Protests, Land Rights, and Riots: Postcolonial Struggles in Australia in the 1980s

In his book, Barry Morris addresses the transformed landscape for aboriginal politics from the 1970s through the onset and entrenchment of neoliberalism in Australia the following decadeIn the 1970s, Australian aborigines encountered government policies and social programs oriented towards redress of colonial legacies that had left marked inequalities between aboriginal communities and white settlers. Such policies gave way to  measures focused on surveillance and policing aboriginal bodies, movements, as well as moral valuations that pinned a decline in social indicators on their individual and collective (racial) shortcomingsThese politics took on distinct forms, shapes, and terms produced by a convergence of emergent national and international political and economic conditions, as well as historical legacies of colonialism in Australia. Morris’ work carefully details and explains the intricacies of these convergences over the course of the work

The book provides a primer for those unfamiliar with aboriginal calls for land rights and social justice, focusing explicitly on a turning point for such struggles in contemporary Australia. Morris explains that the landscape for aboriginal land struggles shifted when white settlers resisted indigenous legislative gains. The onset of austere economic conditions in the 1980s provided the structural underpinnings of the backlash against the more favorable footing for land reform existing just years before. Scholars may best understand how and why this transpired, Morris argues, by attending to the changing dynamics of city-country relations in Australia. The rural white settler population was grappling with increased economic hardship and the political marginalization that accompanied downturns in the rural economy. With longstanding racism already features of aboriginal-settler relations, the rural white settlers had little sympathy for public expenditures towards aboriginal wellbeing and land restitution given what they perceived as their own relative deprivations (such as higher unemployment).

Rural dwellers were preoccupied with metropole characterizations of them as backwards and racists, stereotypes that may have pre-dated the 1980s but carried a fresh sting amidst increased hardships. At the same time, they were also sensitive to perceptions of their treatments of  aboriginal populations as somehow uniquely harsh, in this case as compared to the supposedly more compassionate, evolved city dwellers. To combat these stereotypes, the rural population often deployed longstanding narratives of aboriginal drunkenness and unruliness to frame their encounters with them. These narratives served to justify the increased surveillance, policing, and state violence directed towards aboriginal populations that became hallmarks of the new neoliberal era.

Familiarly, the neoliberal terms of daily life in Australia cast such social dynamics in along the lines of moral valuation, with focus on units of discrete, individuated, subjects. According to neoliberal policy prescriptions, those individuated subjects bear responsibility for the contexts through which they maneuver to survive amidst increased material precariousness. Moreover, these subjects are always already culprits for whatever outcomes arise from such maneuvers. The brunt of the burden of harsh judgments landed on aboriginal populations, whose prison populations skyrocketed. The role of government is to regulate the movement and direction of social life amidst these terms through agencies like the police, instead of the prior era’s emphasis on land reform programs.

Protests, Land Rights, and Riots dives deeply into the detailed minutiae of how such broad contours of neoliberal politics unfolded in New South Wales, with particular emphasis on the Brewarinna riots. The riots took place when police confronted aborigines in a park, who were gathered there to mourn the death in police custody of an aboriginal man. Morris takes readers through the various iterations of the events, causes, and fallout of the riots (such as arrests and court trials), according to the different social categories and communities participating in or touching on them. Many different groups were involved, including the white settler townspeople, the police, the media, the courts, judicial officials, and, of course, multiple aboriginal people and organizations. In painstaking detail Morris stalks through archives and interviews with members of those groups, explaining the how, what, where, and whys of these clashing perspectives. The reader gets an impressively nuanced picture of the social milieus produced by the larger structural dimensions of neoliberal macro political and economic transformations. Here, neoliberal policies unfold through a knotty and breathlessly intricate and far-flung architecture and fabric that leaves almost nothing in the social landscape untouched. And yet, its operation takes place in such wealth of detail that it only takes shape and operates through everyday utterances, violence, and occurrences on the ground in New South Wale that play out according to hyper-local circumstances. The book carefully provides readers with the intricate interlaces of social relations created by the histories of the towns and rural settings. Morris also skillfully shows the fractious and complicated internal dynamics within aboriginal political organization and mobilizations.

Additionally, Morris turns his eye occasionally to a cross-continental perspective of setter colonial contexts, particularly the interworking of neoliberalism and racism  in U.S., European, and Latin American contexts. Morris is aware that these processes are happening in dialogue with each other, yet at different historical junctures. This was especially the case with early 1980s institutional overhauls required by international frameworks for revitalizing capital growth. This is the books’ emphasis and strength.  Morris conveys the tremendous local specificity of both Australia and the New South Wales regions at a moment in which aboriginal struggles for land and survival were remade, as well as simultaneously insisting on situating such events in the larger transnational political and economic structural conditions in which these events took place.

Within the specific contours of the Australian context, Morris provides the reader with a good sense of what new was wrought with the violence of neoliberalism. For example, in the discourses following the Brewarrina riots groups wrangled over the meanings and causes of the riots. As these discourses change, actors involved in post-riot discourses, such as those participating in court cases, film producers, media, and townspeople, shift the presentation of images from the racialized caricature of the passive, docile, aboriginal body, to one incited to violence. Such new and emergent stereotypes of aborigines as violent were products of the new context for postcolonial struggles, along with the material privations and transformed regulatory state. Morris contributes to scholarship on indigenous land struggles in settler colonial contexts with insights on the specificities of how such racialized nightmares for indigenous subjects come to pass.

LaShandra Sullivan, Purdue University
Morris, Barry. Protests, Land Rights, and Riots: Postcolonial Struggles in Australia in the 1980s. Berghahn Books, 2014. Read more at Berghan Books

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