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Protesters near Brisbane’s iconic casino. Image courtesy of Uniikup Productions Ltd.

State of Emergency

State Library of Queensland marked the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Commonwealth Games when Brisbane came alive with political demonstrations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander civil liberties.

Reflect on the events that took place in Brisbane, the political climate of the time and the history of land rights for Indigenous Australians with this exhibition of original footage, photographs and personal stories from advocators of this revolutionary movement.

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Upper Adelaide Street, Brisbane, 1982.

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1982 Protests

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Peaceful protest ’82

There had been a very clear directive by the Black Protest Committee that the protests were to be peaceful and unified so they could clearly get their messages across. They had aspirations to expose the Federal and State policies that governed their day to day lives with the hopes of international condemnation and an upheaval of these policies. 

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Lionel Fogarty at a land rights march.

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Mick Miller and Steve Mam, 1982

Uncle Steve made a placard saying, “We’ve been carrying Joh long enough”, which he carried in the protests prior to the Games. It features a photograph of Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the Torres Strait, taken 22 February 1973, on Saibai Island during a campaign against the prospect to include Papua New Guinea as part of Australian territory. At the time, Torres Strait Islanders were often overlooked because of their isolation but as Indigenous people of Australia, they have very similar issues and he held this picket to represent his people. 

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Aboriginal Senator Neville Bonner questioned by media

“The initiative in planning always remained with Aboriginal people in the Brisbane demonstrations. A Black Unity Committee representing various state delegations of blacks present in Brisbane, did the planning. Often the plans were kept secret from white supporters. This was particularly the case with the action at QEII Stadium on Monday 4 October 1982. Whites involved were only told five minutes before leaving for the stadium what was planned. Senator Bonner’s reported comment that the illegal demonstrations were inspired by ‘non-Aboriginals’ sadly reflects how out of touch he was.”
Excerpt from Noel Preston’s unpublished diary. 

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Marcia Langton (foreground) and Bob Weatherall (right) marching with protesters

Professor Marcia Langton has held the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne since February 2000. An anthropologist and geographer, she has made a significant contribution to Indigenous studies at three universities, and to government and non-government policy and administration throughout her career. 

Professor Marcia Langton was instrumental in the marches of the 1982 Commonwealth games and played an important role in the day-to-day organisation of community and actions from Musgrave Park. 

Her work in anthropology and the advocacy of Aboriginal rights was recognised in 1993 when she was made a member of the Order of Australia. She became a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 2001 and was awarded the inaugural Neville Bonner Award for Indigenous Teacher of the Year in 2002.

Uncle Bob is a Gumulray elder who worked for many years at the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA). FAIRA was heavily involved in the political action taken during the Commonwealth Games. As CEO of FAIRA in 1982, Uncle Bob mustered national and international support in the calls for a boycott of the Games. He went as far abroad as Africa to the African Unity of Sport to call on those Commonwealth Countries to join the cause. 

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Excerpt from Noel Preston’s unpublished diary

“As one young black told me: ‘Musgrave will never be the same again.’ The tents are now gone, but his opinion is supported by the official sign at the park. Painted out are the words ‘Musgrave Park’. Instead it reads ‘Aboriginal Land’.

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Some protesters with tickets were not allowed entry to sporting events

On 4 October 1982, a protest group entered the QE II Stadium for one of the main events of the XII Commonwealth Games: the 100m spirit where Australia’s Raelene Boyle was the gold medal favourite. The group had purchased tickets and walked through the gates wearing regular clothes. After taking prime position in front of international media cameras, they revealed their flags and banners and displayed them for the world to see.

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The media watching Kath Walker make a speech

Brisbane’s transformation into the ‘host city’ would welcome athletes and officials from 45 countries, national and international tourists and the world’s media including newspapers, television and radio stations. In a time devoid of social media networks, smart phones or even the internet in average homes, using the presence of the world’s media was the most tactical and cost-effective way to broadcast issues that would reach the masses. 

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It was circulated in the media that Aboriginal protesters had intentions to disrupt the proceedings of the Commonwealth Games and stage violent protests. The Australian Government created new legislation especially to enforce extreme security measures during the Games period. The legislation declared a ‘State of Emergency’ and police were granted supreme powers of search and arrest. Coined The Commonwealth Games Act, it came into force from 17 September (two weeks prior to the Games) until the day after the conclusion of the Games, 10 October.

