ANALYSIS: The '88 protests

It has been 30 years since one of the most pivotal moments in our recent history – the protest on Australia’s bicentenary.

What were the Bicentennial Celebrations?

In 1988 Australians celebrated the bicentenary of Australia. The bicentennial celebrations began on New Year’s Day with ‘Australia Live’, a four-hour telecast with appearances by Graham Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Paul Hogan and Derryn Hinch. Julie Anthony closed with the national anthem in front of the Old Parliament House.

On ‘Australia Day,’ the First Fleet re-enactment Voyage sailed into Sydney Harbour over two million lining the shore to watch what many consider a whitewashed re-enactment of the commencement of occupation.

There was fanfare and fireworks to bring in this ‘celebration’ of Australia all around the country. All of the capital cities held events culminating in evening fireworks awash with green and gold. There was even a film clip with prominent Australians released where they danced together and sung lyrics like:

            It’s a feeling that’s true Aussie

            Let’s make it great in 88, give us a hand to celebrate the creation of a nation

            All those years of sweat and tears and it is our bicentenary

Despite Indigenous people declaring January 26 a National Day of mourning fifty years prior in 1938, many of the non-Indigenous majority still failed to see any disrespect in celebrating an occasion made possible by the murder, massacre, dispossession, slavery and attempted genocide of the Indigenous people of this land.

For the event, which spanned the entire year – not just January 26, the Royal family joined the bicentenary celebrations with appearances by the Queen and Prince Philip, the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York and the Duke and Duchess of Kent. Children born in 1988 were recognised with a 50 dollar gift and special birth certificate and the children in year one in 1988 received a silver medallion.

What was the Indigenous experience?

This occasion, particularly the 26 January celebrations and tone deaf first fleet re-enactments, was not a celebration for Indigenous people because it is a date memorialised as the start of the occupation and all that came with colonisation. This date continues to be memorialised in this manner but it has also become a day in which we can be defiant and celebrate our survival in spite of all that has been done to our people.

We of course know, and have been saying for many decades, that January 26 is a date symbolic of the commencement of all that befell Indigenous people and not just historically, because there is enough oppression continuing today to tell us that intent and attitudes have not changed – simply the manner of delivery.

So to mark this occasion in 1988 and knowing the nation’s plans to celebrate, Indigenous people travelled from all across the country to join together in Sydney in protest. Not simply because of the oppressive and malevolent treatment bestowed upon Indigenous people, but the erasure of them from consideration of the event at all. There was no consideration of the Indigenous viewpoint at any point in the celebration planning and, in fact, it was a celebration of a country that was new with complete erasure of all that preceded 1788.

This protest of course was in the midst of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the fact that the racism and violence was documented and of such significance it warranted a royal commission was not enough to garner consideration.

Not much has changed.

The Protest

The 1988 protest march and rally was planned immediately following the 1982 Commonwealth Games protests. Word about the planned 88 protest was spread via the murri/koori/noonga grapevine. Everyone told everyone about it.

Wiradjuri woman and respected Redfern Elder Jenny Munro was at the protest and recalls: “the marches were the most exhilarating experiences of the whole process, to be able to get there on the street and wave your flags”, and says it was good to send a message back to a world that had done nothing but oppress.

Gunai/Mara activist Robbie Thorpe was also at the marches and says: “I thought it was one of the best days of my life in terms of being Aboriginal in this country. I could see the strength of our people and it really inspired me.” Koori Radio was providing live updates on the arrival of the convoys from around the country and the protests, as well as the first fleet re-enactment, as dialled in by the people from the tent embassy.

There were busloads of Indigenous people from other states and rural and remote communities who came together, pooled resources and made their way to Sydney. This was a great coming together of Indigenous people – before all of the instant means of communication and news we now take for granted. This movement was powerful.

Attended by over 40,000 Indigenous people and non-Indigenous supporters – it was the largest protest since the Vietnam moratorium and there is video footage of this protest in the national archives where prominent Indigenous activist, historian and scholar Gary Foley spoke of how the march demonstrated how Australia “could and should be like” in reference to the coming together of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people for the march.

He made a rousing speech at Hyde Park following the march where he said, “Let’s hope Bob Hawke and his Government get this message loud and clear from all these people here today.” The message of course was that ‘White Australia has a Black History’ and this message has lived on in protest marches and rallies since.

The 1988 protest was the start of something really big with Indigenous people asserting their rights and while the struggle continues – the power of the 1988 protest is what has inspired all of the contemporary protests.

The Impact

The protest was a reminder of the farcical basis for the celebrations. The nation was celebrating its creation in circumstances where Indigenous people had been present since time immemorial. It challenged the narrative set by the dominating white power structures and players and raised the profile of Indigenous people as not only still being here but being vocal in their repudiation of the status quo of oppression.

The actions of those in attendance at the protest in 1988 have informed the Indigenous protest movement since and this year marks 30 years from the 1988 protest and Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters across the nation are rallying and marching in capital cities to maintain the resistance against the status quo of oppression.

Despite the momentous impact of the 1988 march, there is a tremendous amount of disappointment at how little has been gained as we continue, but Munro perfectly encapsulates how we can recover from this when she says, “Aboriginal people must realise that our biggest asset is our unity. If we came together on one issue for one day, we would change the course of government in this country.”