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Galarrwuy Yunupingu

I believe Yunupingu’s recent speech is a very significant speech, a watershed even, so much so that I have added it in full to the Indigenous Australia pages here. The Australian’s headline Yunupingu backs Howard is one construction that may be put on it, but then it could equally have been Yunupingu backs Rudd. What it does signal is that we are indeed in a transitional state on these matters.

Read Yunupingu with an open mind though. We all need to do that.
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Posted by on October 27, 2007 in Australia and Australian, current affairs, Indigenous Australians



Yunupingu speech

Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s speech October 26, 2007

LADIES and gentlemen, thank you for having me here tonight.

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land, the Wurundjeri people and the Kulin nations who, like me, inherited their homeland from their ancestors in the sacred past and who are bound to it by a sacred duty. I thank you for allowing me to speak on your land.

I would also like to thank Vice Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis for his kind introduction.

A new settlement?

Ladies and gentlemen, recently the Prime Minister of Australia announced that if re-elected he will call a referendum to amend the Constitution to recognise the Indigenous people of Australia in the preamble.

He said that he wanted to see a new settlement of the relationship between Indigenous Australia and the Australian nation.

I was particularly pleased when the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Kevin Rudd, announced that he and his party would support the referendum.

In fact I waited anxiously to hear this news. I was delighted when I was told that Mr Rudd was with Mr Howard on this issue and that both leaders would support the idea of a new settlement.

I was delighted because for the first time in Australian political history we have agreement between both parties that there must be a resolution of the place and rights of the Indigenous people of Australia.

This is why I have named this speech Serious Business.

This business is the most serious business that we face as a people and as a nation.

After many long years we are now facing the moment when we must decide how this country will recognise the First Australians.

Captain Cook

When Captain Cook landed on the Australian continent he had with him an order from King George the Third.

That Order was that he obtain the CONSENT of the local people to his arrival and any settlement.

The Order said:

You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain:

Captain Cook and Captain Phillip after him ignored that order.

And of course it was not too long before he was in open conflict with the local Aboriginal people.

The Eora people who owned Port Jackson and Sydney did not recognise the Crown’s claims to ownership just as so many Aboriginal people today still do not recognise those claims.

Cook’s actions were on behalf of the King and he left a legacy that the nation is still trying to tackle today.

Indigenous people have our own law and society.

For my people it is ROM WATANGU.

Rom Watangu is the law of the land and the seas, and of life itself. My people are and will always be the owner and the maker of the land and sea.

Rom Watangu is the most powerful and real thing in Yolngu life. We do not pledge allegiance to the Crown.

Captain Phillip and those that followed him failed to understand this. They failed to establish a proper order or balance and this has been tearing away at the heart of the nation ever since.


Ladies and gentlemen, 220 years later we return to where we started.

A Prime Minister has said that he will now do what was not done before.

He will recognise the special place of Aboriginal people in the Australian nation.

He will sit down and talk with us, consult with us, listen to us, and learn from us in the process of formulating questions for the whole of Australia to vote on.

As I said earlier, doing this properly and honestly is the most serious business that we have faced as a nation.

And it is not just a matter of a Preamble. Mr Howard has talked about a New Settlement and the Commonwealth government’s actions in the Northern Territory show that it’s search for this new settlement is more than just symbolic.

Mr Howard is trying, on behalf of the nation, and on behalf of the Queen, to get it right.

On behalf of the Gumatj people I must thank the Australian people for this.

As Mr Howard acknowledged, it is the Australian people that have maintained a sense of injustice about the place of Indigenous people in Australia, and the Australian people have finally got through to Mr Howard.

The hundreds of thousands who walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and who signed the Sorry Books, and the good people who have worked away in Aboriginal communities doing good things and volunteering their time, their money and their voice to our cause.

The efforts of these people will find a special place in the history of this nation.

So, I am very grateful as a Gumatj person to everyone who has made their voice heard in the struggle for Indigenous rights.

Because it is a struggle.

Let me just pause and talk a little bit about my people and our struggle.

My people had a good relationship with foreigners for more than two hundred years before the British came to Australia. The Macassans came to the Yolngu coastline each year with the trade winds, or monsoon winds. In my own land, the land of the Gumatj, they came to Gunyangara and camped. They caught and cooked trepang, which they then traded with the Chinese. They negotiated agreements with the Yolngu about their visits and we had very close friendships, and some Yolngu people married Macassans. Some Yolngu went to Macassar and back, and some Yolngu people are buried in Macassar. Some Macassans stayed and lived with us for a time. Children from both cultures were born during that very long history. The Macassans joined with us in our ceremonial life and we shared food, songs, and technology. Macassan words, songs and cultural traditions are still part of the Yolngu culture.

But when the whites came in the nineteenth century, our world changed. By 1885 Arnhem Land had been divided into two pastoral leases. From 1885 to 1893, whites terrorists employed by the pastoral lease companies shot Yolngu and killed them with poisoned horsemeat.

In about 1910, at Gän gan, inland from Blue Mud Bay and the homeland of the famous Yolngu artist Gawarrin Gurmana, white men killed almost an entire clan. Then they rode on horseback to Biranybirany, where they nearly wiped out the Yarrwidi clan, the saltwater people of my Gumatj people. Then they rode to Caledon Bay and Trial Bay. At Gurkawuy, they nearly wiped out the Marrakulu clan, which included the family of the famous artist Old Man Wanambi.

One of the men killed during the expedition of 1910 was an old man of the Djapu clan from the area of Caledon Bay. It was that man’s son, Wonggu, who later became a leading figure in Yolngu resistance to European invasion.

My father told me many stories about these massacres. My father was there when my people left the mainland for the islands off the coast so that they too would not be killed.

These stories are very real to every person in Arnhem Land. They are living memories. My father very courageously brought our families back to the mainland and reasserted our ownership of our land and continued in the practice of our culture.

Then in the 1960’s a mining company came to the Gove Peninsula. Representatives from the government came and simply told us that we were to move out of the way because a mine was to start on our sacred lands.

That moment was the start of land rights because it brought together the senior people of the area and they started to fight for recognition. They painted their position on bark in a statement that is now known as the Bark Petition.

That was in 1963. I was involved in the following years as this struggle continued.

But today, although we have land rights, the mine remains on my land without an agreement with my people. It is a daily reminder that I am not in full control of my land.

So my whole adult life has been a struggle for my rights.

In 1988, with the late Arrernte leader Wenten Rubuntja, I led the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory to make another bark petition, which is called the Barunga Statement. I presented it to the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke who understood our reasoning. He wanted a treaty with us, but he was opposed in Canberra by both sides of politics.

At one point a few years ago I was so frustrated that I wanted to go and bring home the Barunga Statement from where it hung in Parliament.

It was prepared after great consultation with the traditional owners of the Northern Territory. It calls for Aboriginal self-management, a national system of land rights, compensation for loss of lands, respect for Aboriginal identity, an end to discrimination, and the granting of full civil, economic, social and cultural rights.

The Barunga Statement is a foundational document and starting point for this current debate. I am pleased that it still hangs in Parliament.

