Jeff McMullen, a prominent journalist and Aboriginal rights advocate, gave the address below at the Sydney launch of Walk With Us: Aboriginal Elders Call Out to Australian People to Walk with them in their Quest for Justice at Gleebooks, Sydney, on September 1.
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The welcome to country from Aunty Millie [Ingram] and the elders’ statement goes to the heart of the issue: that we walk in an Aboriginal land.
And the fight for Aboriginal lands, and the future of the homelands, is the great moral challenge facing all of us and facing this country.
I came home early from a trip to the Northern Territory. I was in Kalkarindji where in the past few days a very large gathering of Aboriginal people was held to commemorate Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji Wave Hill walk-off 45 years ago.
And under the stars at night when we talked — all of us who were there to support land rights — we wondered how much really had changed in those 45 years.
You know the song and I’m sure you know the story. But when an Australian prime minister ran that red dirt through his hands, into that proud old man’s hands, and said, “this is your land forever”, I think most of the citizens of this country would have accepted that the land had indeed been handed back to its rightful owners.
We should say part of the Vestey station, the old British pastoral property, was handed back to its rightful owners.
Forty-five years later, the Australian government has its hands on the throat of the Gurindji people.
Kalkarindji is a town. The Aboriginal community of Daguragu, which was where the Gurindji ended up after they walked off and wandered about 20 kilometres, camping at what is now Kalkarindji and then later at Wattie Creek, which became today’s settlement.
That community is fading before our eyes because it’s homeland. It’s a remote community. It’s one of the prescribed communities that is under the boot heel of the Australian government.
And it is also the target of this new assimilation that is trying to drive Aboriginal people out of their homelands towards the 20 “hub towns”, the so-called growth towns.
Many of you here who are from New South Wales would be old enough to remember this same language, another variation of assimilation, was used in the 1960s in this state.
When the missions emptied, the government rhetoric was about giving Aboriginal people housing. And instead what happened was they got the worst street, in the worst corner of town, on the fringe of all those western NSW communities.
And it has taken us another three or four decades to slowly close that space between us.
Some of those towns, ever so slowly, have come back. Thanks to the hard work of Aboriginal people and their supporters, who knew that this was not the way.
This idea of the great little Aussie growth town has never been a reality for Aboriginal people. But the fight for the homelands is the new frontline.
Federal, Northern Territory and state government policy is now in collusion — and it’s across both sides of the political spectrum.
Assimilation is the essence of this government approach and what they are trying to do is, ever so slowly, prise Aborginal people up from their settlements on the homelands and move them for economic rationalisation and to clear the way for the the various kinds of development that have always taken the wealth out of Aboriginal land.
In Ngukurr, one of the large growth towns, it’s staggering to see the amount of money that’s being invested there.
The school has eight secondary students but probably has a newer and better facility than the high school my kids go to in Sydney.
Because up the road, China has bought out an Australian mining prospector and Ngukurr, yes, it will be a growth town.
It’ll be a town that handles what it dug out of the ground of Aboriginal land and that wealth will make somebody [rich] — shareholders, superannuation accounts and the wealthy CEOs of a multinational company no doubt.
And when that dirt is shipped to China, yes, it may do some good in Chinese refineries and it may build something over there.
But is there any evidence that the wealth coming out of Aboriginal land is benefiting Aboriginal people?
So behind this intervention, you really do have to dig deeper to see what Djiniyini Gondarra, one of voices in this book, calls: “That other agenda.”
Why are they so desperate to ignore our own laws, our High Court judgements? Why have we betrayed that Gough Whitlam promise?
Why have we undermined native title? Why do state governments appeal so readily against any native title judgement that is beneficial to Aboriginal people?
Why do some of the states threaten compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal lands the minute the court awards them any minor victory?
This is a fight in the courts for the scraps left over from this native title process.
And the contest with the miners, and that appetite, that greed for the wealth on Aboriginal lands, is bringing Aboriginal society once more to the crossroads.
The divide and conquer tactics of negotiation and the way that government itself is prying the traditional owners away from the real ownership and political power that they are entitled to have under Aboriginal law.
This is part of a process that is terribly threatening to the well-being of Aboriginal people.
In the Northern Territory, there at Kalkarindji, it was very clear. The growth town will get the money.
The Aboriginal community, that very spot where Vincent Lingiari stood — there is a boulder there in Daguragu — that land there where the prime minister handed him back the Gurindji land is now occupied by the government under this five-year mandatory lease.
One issue that Nicole [Watson] didn’t touch on in that very long list of deeply discriminatory aspects of the Northern Territory intervention is the one that people in Kalkaringi — on this Freedom Day, this 45th anniversary — pointed to.
