We need to find ways to meet the future with hope, not on our knees

The Australian
5 JUne, 2010
By Galarrwuy Yunupingu

Despite the fine words of several generations of politicians, indigenous people still await a fair go

IN December 1992, Paul Keating, then prime minister, gave a speech in Sydney that is today known as the Redfern Park speech. It was an electric speech that woke up a lot of people and sought to spark a fire in Australian public life.

Keating spoke about what he saw as the great test facing Australians, a test, he said, Australia had always failed.

He told us that extending the wealth and bounty of Australia to the first Australians was what the future was all about and that it was "a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will, of our ability to say to ourselves and to the rest of the world that Australia is a first-rate social democracy, that we are what we should be -- truly the land of the fair go and the better chance". The prime minister was challenging himself and the nation, promoting a future in which Australians could say with pride that they had passed the great test of conciliation with the first Australians; that we were all equal, balanced, as we should be.

I recalled this speech recently as I was thinking about the highs and lows of the Aboriginal struggle. I have spoken about my frustrations as I look back on what are wasted years of talk and politics.

Aboriginal leaders have been lifted up time and again, only to find that what we had hoped for was not what we got when it came to real action.

Keating spoke the truth at Redfern Park but he later lost his government and his voice: he could not follow through and deliver, no matter how hard he tried.

In 2007 we all welcomed a great step taken by then prime minister John Howard to promise an amendment to the Constitution to recognise Aborigines, and I was enlivened by Kevin Rudd's commitment to me in 2008 that there would be such recognition. But where are we today?

I loved Rudd's apology for its genuine, heartfelt remorse and sorrow for wrongs done, but it has not been built on, and so remains only words.

Going back years, in 1988, Bob Hawke promised a treaty. I was with Hawke on his final day as prime minister and I could feel his sense of disappointment that more had not been done.

But back to Keating: in 1992 he acknowledged the devastation of the past while laying out a plan for the future. It was honest and inspiring, but today the raw power of the language is its legacy, not the raising up of Aborigines' lives.

I think it was this sense of the almost helplessness of non-Yolngu leadership that led me to a conclusion many years ago, after I had retired as chairman of the Northern Land Council. The conclusion was that the only way forward was for there to be a conscious and continuous show of self-motivation, discipline and strength by Aborigines.

We must answer the questions ourselves: How can we become productive, economic citizens in our own right? How can we meet the future standing and head-on, rather than hopeless and on our knees? How can we put ourselves in a position where our rights, and the wrongs done to those rights, are unavoidable and demand decisive and final action? How can we use land rights to encourage development and activity, not to discourage it?

The answers, of course, can be found only at home, with us, by the taking of responsibility, through the strategic use of our rights and our own determination to work hard and be as we are without having to rely on others.

No doubt this is a difficult task, as it has rarely been achieved. But we are determined to get there and set an example and I believe progress is being made.

I have written previously about our forestry project that has employed more than 20 young men. This is just one project but it is something our men have grabbed as their own and it has given them focus. They have set an example for other young men and women who are working harder and better. I have alerted readers to the work that is quietly taking place with the mining companies on our land as we develop a new relationship and focus on education as the first step to job opportunity.

My senior family members have taken hard steps to redirect the potential of the organisations we lead.

We have re-targeted the Yothu Yindi Foundation, maintaining the Garma Festival but focusing on building a year-round institute of secondary and tertiary learning where Yolngu and non-Yolngu come together daily to share information and plan for the future -- this is the Garma Institute, first dreamed of by our leaders in 1993.

With my elder sisters I have walked the streets and talked with our lost people who drink too much and live in the scrub. Our local community organisation is now led by my brother Djawa, who is making his leadership felt. My brother Mandawuy continues to spread his message of responsibility and determination for a better future. That is just our family.

Throughout Arnhem Land I am sensing a slow rebirth as people realise the future can be only in our hands, not sitting around waiting for government handouts.

Djambawa Marawili at Blue Mud Bay has taken his clan on a path of self-determination, building a school, starting tourism and developing his family's world-famous artworks. He is the lead negotiator in developing a fishing industry in Arnhem Land. The Elcho Island leaders remain united and refuse to lose hope despite their terribly crowded and under-resourced community. In the west, at Wadeye, the Thamarrurr leaders have taken their unity to the wider world and are rebuilding their community. The Larrakia in Darwin are building an economic base for their future.

I mention only a few, but I believe many of our people are realising the future must be guided by us, not outsiders.

This was the message Keating gave us also. He recognised the past but, having done that, he sought a partnership on behalf of the Australian people. And he refused to accept it couldn't be done: "We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here through 50,000 years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and environment, and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in modern Australia. We cannot imagine that. We cannot imagine that we will fail."

Like Keating, I cannot imagine that we cannot find a way to conciliate and partner our two worlds, but the thinking of Aboriginal leaders must continue to develop and the policies of government must be adapted. The present policy framework is just not working; rather, it is so strict and controlled it stunts our efforts. The intervention, intended to break the cycle, has become just another policy in the frame. We have to take bigger and bolder steps forward.

The recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution is a fundamental step, but it must be linked to a reform agenda that is understood by the Australian public and that has the support of Aborigines.

I believe the work needed to obtain constitutional reform provides the pathway to engagement of the Australian public on these issues. A proposal to amend the Constitution will need careful preparation even before the question can be asked, and now is as good a time as any to start this discussion. At the same time, the incumbent government and welfare arrangements must start to be reworked so Aborigines are given back the opportunity to show their discipline and leadership.

Those groups that want to stay on welfare and government grants forever can say so and be left out of the debate.

Those of us who want to step up and be real players by rebuilding our communities will do so.

I believe the start of a bipartisan public debate on constitutional reform can be linked with well-thought-out, key reforms of the system, with a focus on filling the gaps in education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, stimulating local economies to create jobs and enabling Aborigines to take responsibility for their lives. This means, of course, that welfare reform must continue so spending a lifetime on welfare is not an option. I would like to see all parliamentarians, all Australians, think about how this debate can be shaped so the outcome is the one that was envisaged by our prime minister on December 10, 1992 -- "the land of the fair go and the better chance".

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