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John Pilger: The life and death of Aboriginal activist Arthur Murray

The story of an Australian hero whose skin was the wrong colour encapsulates the tragedy of centuries of abuse of Aboriginal people’s rights.

Arthur Murray died the other day. I turned to Google Australia for tributes, and there was a 1991 obituary of an American ballroom instructor of the same name. There was nothing in the Australian media. The Australian newspaper published a large, rictal image of its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, handing out awards to his employees. Arthur would have understood the silence.

I first met Arthur a generation ago and knew he was the best kind of trouble. He objected to the cruelty and hypocrisy of white society in a country where his people had lived longer than human beings had lived anywhere else. In 1969, he and Leila had brought their family to the town of Wee Waa in outback New South Wales and camped beside the Namoi River. Arthur worked in the cotton fields for a flat rate of A$1.12 an hour. Only “itinerant blackfellas” were recruited for such a pittance; only white people had unions in the land of “fair go”. Having not long been granted the vote, the First Australians were still not counted in the national census – unlike the sheep.

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Working conditions in the cotton fields were primitive and dangerous. “The crop-sprayers used to fly so low,” Arthur told me, “we had to lie face down in the mud or our heads would’ve been chopped off. The insecticide was dumped on us, and for days we’d be coughing and chucking it up.” In 1973, a Sydney University study reported its “astounded” finding of fish floating dead on the surface of the Namoi, poisoned by the “utterly mad, uncontrolled” level of spraying, which continued.

Arthur and the cotton-chippers made history. In 1973 they went on strike, and more than 500 of them marched through Wee Waa. The Wee Waa Echo called them “radicals and professional troublemakers”, adding that “it is not fanciful to see the Aboriginal problem as the powder keg for Communist aggression in Australia”. They were abused as “boongs” and “niggers”; the Murrays’ riverside camp was attacked and the workers’ tents smashed or burned down.

Although food was collected for the strikers, hunger united their families. Leila would wake before sunrise to light a wood fire that cooked the little food they had and to heat a 44-gallon drum, cut in half lengthways and filled with water that the children brought in buckets from the river for their morning bath. With her ancient flat iron she pressed their clothes, so that they went to school “spotless”, as she would say.

The enemies Arthur and his comrades made were the Australian equivalent of those who had stood in the way of Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaigners in the United States. They were the police, local politicians, the media. “Who in the town was with you?” I asked Arthur. He thought for a while. “There was a chemist,” he said, “who was kind to Aboriginal people. Mostly we were on our own.” Soon after the cotton workers won an hourly rate of A$1.45, Arthur was arrested for trespassing in the grounds of the Returned Servicemen’s Club. His defence shocked the town; it was land rights. All of Australia was Aboriginal land, he said.

On 12 June 1981 Arthur and Leila’s son, Eddie, aged 21, was drinking with some friends in a park in Wee Waa. He was soon to leave for Sydney, where he was confident he would be selected to play for the Redfern All Blacks Rugby League team to tour New Zealand. At 1.45pm he was picked up by the police for nothing but drunkenness. Within an hour he was dead in a cell, with a blanket tied round his neck. At the inquest, the coroner described police evidence as “highly suspicious” and records were found to have been falsified. Eddie, he said, had died “by his own hand or by the hand of a person or persons unknown”. It was a craven finding familiar to Aboriginal Australians. Everyone knew Eddie had too much to live for.

Arthur and Leila set out on an extraordinary journey for justice for their son and their people. They endured the ignorance and indifference of white society and its multilayered political and judicial bureaucracies. They finally won a royal commission, only to see the royal commissioner, a judge, suddenly appointed to a top government job in the critical final stages of the hearing. They eventually secured the right to exhume Eddie’s body, and suffered terribly in the process, in order to prove the true cause of death. And they proved it: his sternum had been crushed by a blow while he was alive. And they reaffirmed how common their story was. “They’re killing Aboriginal people,” Leila told me, “. . . just killing us.” Today, Aborigines are incarcerated at five times the rate of black people in apartheid South Africa and their suffering in custody is widespread.

End of a road

In 2000, the then New South Wales Police minister, Paul Whelan, met Arthur and Leila at his office in Sydney and ordered a special investigation. He promised them that this “would not be the end of the road”. There was no serious inquiry and the minister retired to his stud farm. He has returned none of my calls.

Leila could not read, yet this remarkable woman memorised almost every document and judgment. She died in 2004, broken-hearted. Incredibly, Arthur reached the age of 70 when most Aboriginal men are dead by the age of 45. In a typical case this year, CCTV footage of Alice Springs Police Station showed a policewoman cleaning blood off the floor while a stricken Aboriginal man was left to die. Austra - lia, said Prime Minister Julia Gillard on 26 September, deserves a seat at the top table of the United Nations because it “embraces the high ideals” of the UN. No country since apartheid South Africa has been more condemned by the UN for its racism than Australia.

When I last saw Arthur, we walked down to the Namoi riverbank and he told me how the police in Wee Waa were still frightened to go into the cell where Eddie had died and had pleaded with him to “smoke out” Eddie’s spirit. “No bloody way!” Arthur told them. Peace to all their spirits; justice to all their people.


John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.