But I had come to feel that its words had been so ignored that the best thing to do would be to get it out of the Parliament and take it home and bury it in a bark coffin.

My cousin, Wali Wunungmurra, who is the last living signatory to the original Bark Petition told me recently that he wished to go and get that Petition and take it home also.

These are the frustrations that men like Wali and I live with.

But without doubt we now have a new opportunity. We now face the start of a process that has the potential to set this generation apart as a generation of unifiers and peacemakers.

Ladies and gentlemen, it will not be easy.

It will be a great challenge.

Let me say again that this is serious business.

And allow me to make the following 3 points to illustrate how serious this business really is.

Number One – The referendum must be about more than just the Preamble.

We must make changes to the Constitution to make sure that our place in the Preamble is not undermined.

Mr Howard has said that the Constitution must be amended to recognise the special place of Indigenous people in Australia and that means we must deal with the section known as the “race power”.

This is Section 51(26) and it currently allows the government to make laws based on race that can disadvantage Indigenous people. This clause needs to be removed and replaced with a clause that protects and strengthens Indigenous rights.

This includes most importantly our property rights, both to land and sea.

These rights must be recognised and protected.

To date Indigenous people fight a continuous battle to hang on to what rights we have to our land. A line must be drawn that prevents any further taking of our land or sea country without our consent and agreement.

Indigenous people owned the land and the sea before anyone else. This must be recognised once and for all.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to emphasise this point. If there is to be a settlement at all, the Constitution must not just recognise us – it must recognise what is ours and what has been taken from us.

We seek this recognition within the nation, not outside it. This is a discussion we must have as Australians.

Point Number Two – We must ensure that we bring all of Australia along with this process.

These changes – this Settlement – affects every Australian. Every Australian must have a chance to have their voice heard.

We need balance in this Settlement.

To obtain balance we must ensure that every Australian has an opportunity to involve himself or herself in this discussion.

When we are done, every citizen can proudly stand and acknowledge what they have achieved in their country.

They can say: “This is our country. It is a country that we are all proud of. We now rejoice and celebrate with our Indigenous brothers and sisters together as one.”

We live in a multicultural nation that is made up of many different cultures and languages. This needs to be recognised so that we can deeply and honestly express who we are as a nation.

There will be opposition from Aboriginal people who are so distressed by their personal circumstances that they are incapable of agreeing about anything that involves government. These people too must be heard. Let us put our agreed position, achieved in good faith with all Australians, to a referendum of Aboriginal voters. This will require them to think about their future: yes or no? Do they want dignity or do they want conflict for all our future generations?

Point Number Three – This point concerns the practical aspects of this Settlement. There can be no settlement if Indigenous people remain the most disadvantaged citizens in the nation.

Words can set the scene but real commitments are required to tackle poverty and disadvantage. Fixing these problems will take time, energy and money. The immediate problems of the Indigenous world cannot be put to one side as we start to talk about symbols and words. This is why I have supported the Emergency Intervention in the Northern Territory. There are problems with its implementation that must be fixed, and I am personally committed to putting my shoulder to the wheel and getting the intervention working. And so must we all, for the sake of the children.

And these children must have a future, which means economic development.

Significant investment and effort is required in order to build economies that can provide jobs and income for future generations.

These are matters I have discussed at length with Noel Pearson.

Our words must inspire us to greater efforts on behalf of the children and the old people and the everyday people who struggle out there in our communities.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask that you come with me in this great challenge.

In this most serious business.

It will not be an easy task and I know from experience that many times we will want to stand up and walk away from the table. But we must persist. We must never give up on this task as it is the most important task.

We must find the balance between all the people of this nation.

We need to go into this Hand in Hand and Heart to Heart with our fellow Australians.

And because our loss is great we will need face to face dealings and eye to eye talk.

Reconciliation does not come about because we agree to sit down and talk. Reconciliation only comes about when we have talked and reached an understanding. It is at the end of that process, when we shake hands and go off into our day-to-day lives, that is when we are reconciled; reconciliation does not come just from turning up to a meeting place.

Reconciliation comes about because of honesty, truth and making good what wrong has been done.

There has been much wrong done to my people, including to the Stolen Generations. These wrongs must be made right.

We have the opportunity now so I encourage you all to work towards this great prize that is reconciliation.

Let’s get it right once and for all.

Thank you.


A blog is not a book, or random thoughts on important topics

Yes, I had trouble with thinking up a name for what is floating in my head at the moment! Some blogs, as we know, have become books — Riverbend, Stuff White People Like, Salam Pax — but the truth is blogging is evanescent, personal, and in miniature compared with proper books. So important topics tend to be aired in the spirit of good pub conversation, with the proviso that quite a few blogs also closely resemble bad pub conversation. We all know about opinionated drunks…

Not that this blog or any of the blogs I regularly read are in that last category, of course.

Speaking of conversations

My coaching session with J last Monday was the last of the year and became a good conversation — well, I confess to picking his brain rather, but it was still good, and he seemed to enjoy it. Being fifty years younger than I am, and of Mainland Chinese background, though educated entirely in Australia, his perspectives are in many ways quite different from my own. I tutor him in English, but on the other hand he has, he tells me, actually read and understood Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time — a year or two ago! — while I confessed to having read the first few pages and put it back on the shelf, like most people I know. Now there are all kinds of things in this anecdote about our assumptions about reading…

J is interested then in Astrophysics. He doesn’t propose to study History, Geography or even Economics in his senior years. I will probably be on hand to help him survive English, though he isn’t doing too badly. I picked his brain on the subject of dark energy, and how our cosmology has altered so much since 1998. To him this is unremarkable…

He is interested in philosophy, but hasn’t encountered much at school to feed that, he says. This of course is my selling point for senior English! He is also a good musician.

His rejection of the social sciences/history is of course partly personal, but I probed a bit about what if anything had turned him off. Now you mustn’t generalise when you read this, but he may have been killed by good intentions. Answer: too much Australian content! Indeed too much Indigenous Australian content, presented in too repetitious a manner ever since primary school, and focussing too much on the Stolen Generation.* He didn’t deny there were interesting stories there, but it does seem, from his experience, to have entered the world of background mantras rather than being a topic of living interest.

Repeat: don’t generalise too much from this.

When I found myself dealing with the topic in a senior English class in 1997-8 it was all a revelation, and all fresh, and worked because we connected it to a number of living people as well as literary and film texts. I also made a point of accepting opinions from students that were far from PC, but not without making sure I offered stories that challenged the stereotypes behind those opinions. The result was a sharing among us that really did change some attitudes. It hadn’t hardened into a course quite, as we were all finding out new things… (A ghost of that class still lives.)

Jim and Galarrwuy

Jim Belshaw recently gave advance notice of some conversations that may soon appear on his blog. I am looking forward to the outcome. You will note the title though: "Advance Notice – failures in Aboriginal policy." Well, we would have to agree there have been failures. And successes, which (reading between the lines) may also feature in those future posts.

