll need new ones, but that’s just life, isn’t it?

Like most people, the beginning of my sexual and romantic life was characterised by the assumption that I was heterosexual. I was constantly pressured into seeking relationships with the opposite sex, and bullied because I never found any. Friendship circles became sexually segregated early in puberty, and didn’t desegregate for a few years afterwards. Male friends who were successful in their search for sexual conquest lorded over the rest of us like some dickhead aristocracy, and homophobic slurs were levelled at any bloke who didn’t score goals with chicks, or who didn’t play the game. All in all it was pretty grim.

At about 16 I met somebody who I connected with, and a romantic entanglement developed. I carried into it a tempered version of the sexist expectations I had absorbed from my surroundings – while I did not think that sex was the ultimate point of our relationship, I certainly saw it as very important. Male peers were constantly inquiring as to our sexual progress – I generally lied to them to avoid the violent accusations of gayness that would have followed if I had been honest. We did eventually end up having sex together after about a year, but a cacophony of anxieties always echoed in my head during these experiences – was I enjoying this, was she enjoying it, were we doing the right things, did I even really want this – and in the end these anxieties led to misunderstandings that played a part in our relationship’s undoing.

I was never really honest with my first partner about my feelings towards sex, and I also felt compelled to keep other things from her. From shortly after we started seeing each other, my battle with my romantic and sexual feelings towards male friends began. Ironically, our homophobic boys club was also filled for me with sexual tension – all the sweaty, shirtless sportiness was often too much to bear. Despite my liberal-bourgeois upbringing and the nominal tolerance of my school and my supposedly diverse neighbourhood of Newtown, I understood these feelings as unwelcome and wrong. As i experimented quietly with moving discussion about queer desires among our friends from crude insults towards something more serious and honest, I discovered that many of my male friends found such desires threatening. I internalised their feelings, which quickly developed into a powerful self-hatred. Problems with depression and alcohol developed which have stayed with me for the 5 years since. I want to make clear that there was nothing irrational about this – although it might be difficult for some people to understand, these feelings were my way of responding to a hostile environment. My suspicions that my feelings would be unwelcome were confirmed by the responses of my peers to them, and the reasonable thing to do became to deny such feelings as far as possible.

The thing that made all of this very difficult was that I always seemed to develop sexual feelings for my best friends. With girls this was always awkward, with boys it was catastrophic. My ultimate desire in all cases was for a heightened emotional intimacy, a more fulfilling connection – my desire for sex, if present, was a desire to satisfy people who I felt had given so much to me. The thought of losing our existing relationships if they recoiled from me after my expression of these desires generally kept me from expressing them to anybody apart from the cat, and instead i cultivated internal tensions, using alcohol as an emotional anaesthetic whenever things were becoming too hard to bear.

For about three years after this I actively and openly hated sex, condemning it as a fundamentally painful and evil thing. Whenever desires developed I repressed them, and if unable to do this I punished myself. I began to be exposed to feminist discourses about sexuality, learned about the male gaze and the sexual objectification of womn, and as a response developed a new understanding of myself as a patriarchal oppressor and my desires towards women as destructive and inexusable. This mirrored the existing, similar understanding I had about my same-sex desires and also became deeply entrenched in my personality. My inability to destroy what I saw as evil impulses led me to conclude that it was really fundamentally me which was evil, and this train of thought led me further and deeper into the bottle, and sometimes towards a desire for death.

At some point in my first year or so at university I first encountered the concept of asexuality, and felt I had discovered something revalatory. No way of identifying myself previously had ever been satisfying – straight, gay or bi were all at best uncomfortable, and more often very chafing fits. I was straight because everybody else was, I was gay because I was not like them, I was bi because I didn’t know who I was. Ace discourse seemed to offer something different – I could describe myself as something more like what I was. In my search for a label I tried to think of what my romantic and sexual experiences had in common. I initially decided that the underlying theme in all of it was the fact that I didn’t want sex, or if I did want it I wished I didn’t. It seemed like some ace people simply had no interest in sex at all, and this was clearly not me, but it seemed there were others who perhaps had desires but did not feel comfortable expressing them in the usual formats. The boots had some holes in them – I learned quickly that my enthusiasm for a new way of describing myself was matched by an equal enthusiasm held by many for denying it, or asserting its illegitimacy. This was sometimes malicious but more often a product of ignorance, and so I kept this pair of boots, deciding they were better than nothing.