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With the introduction of the Commonwealth Games Act, protesting was declared illegal, land was rezoned and access restricted. Security firms were employed as ‘notified persons’ giving them extraordinary powers. Political materials such as t-shirts and banners were banned, and any kind of lobbying groups had to apply for permits to march the streets. Civil libertarians were outraged at the conditions of this Act and were quick to label Queensland as a ‘police state’. Police had also been issued with new riot-squad batons; the same batons that were used to control protesting crowds in New Zealand the year earlier over the controversial Springbok tour. There was speculation that this was in response to rumours of ‘blood in the streets’ as the media circulated articles inciting fear of ‘black armies trained in guerrilla warfare’.

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Numerous illegal marches and demonstrations occurred during the Games which resulted in mass arrests of more than 300 people. None of these were violent.

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Matilda, Commonwealth Games 1982

The Commonwealth Games is often referred to as the ‘Friendly Games’ because all of the competing nations have a British colonial heritage and share the common language of English. This allowed all athletes, officials and tourists to easily communicate and interact with each other. The ‘Friendly’ premise of the Games is also based on the understanding that sport and unfavourable aspects of politics were not to intersect.

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In the lead up to the Games, Bjelke-Petersen claimed that he would repeal the Commonwealth Games Act to deter attempts of disruption. This was said to be in the wake of a United States State Department report on his government’s policies concerning Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. In contradiction to the protesters, the Queensland Government had stated on numerous occasions that a majority of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders wanted the Acts to remain intact. 

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A man by the name of Kati (right), a Pan-African National Congress Representative from Namibia, came to Brisbane and took part in the protests, which almost sparked an international diplomatic incident when police attempted to remove him from the protests.

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Protesters near Brisbane’s iconic casino

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Protesting crowd

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Musgrave Park has always been a central meeting point for the Brisbane Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and played a pivotal role in the organisation of the protests surrounding the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. Despite oppressive policies and bad media, Indigenous people nation-wide travelled to support the Brisbane community, bringing with them hope, solidarity and support.

A ‘tent city’ sprung up in Musgrave Park with people from out of town camping there for the entire protesting period. Brisbane Elders set up their own tents to provide support for this influx of people such as Elders’ and Women’s tents – for the care of the elderly and young children. Representatives from the health and legal services also set up tents to provide care and support. Community spirit was immense with everyone showing a strong sense of solidarity, coming together to make the park function with ease.

Politics and protests surrounding the 1982 Commonwealth Games

 

The declaration by then Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen that Brisbane was to host the 1982 Commonwealth Games took place during a long period of struggle for land rights and self-determination by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Queensland. The Indigenous population of Queensland were still living under the conditions of the controversial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act 1971 , known as The Act , where they were denied the civil liberties that the rest of the population took for granted.

The Federal Government and the citizens of Australia had voted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were to be included as citizens of the Commonwealth in The Referendum of 1967, and, in 1971 under the Whitlam Government, there was an amendment to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act . While still restrictive, this amendment lifted some limitations imposed on Indigenous peoples; however, these Federal modifications did not filter down to State adjustments under Bjelke-Peterson. This resulted in a public struggle between the Federal and State Government in regards to who would be in control of Indigenous affairs. Bjelke-Petersen claimed numerous times that he would repeal The Act, without following through, resulting in the appearance that Queensland was disjoined from the rest of the nation.

The Prime Minister drew criticism to ‘clean up his own backyard’ in relation to Queensland policies because of his strong public stance against South African policies of apartheid. Australia was accused of having double standards as the policies were so similar.

When the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people learned of the announcement that Brisbane was to be the host city to the 1982 Commonwealth Games, it was seen as a platform to highlight their struggle on not only a national, but an international level. Calls for rallies and boycotts were influenced by the Black Power movements of America through the 1960s and ‘70s and their fight for self-determination. While mainstream Australia celebrated the announcement of the upcoming Commonwealth Games, Australia’s Indigenous peoples saw an opportunity to direct international attention to The Act and other issues of concern such as land rights.

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