When I browsed the December 2008 – January 2009 Monthly Magazine — where there are many excellent articles — I was drawn to Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow by Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

I was born in 1948 at Gunyangara, a beach on a beautiful headland near what is now known as Nhulunbuy, in east Arnhem Land. My father was Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, of the Gumatj clan, and my mother, Makurrngu, was of the Galpu clan. My parents gave me the name Galarrwuy, which means ‘the area on the horizon where the sea merges with the sky’. As I grew older my father would call me Djingarra, which means ‘crystal clear’. My elder sisters still call me this special name.

My father’s father was Nikunu. His totem was a sacred rock, an unbreakable rock – Yunupingu – a name that my grandfather gave to his son, Mungurrawuy, who passed it to all his children. My totem is fire, rock and the saltwater crocodile. The crocodile – baru – is a flame of fire: the mouth, the teeth and the jaw are the fire and its jaw is death. It is always burning, and through it I have energy, power – strength.

My land is that of the Gumatj clan nation, which is carefully defined, with boundaries and borders set out in the maps of our minds and, today, on djurra, or paper. We have our own laws, repeated in ceremonial song cycles and known to all members of our clan nation. Sung into our ears as babies, disciplined into our bodies through dance and movement – we have learnt and inherited the knowledge of our fathers and mothers. We live on our land, with our laws, speaking our language, sharing our beliefs and living our lives bound together with the other great clan nations of the Gove Peninsula: Rirritjingu, Djapu, Wanguri, Djalwong, Mangalili, Malarrpa, Marrakulu, Dartiwuy, Naymil, Gumatj, Galpu, Djumbarrpiynu, Dhudi-Djapu…

It’s a wonderful reflection, this piece.

Two Australians so close in age, Jim and Galarrwuy. Much binds them, and us, together in community, yet much also speaks of many Australias. We have each our own. And yet…

Today, almost 30 years after my father passed away, I still hold his clapsticks and I am the leader of my clan – with other senior family members I am the keeper and teacher of our song cycles, our ceremonies, our laws and our future. I care for and protect my clan. But I have not mastered the future. I find that I now spend my days worrying about how I can protect the present from the future. I feel the future moving in on the Yolngu world, the Gumatj world, like an inevitable tide, except every year the tide rises further, moving up on us, threatening to drown us under the water, unable to rise again. The water sands under our feet shift and move so often – the land to which we can reach out is often distant, unknown.

I look around me at the Yolngu world. I worry about the lives of the little ones that I see around me, including my own children – my youngest daughter is barely eight years old. I have more than a dozen grandchildren. I look back now on a lifetime of effort and I see that we have not moved very far at all. For all the talk, all the policy, all the events, all the media spectaculars and fine speeches, the gala dinners, what has been achieved? I have maintained the traditions, kept the law, performed my role – yet the Yolngu world is in crisis; we have stood still. I look around me and I feel the powerlessness of all our leaders. All around me are do-gooders and no-hopers – can I say this? Whitefellas. Balanda. They all seem to be one and the same sometimes: talking, talking, talking – smothering us – but with no vision to guide them; holding all the power, all the money, all the knowledge for what to do and how to work the white world. Only on the ceremonial ground do our leaders still lead – everywhere else we are simply paid lip service. Or bound up in red tape.

And the ‘gap’ that politicians now talk of grows larger as we speak, as I talk: as the next session of parliament starts or as the next speech is given by the next politician, the gap gets wider. I don’t think anyone except the few of us who have lived our lives in the Aboriginal world understand this task that is called ‘closing the gap’.

There is no one in power who has the experience to know these things. There is not one federal politician who has any idea about the enormity of the task. And how could they? Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things?…

I offer this with respect, both for Jim and for Galarrwuy.

And leave you to your own thoughts…

* Here is what J did in Year 9 (PDF).


Pat Dodson’s indigenous reform call

This story in today’s Australian could mark the beginning of a positive development in Indigenous policy here in Australia.

INDIGENOUS leader Pat Dodson has entered the push for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal identity and culture, arguing for a new “Australian Dialogue” and declaring that with the Stolen Generations apology the nation has moved into a “post-reconciliation” period.

In a major speech at Notre Dame University in Broome, Mr Dodson said the nation would be enhanced “by the full and proper recognition and protection of its indigenous cultures” and argued for a “courageous” dialogue on constitutional recognition beyond changes to the preamble.

In the speech that paves the way for a powerful alliance between the nation’s most influential Aboriginal leaders, Mr Dodson, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Noel Pearson, which has been strained in recent years, Mr Dodson called for an end to what he called a “futile battle of ideologies” over the direction of Aboriginal policy.

“We can bicker for another century as to whether Nugget Coombs was right or Sir Paul Hasluck really had the solutions to the health and wellbeing of indigenous people,” Mr Dodson said in the Nulungu Lecture at Notre Dame on Thursday.

“But this futile battle of ideologies will not improve the life of one single Aboriginal child, will not lower the percentages of Aboriginal people residing in our nation’s jails and quite frankly will not assist Twiggy Forrest find 50,000 jobs.”

Mr Dodson said there needed to be “a new platform of principles crafted for challenges beyond the traditional discourse based upon our mutual prejudices”.

But he warned that “the constant mantra of assimilation” had the potential to lead Aboriginal people to become “a mutant white man” while Australia presided over “the extinction of the oldest living culture on earth”.

Mr Dodson said the federal Government’s apology to the Stolen Generations in February had drawn “a line in the sand” and he believed the nation had moved into a “post-reconciliation period”.

But parliament, he said, should now look at compensating the Stolen Generations “for what it has acknowledged responsibility for – the attempt to destroy us as a race of people by taking away our children”.

He also backed an indigenous bill of rights, and said Australia’s failure to ratify the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights had left Australia as a “pariah on the world stage”.

He said customary law should be an admissible legal defence, although he told The Weekend Australian last night this did not mean customary law should be an absolute defence. He said the rights and responsibilities of indigenous people should be enshrined in laws to prevent governments overriding statutes such as the Racial Discrimination Act.

Urging a “courageous” re-writing of the constitution, he said: “The nation will be enhanced by the constitutional recognition it accords indigenous peoples because governments need to be made accountable in their dealings with Aboriginal peoples.

“They need to justly and constructively engage via negotiation on the alleviation of the disastrous health, education and social ills bedevilling indigenous Australians and embark courageously in dialogue on constitutional recognition beyond a preamble.”

While relations between the nation’s most senior Aboriginal leaders have been strained over the Northern Territory intervention and horrific levels of child abuse, Mr Dodson said the debate over social welfare reform and crisis intervention, rights and responsibilities, was a false dichotomy.

“Both matters have to be dealt with and both should involve the free choices of the Aboriginal peoples,” he said. “Anything less is simply a further contribution to the ongoing destruction of what is left of our uniqueness as indigenous people and our capacity to determine our own futures as equal citizens in an Australian democracy.”

He said indigenous people needed to be able “to fully participate in the economic life of the nation while being assured that they have not had to surrender their identity and cultural ways in the process”.

Mr Dodson said the conquest of Aboriginal people in the pursuit of “gospel, glory and God” had been disastrous not only for indigenous people, but also mainstream Australian society, “because it was trapped in its own sense of superiority and angst for assimilation”.

