Duncan Frewin, Queensland Regional Meeting
Up to the 1990s, it would be fair to say that Queensland Quakers’ relationship with Indigenous people was within a general framework of charitable work. That is, givers gave from their abundance and receivers were expected to be grateful. The meeting was active in advocating for justice for Aboriginal people, but unequal power relationships continued unchanged.
Some time in the 1980s, however, when I was a new member of Queensland Regional Meeting, Susannah Kay (later Susannah Brindle) challenged us to consider the relationship we settler folk had with the land and with the original owners of that land. The catch phrase of the time was “This is Aboriginal land: pay the rent!” After some soul-searching, Susannah decided she had to pay rent for her land in the Atherton Tablelands.
Susanna enjoyed telling the story of how she began to Pay the Rent. Having made her decision, she went blithely down to the local Aboriginal land council in Atherton to say “I’ve come to Pay my Rent.” The people in the office were baffled (the campaign was not prominent in Atherton), and suggested she was at the wrong office, that rentals were handled by the town council office. The explanations and conversation that followed led to a warm welcome. The outcome for Susannah was new friendships and a lasting relationship with the traditional owners of the land around her home.
With some prodding by a couple of members, the idea slowly took root for other Queensland Quakers. By the end of the 1980s the regional meeting had agreed to pay our rent by setting aside an amount equal to (later twice the amount of) the council charges on our property in a special fund. To this fund individual members could contribute their own amount. Since we were unclear about who to pay (several tribal lands overlap – a common situation) and since furthermore our members live throughout Queensland in the countries of many groups, we set up a committee to work out guidelines – the Pay the Rent Committee. The committee distributes the fund to Indigenous individuals or Indigenous-owned or -controlled organisations in Queensland, for their own purposes. The important principles for us are that the money is kept under the control of Indigenous people and that we do not ask for any accounts or reports. The people or organisations find us through personal contacts, or are suggested by other of our contacts in the Aboriginal community. We later agreed that the Meeting House itself should be available free of charge for any Indigenous organisation that wanted to meet there.
Our Rent can never be more than a token, but it does challenge us on issues of accountability and control. Tenants are accountable to landlords for paying the rent and for taking good care of the premises. Landlords are not accountable for how they spend the rent money. Seeing ourselves as tenants has transformed our understanding of the relationship between settler Australians and the traditional owners of the land where we live.
First, it has led us to see that we need to recognise prior sovereignty of the traditional owners and the uncomfortable truth of our history. That is still a struggle for some of this meeting, but they are engaging with the issue. Then, recognising the continuing commitment of the traditional owners to their/our land has also deepened our commitment to caring for the land. This works out in our care for the forest that fills our inner city block, but it spills over into our general approach to environmental concerns. Finally, by NOT asking our landlords to account for how they spend their rent we are learning to trust. Some Indigenous people have mentioned that it is the trust we have tried to show that they appreciate. Others mention the acknowledgement of the truth of our history.
Finally, we have learned that the most important thing is to listen to Indigenous people. Only if we truly listen can we build relationships based on respect. And in the end, the purpose of paying the rent is the relationships that we build. We ask ourselves if they are built on mutual respect, on appreciating what we offer each other, on seeing that until we are all free and equal in dignity we are all oppressed and fettered.
We do not pretend this transformation is easy or complete. Answering even straightforward questions such as who the traditional owners are can be confusing – there are no simple answers. Giving up the concept of “worthiness of the recipient” and replacing it with an aspiration to justice, can lead to uncomfortable compromises. In one instance, we were approached about providing the Meeting House free to a group of Indigenous counsellors in the public service who wanted to meet for their own healing. They were offered government office space but felt it would not facilitate the healing. We had to search our hearts for the just response. Was this an Indigenous controlled organisation? Were we letting the government off the hook? What did love require?
Power relationships are also unsettling. Some of our members still struggle with giving up the power that goes with giving out of charity – I find myself having to check my thinking every time we meet. Charity is deeply ingrained in my settler sense of selfworth. The concept of Aboriginal sovereignty is another stumbling block for some Friends. What does Aboriginal sovereignty mean for this nation-state? What may we have to give up? Trust is also a big step. Some of us struggle to trust. We long to know that “our” money is being well spent. Yet despite all these hesitations, resistances, reservations, I dare to say there has been a shift, no matter how large, for every individual member in the direction of equal power-sharing, respect, trust. And this has made it worthwhile.
Finally, I would like to return to Susannah’s vision. Paying the Rent corporately is important, but it does not replace the direct personal contact with the traditional owners of the land around our home that Susannah forged. That sort of personal contact was Susanna’s opening to a deeper understanding, a greater growth in the Spirit. For myself, I see the Pay the Rent Fund is a sort of default position beckoning me to the next step, establishing a relationship with the traditional owner of the place where I live.
I recommend to other meetings or individuals that you consider how Paying the Rent may help you in pursuing the work of the Spirit among us.
 The committee this year consists of David Carline (who attends by phone hookup), Sue Doessel, Duncan Frewin, and Sitara Gare.
 Examples are: providing travel costs for a group of women from western Queensland who travel to south-east Queensland to visit prisoners from their community; travel costs for frail elders who work in the Murri Court in Brisbane; a group taking at-risk young people for bush camps where they are taught to be proud of themselves and their culture; Auntie Jean Philips’ Vision Trust supporting individuals and families in need; and supporting the grass-roots community work of two Aboriginal members of our meeting.