Over time i learned new words, new terminologies, new discourses and slowly found a path towards accepting myself and my feelings. I learned about pansexuality, and found it resonant – the genders of the people I am attracted to have been not merely diverse, but actually irrelevant to my desire to connect with them. I am not attracted to genders, but to people. Another useful term was demisexual – I am not totally without sexual desire, but require a well-developed emotional connection in order to experience it. The boots suddenly fit better because I felt I had made them myself. They are still not perfect, but i am polishing them and learning how to walk in them. For once I am optimistic to see where they take me.

A little way along this new path I have met another wanderer, who has come from different places but found herself in similar shoes. It’s proving most fulfilling to find our way together, helping each other across ditches, one of us creating footprints for the other if the ground is muddy or uneven. Sex fits into this wonderfully – a pleasure, not an obligation, an opportunity to continue conversations after we’ve run out of words. It is respectful, supportive, communicative and patient, because we are. We’re wearing in our boots together, and they’re feeling better every day.


Acknowledgement of Country


This blog will be written on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I acknowledge that sovereign ownership of this country has never been ceded to any white government or sold to any white corporation, and I pay my respects to Eora elders past and present. I was born and have lived all my life on stolen land, and as such I feel it is my moral obligation to support Australia’s First Peoples in their struggle for sovereignty and justice. Despite my position of  privilege as a white person, I have often been frustrated by the way that most formal “acknowledgments”, when given at all, are little more than trite banalities recited in a formulaic and unfeeling way. I feel it should be obligatory to say something which invites real reflection about Australia’s foundation and continuation as a genocidal state, and in my opinion the usual ritual does not adequately accomplish this. I’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past – not always knowing what to say, it’s easy to fall back on the familiar phrases. Here’s an attempt to do better.


Gadigal country was the first in Australia to be seized by the fledgling British colony in 1788. Eora communities initially had peaceful relationships with settlers which included trade, work and marriage. However, as the real agenda of the white colony became clear, this relationship soured. The Gadigal people, along with the rest of the Eora nation, were prevented by the colony from accessing resources and from undertaking ceremonies on their land. The white invaders barred access to much of the harbour, important for both its supply of seafoods and a number of ceremonial grounds. Gadigal people became the target of brutal violence by colonists, which the whites justified to themselves as fair reprisal for the “savages” taking livestock and burning land, a traditional management practice. Eora people understood the use of their land’s resources and maintenance of its health as their responsibility, and rightly resisted their dispossession at the hands of the newcomers. Pemulwuy, a Bidjigal man from the area around modern-day Parramatta, fought a famously fierce partisan war against the colonial authorities from 1789 until his death by British musket in 1802.


So great was the threat of Eora resistance (supported also by warriors from the Dharug and Tharawal nations, neighbouring Eora country to the west and south-west respectively) to the colony that in 1789, British naval officers ordered the use of smallpox as a biological weapon. Some of them had previously been stationed at the British colony in North America, where smallpox had previously been employed deliberately, and seen the devastating effect of the disease on people without immunity to it. The fledgling colony of New South Wales may have rapidly met with failure if not for the use of this unimaginably destructive virus, which spread rapidly and was responsible for the death of up to 90% in many communities. Through a combination of smallpox and rifles, every nation from the Eora in Sydney to the Wajuk in Perth was subjugated by the colony over the next hundred years or so.


White Australia likes to cultivate the fiction that despite the evils perpetuated in the past in its name, apologies have been made and accepted and progress is being made. Any remaining injustices, if acknowledged at all, are politely dismissed as the inevitable result of the clash of cultures, or perhaps more candidly as consequences of the inherent inferiority of Aboriginal people. I am disgusted, even as a white person, by the moral bankruptcy and intellectual disingenuousness embodied in such explanations and in the puerile, apologist big picture they serve. Indigenous people and communities still face brutal violence at the hands of a genocidal state. They are jailed at 20 times the rate of the rest of the population, and a police officer has never been convicted of an Aboriginal death in custody. They face yet further theft of their countries and destruction of the cultural value embedded in them, as even Native Title enshrined in the law of the colonial state is not as sacred as the desires of mining corporations. They face the everyday indignity of an Australian mainstream unwilling, or unable, to honestly face the horrible realities of its yesterday and of its today. However, I would argue that there is nothing inevitable about this state of affairs. Historical and contemporary genocide was and is enacted not by immutable, abstract historical forces, but by real people making identifiable choices. It is possible that white Australians might honestly confront these realities, learn from them, and enable the terrible past & present to be replaced by a just & respectful future. Let’s give it a go.



Here’s a reasonable introduction to the Eora nation put together by the NSW State Library:

Here’s a paper demonstrating that smallpox was used as a weapon:
smallpox sydney cove

For more on Aboriginal land management, see Bill Gammage’s book The Biggest Estate on Earth.