Mr Dodson and Mr Pearson attempted to bring together what Mr Pearson called “a radical new centre” in Aboriginal politics at a meeting at Port Douglas in Queensland in 2004, when the Howard government was ascendant. Since that time, there has been a disengagement between the two indigenous leaders, but never a personal breach.

Mr Dodson’s relationship with former ALP leader Warren Mundine, on the other hand, is marked by hostility. Mr Mundine last night condemned Mr Dodson’s support for customary law as a criminal defence, saying it opened the way for a defence against the abuse of children.

There are too many issues there to take up now, but I wanted to mark this speech for the record. On the last point, I believe there are times when customary law needs to be taken into account and I do not believe this is an either/or all/none proposition. I think Dodson’s articulation of that is superior to Mundine’s. I am encouraged by the idea of “a powerful alliance between the nation’s most influential Aboriginal leaders, Mr Dodson, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Noel Pearson.”

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Posted by on August 23, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, current affairs, Indigenous Australians


July 2007 to October 2007 on Floating Life

1. 17 July 2007

Hot issue 2: Indigenous Australia

Last night’s Four Corners was masterly. There is no doubting the complexity of the whole business and I can totally understand and respect, indeed value, Jim Belshaw’s long post on the subject: Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia’s Aborigines.  Jim and I do have a different take on the whole "sorry" business: I am all for the symbolic course the Howard government turned away from. Indeed I would go so far as to say we have a duty to revive that course as part of a foundation that would remove some of the imputations of racism that surface these days. We must distance ourselves utterly from memories of Pauline Hanson’s views on Aboriginal society and from the pedantry of Quadrant and Windschuttle and others whose influence on Howard has been especially strong. At the same time I have always valued Noel Pearson, and one could not fail to be impressed by him in last night’s program, or indeed (whatever else is on the government agenda, and I suspect much is and has been) by Mal Brough.

MATTHEW CARNEY: Three weeks later, on the morning the housing agreement is to be signed there’s a setback. The traditional owners of Hope Vale who approached us earlier with their concerns are now threatening to boycott the deal.

CLARENCE BOWEN, HOPE VALE TRADITIONAL OWNER: They came through the back door without even consulting.

MATTHEW CARNEY (to Clarence Bowen): Who came through the backdoor?


MATTHEW CARNEY (to Clarence Bowen): So you were never consulted?

CLARENCE BOWEN, HOPE VALE TRADITIONAL OWNER: We were never consulted that they were going to purchase this because there is a lot of sacred sites in that area.

MATTHEW CARNEY (to Tim McGreen): So why have you got the banner? Tell me what the problem is.

TIM MCGREEN: This is for our rights. you see because the traditional owners of Hope Vale didn’t have any recognition. We want to get our rights back now.

NOEL PEARSON (speaking to the public in Hope Vale, outdoors): With today’s agreement that has the potential to solve the housing problem for the people of Hope Vale. We’ve got to have home ownership …

MATTHEW CARNEY: For Noel Pearson it’s the day to confront his community with some hard truths and to take on those who oppose his plans.

NOEL PEARSON, DIRECTOR, CAPE YORK INSTITUTE (speaking to the public in Hope Vale, outdoors): Everybody knows the seething undercurrent. Why do you think the Government is taking 80 children per month to the Child Safety Department, across Cape York Peninsula, including from this community?

And you think I am going to sit back? Sorry, I am not yielding to anybody, because this is as much my home as yours. I am not going to allow my grandfather’s and godfather’s achievements to just be washed down the toilet. There’s got to be some leadership. There’s got to be community leadership. We can’t be all gutless. We can’t all agree that there are these problems, but not have the courage to deal with them …

MATTHEW CARNEY: Pearson says the $15 million deal is not going to be a handout – people will have to change.

NOEL PEARSON (speaking to the public in Hope Vale, outdoors): But I can tell you that you have within your reach here in this community the potential to be great again, the potential to live up to the achievement of your grandfathers, because at the moment we are an embarrassment to their heritage. We are a pale moral shadow of their original achievement. We are a pale shadow of their achievement.

They didn’t have two cents to their name but they never neglected their children. They never have 10 cents to rub together and they brought up their children and sent them to school.

MATTHEW CARNEY: This speech is a turning point for Noel Pearson and his community. It’s potentially a new start for the people here. Later, the traditional owners sign up to the deal.

MATTHEW CARNEY (to Tim McGreen): Tell me why your happier now.

TIM MCGREEN: After Noel’s speech he made it clear what it was all about you know. Finally we get over it and get on with life you know.

MATTHEW CARNEY: By the day’s end at least a dozen families sign on to the plan including the Bowens.

ESTELLE BOWEN: We’ll get to solve a lot of our problems if we have got homes for our young people so they can live by themselves.

Visit that Four Corners. I can’t help thinking too that divorcing the Rugby League and Australian Football worlds from their very public love affair with alcohol would be a very positive step not only for Indigenous Australians but for all Australians. Wowserish, but hard to deny the damage this whitefella drug addiction has wrought. It is not only Indigenous Australia that needs to take a long hard look at some cultural dysfunction. However, alcoholism and drug abuse and all that follows are not specifically Indigenous issues and the ills go deeper to the very fact of dispossession, a process that merely began in 1788 and goes on to this day. The real problem — sorry, a real problem — has also been the vacuum in which so many Indigenous Australians have found themselves in the past twenty years and more. If some good comes of the current focus on these questions then that is a plus, whatever reservations one may have. I hope a Labor government — which I also hope we get — will come back to all this with renewed vision and a willingness to go back to basics, not to turn the clock back to pre 1996 but to revive what has indeed been lost since 1996. But things can never be the same; thank God, in some ways…

Update 18 July

Visit tonight’s Australia Talks on Radio National. There will soon be a podcast there. Various knowledgeable voices explored "Government intervention in Indigenous communities".

An update on the federal government’s response to the child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory … with the Western Australian government also requesting help. But is the need to upgrade the permit system and wanting to reclaim Aboriginal land a step too far?

19 July: Why am I interested?

If you look at my last substantial comment on this post you will find plenty of indication of that… I really wish it was only about saving children, not that I have anything against that in itself. In fact the disgrace is that we have waited so long on that score. But I really do worry about what is getting in under the radar here. So do others, by no means mad lefties all of them either. My ex-Army Aboriginal nephew in Queensland has no doubt at all that this is what is happening, and he is all for Indigenous entrepreneurship — he’s into it himself and deeply involved in promoting it — and he’s all for the hand-up rather than the handout, but he has real doubts about what is happening right now. And he has seen communities close-up, Palm Island not least…

Concern, whatever form it takes, comes with being Australian. It’s our inescapable problem and destiny, and we have to know it and own it as best we can… Funnily enough some of my earliest intimations of this were when bushwalking in the valleys of the Woronora, Georges and Hacking Rivers — such things were possible — and finding traces — of whom? the Dharug? the Eora? the Dharawal? — in rock overhangs, and spear-sharpening grooves, and such. And some of those traces were very close to home. Not a lot, and I put it aside for many years… As we Australians have tended to do. But also half-knew these were my own ancestral traces too…

Jim Belshaw too has indicated in many posts his own fascination and desire to know more about what this place really is, and what and who has been here this past 40,000 years or more, long before the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, or the legendary tales of Genesis, long before the time we once believed — and some Americans and others still do, not all of them Christians either — was the time of creation. It’s mind-boggling really.

