Opportunity squandered yet again

Galarrwuy Yunupingu | The Australian | September 05, 2009

In October last year I wrote down my thoughts on the intervention in the Northern Territory. In a long essay about my political life I said that the intervention was, by then, doomed to fail. I sensed then, correctly, that the intervention that I had put my support behind - a brash, difficult and determined push to change people's lives for the better - had turned into a program that was no more than business as usual with the usual suspects wrapping up Aborigines in red tape.

I sensed, correctly, that people who made up the Aboriginal industry and had been rightly set aside by the intervention had control again and were starting to bend the intervention to their ways and to tap into the money that had been put aside by the Australian people for the task at hand. I talk here of public servants, interest groups, lobby groups, greenies, certain Aboriginal organisations and a whole group of urban Aborigines who all live off the back of my people's disadvantage.

I made a point that the intervention was good for this type of person because it gave them oxygen, allowing them to show their importance and prestige to others around them as they argued points and made criticisms. Friends tell me that they usually do this over coffee in a city cafe. I like coffee but I drink it for pleasure, not to sound off about other people's lives.

Two years on, the intervention is dead. The total failure of the Northern Territory government's Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program is just the symptom of how great the failure is.

I can look around east Arnhem Land and see people who had buckled down under the repressive parts of the intervention - alcohol controls, income quarantining, pornography surveillance - on the promise of a future. These people have nothing in return for the indignity that they have endured. No houses, no infrastructure, no roads, no new schools, nothing. Just business as usual as government workers, consultants, Aboriginal organisations and whoever else pours over us, doing nothing, achieving nothing.

I hear from other leaders, men and women I have known all my life, that they feel the same.

It seems that the main achievement of the government in the past 18months has been to obtain forced agreement to three 40-year leases at Maningrida, Wadeye and Elcho Island. These leases were obtained by pressure and coercion with the government telling the landowners that they must sign the lease or get no housing.

Now these landowners, who through the years have had just about everything taken away from them, have signed the lease, had their land taken from them, and still have no housing. I have spoken to leaders from these places and all of them want these leases dissolved.

For my part, I have a two-year standing offer to the commonwealth government to sub-lease as much of my land as they want for their purposes, provided my clan owns the head lease. This proposal is much the same as the mining company Rio Tinto's ownership of the head lease to the township of Nhulunbuy, 13km from my community of Gunyangara. But my Gumatj clan's standing offer goes unanswered because the commonwealth wants to take total control of my land. That much is clear to me. They are spending all their time and effort threatening and pressuring traditional landowners and land councils to get their way and ignoring the obvious way to balance the wholematter.

There was a promise of boarding schools and an education revolution that came with the intervention. I haven't heard even a whisper of boarding schools for the Territory for more than a year. Gunyangara, with a population of about 300, does not have a school, so I wrote to the commonwealth minister asking for help in starting a primary school. I was referred to the Territory minister, who sent out a public servant, unannounced, who met my bookkeeper.

I sent another letter and complained where I could: nothing. So I am spending my own money buying buildings, preparing the grounds and looking for an education provider. And this is Galarrwuy Yunupingu here, speaking to you, who is meant to be the most powerful Aboriginal leader in the Northern Territory. Or so they say. Imagine the frustration ofall the other traditional leaders who do not have my experience or my profile.

So, no more. The commonwealth can no longer have my name in the list of those who support the so-called intervention. I say this with great disappointment. It is not the program that I supported, it is just business asusual.

Where to from here? The intervention legislation must be immediately renegotiated with the Aborigines who it affects; that is, the people who live in the communities.

The Prime Minister and his Indigenous Affairs Minister must take a direct hand in these negotiations.

No outsiders, no middle men, no masters of the red tape, no urban blacks. Just the people who are directly affected by the fourth-world conditions they live in talking face-to-face with the people elected to deal with these issues.

This is not a task we can just hand in and give up on. There must be further efforts, just not under the framework of this failed intervention.

