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A Conversation with Aboriginal Elders from the Northern Territory

Reforming Society | Major John Farquharson  | 9 July 2010
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On 19 May 2010 A Conversation with Aboriginal Elders from the Northern Territory was held at the Melbourne Law School.  The discussion was facilitated by Jeff McMullen, Former ABC foreign correspondent, prize-winning Four Corners documentary film-maker and best-selling author. The panel included Djirrikaymirr Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM, Yolngu Elder from Galiwin’ku, East Arnhemland; highly respected political representative of the people and caretaker of Yolngu Law (Madayin). Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM, Alyawerre Ammatjerre Elder from Utopia, Central Australia, highly respected President of Barkly Shire, President of Urapuntja Aboriginal Corporation and The Hon Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC, The former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia. The following are notes Major John Farquharson took of the discussion from the night.

The Discussion

Jeff Mc Mullen asked:  What consultation took place?

Rosalie:  None.  People come to our lands and spoke in a language that was unfamiliar and told us what they were going to do.

Djiniyini: They came and took our land, first on five year leases, then forty year 190 year leases to get housing.

Nicholson: Acquisition was imposed without proper justification.  Was only possible through suspension of Racial Discrimination which still remains suspended.

Jeff Mc Mullen asked: Does this mean end of communal land ownership?

Rosalie:  Aboriginal culture in Northern Territory and remote is alive.  Does not think in English language, but in her own language.  First and foremost an Aboriginal woman, cultured, noble and strong sense of what is right and wrong.  Land gives identity along with language, customary practices enable me to express who I am.  Thus feel pain from that so-called democratic government can break rules on human rights that it is a signatory to.  The pain is hurting the children they supposedly come to protect.  Signs tell me I am likely to be addicted to pornography and alcohol.  The vast majority of my people do not know what these are.

Djiniyini:  Collision of law. How do resolve the pain and move forward.  Is there a way.  There has been law in country, now being called customary law.  Aboriginal law been here for 2000 years.  This is L.A.W. it is, has been part of practice.  Today people are asking are we subject to English/Australian law.  Forced to become citizen of Australia.  Thus subject to two laws – Australian and Aboriginal.

If want to talk, important thing is not confrontation but dialogue.  Confrontation causes pain and anger.  After dialogue comes negotiation.  Country originally taken without negotiation and so sovereignty rights taken.  People still maintain culture.  Focus of intervention was to say that Aboriginal people are bad people.  Aboriginal people are deeply spiritual people.  Tasking the spirituality of the land is important.

Jeff Mc Mullen asked: What is impact of intervention on language?

Djiniyini:  Now that four hours in all schools are in English.  No equity for schooling.  For those on Aboriginal lands the schools are greatly under resourced.  Those not on Aboriginal land have far more resources.  Homeland Learning Centres are under-resourced with only limited numbers of teachers available.  Compared to white schools, they are significantly underfunded, under resourced.

Jeff Mc Mullen asked: Has there been any change in school attendance?

Rosalie:  there has been no change in attendance.  Made us feel even more alienated by rest.  My grandchild travels 140km a day four days a week.  There is little engagement.  In 1940’s/50’s more engagement than there is today between teachers and children and teachers and parents.

To make a child feel guilty about being a certain race is psychologically destructive of children.  Children need safety, security, acceptance and affirmation.  Think of the psychological damage to be done to children in this process of intervention. (Institute for Cultural survival).

Jeff Mc Mullen asked: Questions over social problems around alcohol and house overcrowding.  Has there been exodus from the remote communities to towns caused by income management.

Rosalie:  Income management is a crime.  Someone is controlling you.  It has already been done before, with remaining people.  People were removed from places to mission station.  This is again happening.  People are moving to towns in order to use basics card.

Now targeted Aboriginal people.  Problem of drug and alcohol raises the question, who introduced this poison and who continues to market it.  It is not an Aboriginal problem, it is a white problem.

Working for the future (NT and Fed Government) is policy that has resulted in removal of services from remote areas.  Policy is to move people out of homeland and into the towns.  Government is investing the money into building towns and not supporting small communities.  Yet small communities is where people are healthy, culturally, spiritually, psychologically.

Jeff Mc Mullen asked: Evidence shows health and well being is greatest in remote communities.  However, intervention is showing things to be worse.  What of the rise in suicide and damage to health.

Rosalie:  Little children are sacred was significant report that was needed. Health is multi-dimensional and balanced.  It is about emotional, mental, social and physical well being.  When identity and culture is denigrated well being is negatively impacted.

Communities where intervention occurred have resulted in worsening well-being and hence increased health problems.

Aboriginal law is holistic and involves whole community in looking after each other.  Once system worked, now system is being broken down.

Djiniyini: Our people are still depressed, still living in poverty, still being treated as second class.  There has been no change for our people.  The intervention has not changed a thing.  Most things promised has not happened.  It is biggest failure of government policy ever.

Myths & Facts on the Intervention

  • The claims of rampant paedophilia and child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities have not been born out.  There have been no paedophilia rings uncovered, and there haven't even been any child sexual abuse prosecutions as a result of the intervention.
  • Of the 97 recommendations in the "Little Children are Sacred" Report only 2 have been implemented. The government has funded only 20 child protection workers to cover the whole Territory, and currently only 1 is actually employed!
  • No one has been prosecuted for child sex abuse since the intervention was rolled out, clearly revealing that child sexual abuse was an excuse for the government to take greater control of Aboriginals lives and deny their human rights.
  •  It costs tax-payers $7000 per person to administer the welfare quarantine (according to HREOC) which has seen people going hungry trying to access the most meagre Centrelink payments.
  • The Racial Discrimination Act would make it illegal for the Federal Government to force communities to sign over control of Aboriginal land in 5 year leases; prohibit alcohol consumption and distribution in Aboriginal communities; control spending patterns through income management and store cards and take-over Aboriginal service-providers.
  • The capacity of Indigenous people to control the affairs of their community is the only road to improvements in quality of life. For example, a study from the University of British Columbia by Michael Chandler shows that rates of youth suicide amongst Aboriginal people in Canada are dramatically lower where there is secure title to traditional lands, structures of self-government, community-directed education, health and fire services and resources for practice of traditional culture.

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