But that past flows on to us today, doesn’t it? Indigenous Australia in all its variety — and by no means are the issues we tend to focus on now the whole picture — is still here, something many in the 19th and early 20th centuries could not imagine. "The Last of His Tribe" was still the most powerful image of Aboriginality in my childhood, that and the funny, strange, and sometimes rather sexual, cartoons of Eric Jolliffe. Who else remembers him? They were once deep in our popular culture… Burke Shire does, apparently.

2. July 20, 2007

A story in today’s Australian, but not prominently displayed, goes to the heart of the current crisis in remote communities: ‘Crisis’ in welfare of children.

FORMER Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley has told an international forum that the poor health and welfare of Aboriginal children represents a "domestic humanitarian crisis".

… Professor Stanley told The Australian that the military intervention in Northern Territory communities and a proposal for a similar move in Western Australia arose from a substantial and growing gap between sections of Australia’s population.

"That’s exactly what we’re seeing: the extreme end of inequality in opportunity, education, welfare and crime," Professor Stanley said.

She called for trained Aboriginal health workers to be mobilised to work in troubled communities as part of the healing process.

"There are a huge number of Aboriginal people with health training but they have no career path," she said.

"They deliver a service that’s trusted and they are often swamped because they are so successful. But often the plug is pulled because they are employed in pilot programs."

While strongly endorsing moves to protect children from abuse, she warned against repeating past policies that separated Aboriginal children from their families.

"The removal of children in the Stolen Generation explains almost everything about the problems we’re seeing today," she said.

"We need to go back to the Stolen Generation report and implement every aspect of its recommendations."

The child health survey, which collected information from 2000 families and interviewed 11,500 family members, found 41 per cent of indigenous children were living in households that had experienced the forced separation of at least one parent, primary carer or grandparent.

Stephen Zubrick, the survey’s chief investigator, said the present focus on remote communities ignored identical or worse problems plaguing Aboriginal families in metropolitan Perth and southwest towns.

"There’s a fascination with looking at the remote communities, but there are only 2800 children under 18 living outside the metro area," he said.

"Some 60 per cent of all Aboriginal people in this state live in metropolitan settings."

The survey’s figures indicated that the health of Aboriginal children in urban areas was worse on some indicators, such as the incidence of asthma, he said.

"It would suggest the remote kids are actually doing better than city kids in one or two areas."

Some of the blame, if you want to go down that track, squarely sits in John Howard’s corner then, as the demolition of the Stolen Generations Report comes under his watch.

3. July 22, 2007

Even his greatest fans would admit that Phillip Adams varies in quality in his columns in The Australian but yesterday he excelled himself: Countless children in danger.

A 13-year-old girl dies in a wretched motel where her teenage pimp had forced her to service one more of many clients, a man in his 50s.

She dies in agony, having injected herself with heroin laced with battery acid.

A few miles away a 14-year-old girl is hanging out with her friends. To deal with their anger and boredom they go to a park where, unconsciously echoing a scene in A Clockwork Orange, they start "bashing a derro". Screaming in terror, he falls to the ground, where she joins in kicking him. Until she recognises his bloodied face. It’s her father.

These scenes did not take place in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. They happened in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. This column has reported many similar stories – concerning kids known to John Embling and Heather Pilcher in their work with the Families in Distress Foundation [of which Adams is a director], which was funded by readers for decades. Horrors like that, combined with worsening health, forced my heroic friends to retire. Like the thousands of children they helped, John and Heather were old beyond their years.

When the kids knew their fathers, they were in and out of prison. The father of one of the boys we took in was a criminal who became a celebrity, much admired by middle-class voyeurs who should be ashamed of themselves. The young mothers were almost invariably on drugs.

The kids were chronic truants. Why go to school? Even if they made that effort their job prospects were next to zero. Their future lay in criminality, in the black economy of Australia’s underclass.

John described their destinies in his book, Fragmented Lives. Here were boys "on their way to homicide or suicide", girls on their way to that motel room.

Sexual abuse is just part of the problem. Violence, addiction and psychological abuse is just as bad. And the scale of these problems in white society is staggering. This month I talked with a prosecutor working in the NSW courts. "There’d be more kids suffering like this in the PM’s electorate of Bennelong than in the entire Northern Territory," he said.

Asia has its child labor, Africa its child soldiers. Australia has countless children, in every suburb and ethnic group, living in danger – but not necessarily in squalor. A while back the mother of a young boy phoned me seeking help. Her son, grieving for his dead father, was being targeted by a middle-aged man with kids of his own. Forcing him to come to my office, I threatened to destroy his career. He was and remains a respected Melbourne barrister.

This sort of abuse is happening in your suburb, perhaps in your street. Visit your local court on what’s called "ladies day", when the women queue for AVOs – apprehended violence orders. The scenes played out in NT’s remote communities may be being played out behind the blinds in the house next door. And remember that 99 per cent of sexual abuse takes place within the family…

I feel that restores a necessary sense of proportion, even if the Embling book is now quite old and Adams is writing — or dictating, as apparently he composes orally — off the top of his head as usual. However, I found the following on The Book of Sand:

"Imagine a dream in which you are lost. All familiar landmarks are strange and terrifying. The faces of people you love are evil. There is no shelter for you anywhere. You are thirteen. You cannot wake up. The dream is true."

From Fragmented lives, by J. Embling

More on reconciliation

There is an interview in — of all apparently unlikely places — a newsletter for the Portland (Oregon) area Didjeridu player in March 2000 with "an educator in Australia who is very aware of the social, political and ecological importance of reconciliation in his home country." See Reconciliation, an Interview with Geoff Eagar.

[Ed] What exactly is reconciliation? What does it mean to you and what does it mean as an official policy? And finally, does the popularity world wide of the didjeridu lend any support to the goal of reconciliation in Australia?

[Geoff] Defining Reconciliation is a little like defining the length of a piece of string. It is a very complex and involved issue…certainly too much so for me to be confident and happy to be an authoritative source here. It’s a very appropriate question to ask and for the official line visit this site where you can get a handle on where we’re up to now:

My dictionary defines reconciliation in this way: 1. to render no longer opposed 2. to win over to friendliness…to bring into agreement or harmony. Clearly Reconciliation in this context is a much broader and more complex issue though the definitions above are still true. It means starting by acknowledging that "White Australia has a Black History." A shared history. I think that when we as a nation take this on board there is a way forward. History is about finding the truth of what has happened, squaring up to those truths no matter how awful and then walking on together.

logosm More up-to-date information may be found on Reconciliation Australia; however from the older site Geoff refers to I would like to quote this:


Declaration for Reconciliation

Speaking with one voice, we the people of Australia, of many origins as we are, make a commitment to go on together recognising the gift of one another’s presence.

We value the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original owners and custodians of traditional lands and waters.

We respect and recognise continuing customary laws, beliefs and traditions.

