BY AMY MCQUIRE, FEBRUARY 13, 2012
Originally published in Tracker Magazine.
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Les Malezer (AAP IMAGE).
NATIONAL: The co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has denied widespread charges the body is a “puppet” to government, and has likened criticism of it to lateral violence.
Les Malezer was elected as co-leader of the Congress along with former public servant Jody Broun in 2011. About 600 members voted to install the pair as leaders of the federal government-funded body.
Today, the Congress says it has signed up 3,600 members. The Congress also claims it has signed up 134 organisational members, who in turn represent around 50,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia.
Despite the government recognising it as the national representative body, the small membership roll has meant the Congress is still dogged by concerns it is not representative.
It comes in the wake of the Congress’ first people’s forum in the days leading up to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy’s 40th anniversary.
Its theme was sovereignty, and it boasted speakers like Tent Embassy founder Michael Anderson, prominent activist Pat Eatock, historian Henry Reynolds and anti-intervention campaigner Barbara Shaw.
Although 70 people registered to attend the two-day forum, the event only attracted around 30 to 40 people each day.
Mr Malezer told Tracker he was disappointed at the turnout, but he didn’t believe it was indicative of the support for the Congress. He said it was difficult to gauge how many people came and went.
During his introduction to the small congregation, he told the forum that government had no control over the Congress.
But there has been continual criticism about the complexity of the model, and the Congress’ perceived closeness to the Gillard government.
Mr Malezer says people who call the congress a “puppet” of government did not know the full facts.
“I’m not defensive about (the criticism),” Malezer told Tracker. “I don’t mind people accusing me of this or that, but I do mind people ignoring the facts and advocating ignorance. That’s what I’m trying to address here.
“If people think the Congress is too close to government… and if you have a reason for saying that, tell us what those reasons are.
“But don’t tell us that it’s a government controlled organisation, because it’s not and don’t call the members of Congress government lackeys because there’s no evidence of that. If there is something genuine, bring it forward.”
The criticism follows revelations in The Australian newspaper that having been invited to its first and only meeting with the Prime Minister, the Congress agreed not to discuss the Northern Territory intervention, the largest and most controversial policy affecting Aboriginal people today.
The meeting ended with the Prime Minister committing to an annual meeting with Congress.
The Congress has been set up as a company, and says it is completely independent of government. But the federal government has pledged $23.2 million over the next two years to fund operations.
Mr Malezer says opposition to the Congress could be likened to lateral violence.
“This seems to be the case where people say ‘Let’s go up against the Congress, cause they seem to be the ones that are selling us out’… but I think that’s the wrong tactic.
“… It’s almost like denial, where people refuse to see where the problems are coming from and… people turn in on themselves.
“I’ve likened it to (Social Justice Commissioner) Mick Gooda’s argument of lateral violence – that basically any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is now being set upon, without reason, if they have something to say.”
Mr Malezer said that white institutions were not attacked in the same way.
“In some ways (this criticism) is human character, but in regards to white institutions, in government, people may attack (Labor) on things like pokie reform, but no one is going to move that we get rid of our parliament.
“People will be on one side of politics or the other, but they’ll respect the institution of parliament… it’s not like that in the Aboriginal community, where everyone is attacked but no-one is respecting the institution or the machinery.
“There’s no unity towards purpose, no unity towards strategy… while I agree it is human nature, particularly for people who feel disempowered, it’s (now) a case of you lash out on whoever you can lash out on.”