During the recent Garma Festival I sat for four days with the ceremonial clan leaders of east Arnhem Land, the men and women who retain responsibility for the lives of their clan. We know what we want, as do the leaders from elsewhere in the Territory: the Thamarrurr leaders, the Central, Eastern and Western Desert leaders, the west Arnhem leaders, the Pitjantjatjara tribesmen, the Kalkaringi leaders. I still look to constitutional reform as a foundation stone for the future, but it is the here and the now that is important.

- Galarrwuy Yunupingu is a former long-serving chairman of the Northern Land Council.

Intervention turned our backs on reconciliation

Patrick Dodson | theage.com.au | August 20, 2009
In June 2007, John Howard decreed a national emergency for about 50,000 people living on Aboriginal-designated lands in the Northern Territory on the basis of allegations of widespread sexual abuse of children.

In the absence of any consultation with affected communities or any real debate in the Australian Parliament, the Government took control of communities, compulsorily acquired land and imposed administrative and statutory management over people's lives that no other Australians, free from prison, endure.

The suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, which accompanied the intervention, hardly ruffled the nation's conscience.

It happened in the context of a sustained attack on indigenous rights and the fragile structures that have emerged to support indigenous people's culture and society since colonisation. In 1992, the High Court repudiated terra nullius as a monstrously unjust fiction. Its decision challenged the imagination of the nation to incorporate indigenous culture and society into its national fabric, despite its history of "unutterable shame".

Progress was made in this endeavour during the early years of the decade of reconciliation but at the final hurdle the nation turned its back on reconciling its past.

Instead, a new Australian story has been forged. The persistent inequity and deprivation of the colonised exist in a historical vacuum.

Community dysfunction is now understood as the fault of the colonised and their persistent cultural practices, rather than as a result of violent dispossession, brutal colonisation and authoritarian state intervention.

The nation has been told that indigenous disadvantage is also the result of four decades of failed government policies designed and perpetrated by progressive liberalism and romantics who believe in the integrity of indigenous culture and its place in modern Australia.

And those who have dared to tell the story of dispossession, exclusion and injustice - now apparently dated and short-lived in the manufacture of Australian history with its accompanying policy prescriptions for restitution and national reconciliation - are condemned for entrenching victimhood and dependence.

The relationship between indigenous people and the nation state is framed by two opposing forces. On the one hand there is an aggressive polemic, often masquerading as scholarship, which portrays traditional culture and the structures that protect and support Aboriginal society as reasons for chronic disadvantage and impediments to closing the gap.

On the other hand, there is the reality of contemporary indigenous nations throughout Australia whose people want liberation from material deprivation, sickness and social disorder, but at the same time to defend what is most important to them - their culture and identity.

Our inability to reconcile or mediate these two opposing views reduces debate in indigenous affairs to a scramble for the moral high ground, leaving most of the population confused and disengaged. As a result, we are a nation trapped by our history and paralysed by our failure to imagine any relationship with first peoples other than assimilation, whatever its guise.

Government after government has responded to this paralysis with new iterations of philosophically compromised policies - of which the NT intervention is merely the most recent example - that have done nothing to improve the life chances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This political paralysis has motivated a number of prominent Australians - black and white - to work together on a national dialogue to search for pathways for honoured coexistence. Launched last year by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, the Australian Dialogue aims to stimulate serious conversation about modern Australia's complexities, rather than continue a dysfunctional debate that does not respond to the political and economic challenges of our time.

The work of the Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Research Unit at the University of NSW will be a vital mechanism in the Australian Dialogue. It will provide the scholastic rigour to help us answer some key questions: What are the conditions for a meaningful, nation-building dialogue? What will need to change to allow the dialogue to be effective? Who speaks for indigenous people (locally, regionally and nationally) in any such dialogue? And what do indigenous and non-indigenous people have in common that we can build on in developing a new framework for dialogue?

This research will be a crucial part of incorporating the unique philosophical, religious, cultural and political traditions of indigenous nations into a truly inclusive democratic constitutional Australia.

Patrick Dodson is the founding director of the Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Research Unit at the University of NSW, to be launched at a ceremony in Sydney tonight. Elizabeth Farrelly's column will appear on Saturday.

The views in the 'News' articles on this site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Treaty Republic