And through the land and its first peoples, we may taste this spirituality and rejoice in its grandeur.

We acknowledge this land was colonised without the consent of the original inhabitants.

Our nation must have the courage to own the truth, to heal the wounds of its past so that we can move on together at peace with ourselves.

And so we take this step: as one part of the nation expresses its sorrow and profoundly regrets the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apology and forgives.

Our new journey then begins. We must learn our shared history, walk together and grow together to enrich our understanding.

We desire a future where all Australians enjoy equal rights and share opportunities and responsibilities according to their aspirations.

And so, we pledge ourselves to stop injustice, address disadvantage and respect the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to determine their own destinies.

Therefore, we stand proud as a united Australia that respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, and provides justice and equity for all.

Business unfinished.

4. August 4, 2007

JTV is not exactly for my demographic… However, as I half-watched last night I found myself drawn to an excellent segment on the current intervention in the Northern Territory.

So here I am right now downloading a podcast of last night’s episode, Brough Love. While it confirmed that Mal Brough is one of the most interesting people on the government side of politics, it made more clear than anything I have seen elsewhere the problems with his military cast of mind and with the policy he is implementing, about which he is, I believe, genuinely passionate, if perhaps mistaken. (See also in The Australian Land council fears welfare fallout. Further, the intervention so far has led to just a handful of referrals to child welfare agencies.)

One of the most interesting revelations for me on the jtv presentation was the input of Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University. Its director, Judy Atkinson, has been writing about violence in remote communities for two decades. See A National Crisis: what John Howard Isn’t Doing and REMOTE COMMUNITIES: What I would do. See also an interview with Rachel Kohn in 2006:

…Rachael Kohn: Today, Judy Atkinson is the Director of Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University. She’s speaking to me from Lismore in northern New South Wales. Well Judy, ten years ago you wrote that addressing the legal issues of indigenous women, particularly as victims of violence, was a needed balance to what had been a singular focus on native title. Do you think people expected too much of native title? Sort of like having land would be a panacea?

Judy Atkinson: That’s true. But I think it’s much more complex than that. There was such a deep need within our mob, our people, to have recognised the ownership rights they have to land across millennia, that they thought that this would fix everything. They didn’t realise they were moving into a whole can of worms within the legal system of Australia around Native Title.

The second thing is that people and country are so closely inter-related and from my position, this is what I would say to my own mob at the time, that unless we’re also working on healing people, how can we actually work to heal country? How can country work for us unless we’re there engaged with it? But if we’re unwell, we’re going to be unwell within our country.

What happened with Native Title, it actually has split and is continuing to split many families and communities apart because we have a false understanding of what Native Title could deliver.

Rachael Kohn: So Native Title continues to be obviously a significant issue for Aboriginal people, but there’s still the problem of family violence, violence within the communities. And that’s become certainly the focus of recent news broadcasts of the extended report on ABC’s Lateline and so forth. Are you encouraged by the focus on those issues?

Judy Atkinson: No, I’m not encouraged by them. We as Aboriginal people, many women and also many men have been working very solidly at a community level to address those issues. I am not seeing a real commitment from the government to work with us, to address those issues, they’re still running with their own agenda. At the same time what I am seeing is fractured, burnt-out community people who’ve been working for a long time with children, with women, with men, fearing that maybe there’s just no hope, that everything they’ve done means nothing…

Seriously worth following up in these days when incomplete and inadequate ideological approaches are driving the government’s agenda, however well-meaning parts of it may be — or not, in some aspects, but possibly the most significant ones in the longer term*.

august07_cover.jpgMore may be found in the latest excellent issue of The Monthly.

  • In “Pearson’s Gamble, Stanner’s Dream”, Robert Manne tracks the history of both government policies on Aboriginal communities and the thinking of key anthropologists – Elkin, Baldwin Spencer and, most significantly, WEH Stanner, who worked with Nugget Coombs – who have influenced these policies. From the early attempts at assimilation through the move to Indigenous self-determination, this far-reaching essay places the government’s recent actions, and in particular the pivotal role played by Noel Pearson, in a historical perspective.
  • In the Monthly Comment, philosopher Raimond Gaita questions the government’s recent intervention into remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Gaita argues that John Howard’s history of disdain for the supposedly empty gesture of reconciliation – most evident in his emphasis on “practical reconciliation” – shows a lack of respect for the people he now claims to be helping. The result, Gaita says, is serious moral and political confusion.

Those two articles are not yet online, but there is some good news about The Monthly: a selection of past articles is now online! This includes the two 2006 essays by Kevin Rudd.

* Later

Hmmm. When someone as eminent as former Australian of the Year Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM smells a rat in the Australian government’s new Aboriginal policy then I tend to think there is a rat — and it’s probably called mining companies, Uranium, and US bases. See Leaders slam ‘sickening’ plan.

The federal government’s intervention in the Northern Territory is sickening, rotten and worrying, says one of the most powerful Aboriginal leaders in the territory.

Speaking at the 2007 Garma Festival, deep in the heart of a stringybark forest in north-east Arnhem Land, former Northern Land Council president, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, called on people to fight the Howard Government’s takeover of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.

"I have got a political agenda to run," he said. "This government is a worrying government, not worried about us but worried about himself (Prime Minister John Howard) and worried about his few rich people and business people that support the coalition that puts them back into government to run amok in the nation."…

Monday: The Sydney Morning Herald reports the rather devastating news (I would have thought) that the authors of the report which triggered the government intervention feel utterly betrayed by what the government has done.

THE authors of the report that prompted the radical federal intervention in the Northern Territory say every one of their recommendations for tackling child sexual abuse in indigenous communities has been ignored by the Howard Government.

One of the authors, Pat Anderson, said yesterday that she and her co-author, Rex Wild, QC, "feel betrayed, disappointed, hurt and angry – pretty pissed off all at the same time" by the federal response.

"When we turned on the television and saw the troops roll into the Northern Territory we were sort of devastated that this could happen," Ms Anderson, a health administrator, said.

5. September 21, 2007

Courtesy of Journeyman Pictures, a wonderful source of documentaries — "London’s leading independent distributor of topical news features, documentaries and footage" — I preface this with David Bradbury’s Jabiluka: The Aboriginal Swindle (1997). You must visit the video here, as embedding is disallowed.

The lure of Uranium has proved irresistible to successive Australian governments and Australia’s Environment Minister has dismissed the Mirrar people’s objections to the Jabiluka mine. This lucrative project could sever the Mirrar people’s spiritual links with the earth and the sights of sacred significance throughout the valley. "I was born in the bush" Yvonne Margarula tells us, "sleeping on the ground with the fire". Twice Academy Award nominated director, David Bradbury, explores the effects of this cultural devastation on the lives of a people and a land inextricably joined.

Rare archive footage shows how Yvonne’s father and his people were bullied into giving their legal consent to a lease over Jabiluka. The traditional landowners were encouraged to consider not just their own wishes but that of Australian progress as a whole. But they thought they were negotiating for a land claim, not another uranium mine. Yvonne’s father Toby was weakened by stress and spent most of the fateful meeting lying down. His sigh "I’m tired now, I can’t fight any more" was taken as all the consent needed for the mine to go ahead. He received a silver plated pen for his trouble…

Ten years on we have had the Howard government’s intervention, which I have treated with a degree of caution and doubt: Some thoughts on the events of June 2007, and recent posts tagged Indigenous Australians on Old Lines from a Floating Life.

