Concerned Australian’s latest publication was launched recently in Sydney. The book Walk With Us: Aboriginal Elders Call out to Australian People to Walk with them in their Quest for Justice brings together comments from Northern Territory Aboriginal Elders who are living under the shadow of the Northern Territory Intervention. The book also brings together opinions from a wide variety of people who have been critical voices resisting the Intervention; voices ranging from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.
The Elders’ voices in the book paint a picture of pain, of hurt and of questioning as a result of the Intervention. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM from Utopia says that the Intervention caused “tremendous amount of trauma, tremendous amount of soul searching of Aboriginal people feeling that they have done something wrong but they couldn’t put their finger on what it is that’s wrong. They’ve come to the conclusion what is wrong is that we were born black into a different culture…”
Others talk about the impact on young people, the increase in suicides, the depression and the sense of exclusion. Some, such as Djapirri Munnunggirritj from Yirkala, talk about the disintegration that these laws have wrought on previously strong communities. She said “You can hear from each and everyone of us the chaos, the destruction in the minds of the grass root people, coming and destroying what we had in whole to restore our community as a better community”.
Despite the anger and pain which is evident from the comments of these leaders, there is also strength, resilience and pride in culture and people who have resisted again and again.
George Gaymarani Pascoe from Milingimbi said “I am the traditional owner of Milingimbi and I hold my full responsibility of my land and my people in that country, and I am here telling you and the rest of my colleagues, who we are, we are the First Australians people of this country. “
The Elders are sending a clear message to Australians, that we need to walk with Aboriginal people and resist these policies that are causing so much harm. As Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra said:
“Don’t let the other people, the First People of this country be rejected! Being seen as the second class citizen! Being seen as an outcast! We have lived in this country as a foreigner! We invite you brothers and sisters, walk with us, then fight a system that victimises people”.
The comments of the Elders were echoed in the excellent speeches at the Sydney launch. Aunty Millie Ingram welcomed us to country and also commented that the media need to take notice and bring to light the injustices suffered by Aboriginal people as they do for many other issues; as she said, dispossession, dispersal and oppression are still here in this country and need to be brought to light.
Nicole Watson from the Jumbunna House of Learning at UTS reminded us that one of the worst degradations that Aboriginal people have suffered was under the protectionist regime and the indignity of having to ask for permission to spend their own wages. This is now being repeated in the Northern Territory under income management. Nicole also reminded us that the Government’s own statistics show that the Intervention is failing with increases in rates of child malnutrition, mental illness and attempted suicide. This appalling state of affairs is an indictment not only on the Government but on all Australians, as Nicole said “each one of us is diminished while these measures remain in place. Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory deserve better, all Australians deserve better than the measures that degrade and dehumanise the most marginalised people in our society”.
Jeff McMullen, journalist and Chair of Ian Thorpe’s Fountain of Youth Foundation also spoke. In particular he spoke about his time recently at Kalkarindji where he was celebrating the 45th Anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk Out with the Gurindji people. Jeff talked about some of the conversations he had while he was at Kalkarindji as people pondered the significance of the Gurindji’s stand for their rights and what has really changed since then. It seems that all they fought for is once again under serious threat. The place where Gough Whitlam famously ran red soil through his hands and gave back the land to its rightful owners is, once again, not under Gurindji control, now it is part of the compulsory lease acquired by Government.
Jeff’s reflections were poignant for the inconsistencies they highlighted. How could we still be having these discussions and dilemmas so long after that momentous occasion at Kalkarindji? How can we on one hand be apologising for past injustices, sign up to declarations on Indigenous rights and yet continue to so comprehensively undermine the rights and the dignity of this nation’s First Peoples? Where is the outrage? How come talk back radio is not alive with the sound of people condemning this latest failure in a long litany of failures? As a nation do we really not care? How can we not?
So what can we do? How can those of us in Sydney, Melbourne and other places, who are so removed from seeing the daily challenges that the Intervention is bringing to communities do anything to create change? The most important thing is to listen to the voices from community Elders and hear what they are asking us to do: Not only to walk with them, but to “fight the system that victimises people”. How do we fight this system? For a start we can let Minister Macklin and the Prime Minister know that we are not buying it, that we don’t believe that these policies are working and that we want more from our Government. We want them to sit down and genuinely engage in proper partnerships built on respect with Aboriginal people and to finally live up to the promise that was symbolised in the red dirt which passed from Gough Whitlam’s hands to Vincent Lingiari’s.