In August, for example, I posted Some good things on the Australian government and Indigenous Australians which said… (See above.)

In today’s Australian there is an interesting development: Galarrwuy Yunupingu: The challenge begins which is so important I reproduce it in full:

ONLY when we are empowered to take full responsibility at a local level will change occur.

IN August, I called Aboriginal leaders together at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land to talk about the federal Government’s intervention in the Northern Territory. I sat for three days with many clansmen and leaders including Pat Dodson, who has been my friend for many years. Everyone expressed their concern about the intervention, which had been announced with great haste a few weeks earlier. With my daughter I carved message sticks that were sent to Canberra seeking a halt to proceedings so we could obtain input into the debate, which affects every aspect of our lives.

I was surprised, and pleased, when in response federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough made the decision to visit me at my homeland at Dhanaya on Port Bradshaw. He came and told me that he wanted to protect children and improve lives. I told him that my life had been spent working on such tasks and if this was genuinely what he sought to do then he had my full support. Not only that, but I would join him, as I would join any minister with the same good intentions, and put my shoulder to the wheel.

Brough was confused about why I had criticised the Government when I had addressed thousands of people attending the Garma Festival.

The answer is simple. I told him I was a landowner and leader and he had not spoken to me. He had acquired my land and sought control of my life without talking to me, let alone seeking my consent. Nor had he spoken to the hundreds of people like me throughout the NT who spent their lives coping with Third World conditions, a lack of services and the abject failures of governments. That simple failure to consult, I told him, would eventually undermine his good intentions. The conditions that hurt children and that he was pledging to fix would remain while he sought to impose a solution.

It really is that simple. He could not work for us unless he worked with us.

Today, I have signed a memorandum of understanding that satisfies my concerns about the land-leasing issues and will ensure that the changes to the permit system will be workable and not undermine land rights. I believe this new model will empower traditional owners to control the development of towns and living areas, and to participate fully in all aspects of economic development on their land.

I have also sought and received the minister’s agreement to the establishment of the Mala Elders group.

These elders are those who hold the highest authority in Aboriginal law. The Mala Elders group will take responsibility for the future of our children.

I will ask the Northern Land Council to work with me in the formation of the Mala Elders group. We will not be a construct of government but self-forming and self-funded. The concept, I hope, will translate throughout the NT. I think this is the opening we need to create a new era of empowerment for Aboriginal people.

Governments must stop babysitting us because we are not children. But if treated like children, people will behave like children. It is time for us to be given responsibility in the right way. And let me be clear, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was not the right way.

The Mala Elders group will remind governments that they are not to control our lives but to empower our people. We will remind all politicians with great seriousness that the land is our backbone and that for Aboriginal children land remains central to their identity. This is something that must never be forgotten. Land ownership is the past, the present and the future for each child in Arnhem Land. Without their land they will not be people. That is why I said at the Garma Festival recently that I was worried sick. And I was, worried sick by the prospect of a land grab.

I am not worried at all by the other aspects of the Government’s plan. In fact I welcome them. I welcome the tight controls being placed on alcohol. I ask the Government to go further and shut the two takeaway outlets in Nhulunbuy, the Walkabout and the Woolworths. And I welcome the abolition of kava. What a ridiculous argument to make that kava is good because it stupefies people. And I urge zero tolerance for other drugs.

We must have real jobs, which community development employment projects have not delivered. Nearly all the real jobs in our communities are taken by non-Aborigines, which is an unacceptable situation. And we must have real schools and we must have real training. On these matters — low levels of education, training and employment, and the crippling of our people by alcohol and drugs — I am in agreement with Noel Pearson of Cape York. He came to meet me and we discussed these matters.

I have seen many challenges in my life. This is the greatest challenge. We must take advantage of the efforts of governments to ensure that benefits flow and that change is lasting. But we must take responsibility for our future. Only when we are empowered to take full responsibility at a local level will change occur. The Government cannot do it for us but it can clear the path, which has never been done before. And this can be done with respect for land, law and culture.

From there on it is up to us.

I think we must take that on board. This is far from endorsing all that the Howard TEAM has done and not done in eleven years in the area of Indigenous Australians. I stand by what I posted in June, and remain cynical about aspects of what has happened. On the other hand, the careful (and, to some, pusillanimous) response of the Labor opposition may have been wise. I do not believe yesterday’s advice by former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) deputy chairman Ray Robinson is wise.

Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) deputy chairman Ray Robinson says the major political parties in Australia do not deserve a single vote from Aboriginal people.

Mr Robinson says with a federal election looming, Indigenous people must now consider who to vote for.

He says the Federal Government scrapped ATSIC – the peak body representing Indigenous people – while the Labor Party stood by and let it happen.

Mr Robinson says the major political parties have committed so many violations against Aboriginal people that they do not deserve any support.

"There is no comfort from the Rudd Opposition of what the Federal Government is doing to Aboriginal people, so why vote for them when their policies are exactly the same as the present Government?" he said.

Mr Robinson says Aboriginal people around the country must put aside their differences and unite against the major political parties in the coming election.

Only if you really want to help the Howard government get back, Ray…

Go to National Indigenous Times for further, and perhaps variant, discussion.

6. October 12, 2007

But what a strange day it became. The syllabus itself turned out to be a model of cultural bipartisanship; for every cricket milestone mentioned, there was a nod to multiculturalism or a reference to Patrick White. Mr Howard modestly omitted the election of his own Government from the digest of "interesting things that happened between 1976 and 2000", but included the inception of the multicultural broadcaster SBS.

If all that were not enough, the Prime Minister bobbed up last night with the casual revelation that he was planning a national referendum to include a new acknowledgement of Aboriginal Australia in the constitution.

On hearing this, Mr Howard’s culture warriors might well be forgiven for surreptitiously arranging an assessment by the platoon’s medical officer. In terms of reversals, it’s quite a doozy – imagine Shane Warne confessing a sudden fondness for sushi, or Elton John a distaste for sequins. What next? An honorary Howard chair in surfing at Griffith University? An Order of Australia for John Pilger? Vegetarians in the Lodge?

Today, the cultural battlefield will stand silent with genuine, bipartisan bafflement.

Indeed, Annabel Crabb!

Perhaps John Howard has been to my Indigenous Australians page. 😉

In a speech to the Sydney Institute (PDF), the Prime Minister said he had always "struggled" with symbolism while concentrating solely on what he called practical reconciliation. "My instinct has been to try and improve the conditions for indigenous people within the framework of a united nation and unified Australia citizenship."

He admitted his 1998 election-night promise to achieve reconciliation by 2001 had failed.

Mr Howard, 68, said his age was part of the reason he had underestimated the value of symbolic gestures. "The challenge I have faced around indigenous identity politics is in part an artefact of who I am and the time in which I grew up. I recognise now that, though emotionally committed to the goal, I was mistaken in believing that it could be achieved in a form I truly believed in."

Mr Howard’s speech, designed in part to lend him an aura of freshness, could be his last big announcement before the election, which senior ministers expect to be called in the next three days…

The degree of cynicism at the end of that report is inevitable, no doubt. I suspect electorally it will not do all that much for Howard, but I do think it would be churlish not to welcome this degree of progress. Perhaps Noel Pearson and Jackie Huggins, among others, have had a positive influence after all. Patrick Dodson gave the PM’s move a cautious welcome on Radio National this morning.

Meanwhile, let’s review one of the greatest political speeches ever made in this country:

It’s time. Whatever Howard’s motives, whatever you think of this, it is an opportunity.



Go to ABC Radio National’s The Australian landscape: a cultural history.


There were some interesting reflections on Howard’s shift in this area on PM last night: Howard plans constitutional recognition of Aborigines.

MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister, in an unusually self-reflective, self-questioning mood, I think, Gillian Bradford.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Yes, he says he’s the first to admit that this area of reconciliation is one he has struggled with during the entire time he’s been prime minister. His instinct has been to try to improve the conditions for Indigenous people. He’s never felt comfortable with old fashioned ways of doing things, but he honestly believed that he was through his time pushing what was the best thing for Indigenous Australians.

MARK COLVIN: And he’s always been accused of being stuck in the 50s when it comes to Aboriginal politics. He really takes that on quite directly, doesn’t he?

GILLIAN BRADFORD: He does, but he also says here that some will no doubt want to portray his remarks tonight as some form of Damascus road conversion. But he says in reality they are little more than an affirmation of well-worn Liberal conservative ideas. And he says their roots lie in a Burkean respect for custom, cultural tradition, and the hidden chains of obligation that binds a community together.

MARK COLVIN: Burke, Disraeli, and Michael Oakeshott, a series of conservative politicians and philosophers, which will send journalists scurrying for the philosophy books, no doubt.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Indeed, me among them, and what this will do also for journalists is, as I said before, break everybody out of the cycle of sitting and waiting for an election to call. This is not something anybody expected. I can’t emphasise that strongly enough. There was speculation earlier in the day that in fact the Prime Minister might be calling the election tonight. But he has set the agenda here. He is trying to prove that he does have ideas for the future, that he can fight Kevin Rudd on an agenda for the future, and probably hit him where he least expected.

MARK COLVIN: Interesting to see what the Opposition leader has to say in response this time.

Even later

This is what I heard on ABC National this morning:

In Albury-Wodonga, Aboriginal elder Sandy Atkinson spoke with ABC Local Radio. "I think that was the very good speech from our PM. This is a very difficult issue and nobody knows how to fix some of these things," he said.

The man regarded as the "father of reconciliation", Pat Dodson, told ABC Radio National he is pleased the issue is back on the agenda and says its bigger than any politician. "The nation needs to certainly heal these wounds and we certainly need substantive negotiations about how any reconciliatory resolution to the unfinished business and the apology is part of the unfinished business," he said.

But New South Wales magistrate Pat O’Shane is urging people not to suspend their disbelief. "Maintain your cynicism, sit back and wait to hear further details if there are any to be forthcoming," she said.

You may see more reaction in many places; for example Howard urged to say ‘sorry’. There you see this: Mr Howard has said Labor could not achieve as much support as the Coalition for the referendum he has proposed. And there, I’m afraid, we see it is still the same old snake, even if he has shed a skin. Such a shame that, as the element of calculation, given the timing, emerges rather too obviously from that clumsy bit of packaging; I am sure we will hear it again. It is, needless to say, utter bullshit.

Nonetheless, I would still argue we have been given an opportunity to get it right.

See also Malcolm Fraser, Fred Chaney and Julianne Schultz, the latter arguing that Noel Pearson has had real influence in winning the PM to rethink symbolic issues, all on ABC’s Unleashed.

Go to Galarrwuy Yunipingu’s speech of 26 October 2007.


On listening and setting aside prejudices

Galarrwuy Yunupingu is an Indigenous leader of great stature. I have referred to him several times before. In today’s Sydney Morning Herald he argues that not all was bad, comparatively, in the days the Christian Missions were more involved in Aboriginal communities. Some will find that challenging, but he may well be right.

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Reconciliation, Stolen Generation, Reparations… and all that

Yes, I am still thinking about these matters. It is good that Australians do think about them, but I do realise that it is not at all as simple as perhaps I would like it to be, a reference to my vent the other day — which I still stand by for what it’s worth.

Jim Belshaw took me to task rather on that one, and subsequently addressed one aspect rather persuasively.

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Premature ejaculations from both Right and Left

Kevin Rudd has been Prime Minister for about ten minutes, but already judgements are being made. I mentioned Peter Coleman in the previous entry:

Most of the reporters have always known that Kevin Rudd is the absolute Hollow Man. But since they hated John Howard more than they despised Rudd, they usually stood ready to turn a deaf ear to Rudd’s empty rhetoric.

Not all of them. One of the stand-outs during the election campaign was Annabel Crabb whose sketches in the Sydney Morning Herald of Ruddbot, our “first android prime minister” with a Muppet-inspired smile, helped save a little of the reputation of Australian journalism.

There are essential triggers, she wrote, hard-wired into the Ruddbot cortex. Ask the android machine about the number of union officials on its front bench and it will also promptly divert into a charming reverie about a rock star, an academic and a Mandarin-speaking diplomat. Include a reference to Mark Latham in a question, and it will reply “I am not aware of those reports.” Ask it any difficult question and it has been programmed to reply by asking itself several of its own. It will then answer them all with mechanical precision.

Crabb was not alone in comprehending the Ruddbot. Let’s not mention the small handful of pro-Coalition columnists. But take David Marr, a leftist critic of the Liberal Party. Ruddbot, he reported, killed Labor’s Victory Party in Brisbane. The Rudd we got then, he said, is the Rudd we will hear for the next three years—a grey, passionless performer with a middle-distance stare and big jowels…

Last night The Chaser embraced the David Marr/Annabel Crabb line. They have been adopting this line consistently, after all, for some time, last September being one of the better examples:
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The NT Intervention after one year

Here in Australia we are recalling the dramatic days of June to July 2007. The jury is out on just what the Northern Territory intervention has achieved so far, but it has to be said that those months were a watershed in Australia. Much that had been taken for granted changed, and a lot of apathy or complacency was challenged.

I responded at the time: Some thoughts on the events of June 2007; this page; July 2007 to October 2007 on Floating Life; Galarrwuy Yunipingu’s speech of 26 October 2007.

Last night on Lateline we had  Mal Brough discusses the NT intervention, Pat Anderson discusses the NT intervention concerns, and One year on, NT intervention remains controversial. The newspapers are full of it this morning. Mal Brough is Action Man and was an important catalyst for change, but I do think he gave himself away in that interview when he revealed his intimacy with The Bennelong Society — not that this is any surprise. Check the Bennelong Society’s lineage on that link. The sound of grinding axes…

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Posted by on June 21, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, challenge, Indigenous Australians