Vincent Lingiari said we won’t take the bribes. We won’t be bought off. We won’t take your little offer of something better than the 50 quid a month that they were getting out there, working like slaves, as Jimmy Wavehill put it to me this week.
They didn’t take the bribery because they knew it was their land, they are of this land.
And yet now, the imposition of the leases takes away Aboriginal control of the land where those houses are settled.
They are surrendering control: legally and at the community level. As Nicole said, the intervention has massively damaged Aboriginal control and effective administration of their own communities. Of their own families.
And outside that community, those shameful signs still exist.
Jenny Macklin, the minister for Indigenous affairs, arrived at Kalkarindji the day before Freedom Day. Quietly, she met the Central Lands Council and Northern Lands Council representatives, offered nothing, and left without most of the Aboriginal people in the community even being aware that she was there.
What a wasted opportunity.
Here was the chance to honour one of the great leaders of my lifetime, one of the greatest Australians that I have known, and to try to set the relationship right, to try to open some genuinely constructive dialogue that was based on listening to people like Djiniyini Gondarra, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Harry Nelson from Yuendumu — all of those people who were gathered and whose voices come through in this very powerful book.
They have been trying to say: we don’t want your leases, and we don’t want your bribery. We want our children to have health and education, and yes, we want better houses.
But these are human rights. These are citizens’ rights. And we won’t trade them off with this threat that you are going to drive us off the homelands.
Paul Henderson, the NT chief minister, also had that same opportunity. Would he take advantage of this historic anniversary and try to set the relationship right?
He came and he walked with several hundred people along part of the trail that Vincent and the Gurindji had walked. And there was Jimmy Wavehill and Gus George and Biddy Wavehill.
I tried to tell some of the offical party what this means to those who actually lived out on that Wave Hill station.
I shared a couple of the stories that Gus George, Jimmy and Biddy had told me.
Jimmy Wavehill is the oldest man from that walkoff. He was 29 when they walked out and he carried Gus George on his shoulders, who was then a little boy.
And one day as we wandered around the ruins of that old Wave Hill station, I could see Jimmy’s eyes gleaming because there was an old rusted bucket on the ground.
This bucket, young Biddy had carried on her shoulders with another one like a yoke. She would bow and scrape at the white linen tablecloth that was spread out in that homestead, owned by that British lord’s pastoral family.
And she would go outside with that yoke. This slender young girl would stagger for half a mile in the heat carrying bucketloads of the waste from the whitefellas in that homestead.
And Jimmy loved this young woman and he felt her shame.
I tried to say to the official party: “Can you see those blue signs down the road? It’s the same shaming of all Aboriginal people.
“Can’t you see how this reduces us all, every citizen in this country, to something terrible?”
Because we are turning, once again, to this kind of discrimination. It is only being done to Aboriginal people.
Extending the welfare quarantining, spreading the Basics Card to a few people here or there in a couple of little social experiments, will not work because it has never worked anywhere on this Earth.
That does not hide the discrimination. [We’ve heard this from] the United Nations, from Dr Navi Pillay, and [from] Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Dr Djiniyini Gondarra traveling to Geneva to testify before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The UN, with its judgement, has said the intervention remains deeply discriminatory.
The feigned reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act — it’s an Orwellian political game to say we’ll put the act back now, but the people who are being targeted by the discrimination remain Aboriginal people.
These communities are shamed and are still being discriminated against.
They do not want the intervention.
So don’t be fooled by the minister’s statements. Don’t be fooled by the occasional person who will be paraded across ABC television late at night.
It is easy to divide and attempt to conquer. But the Gurindji and all of those other communities, their representatives came to this Freedom Day. They made it very clear that they do not buy the lie.
This intervention started with a vicious lie: the one that said all of these communities had pedophile rings.
The Australian Crime Commission has now erased that lie, saying there were, and there are, no pedophile rings.
There remains an urgent problem to provide care, health, education, housing and safety for Aboriginal children — not only for Aboriginal children, but across this country.
They remain deeply disadvantaged. They remain more at risk of all of the things that the Little Children Are Sacred report warned us they are at risk of.
There are children all over Australia who are at risk. We do not contest the reality that poverty, overcrowded housing and the neglect of so many children for so many generations, puts these children into a very vulnerable state.
What we contest is the lie that drives “the other agenda”.
What we must individually stand up and oppose — and make it your work to do — is to not let the government now move aggressively, in the year ahead, on these homelands.
Contrary to what you are reading in the papers, these homelands have been given the signal that around the middle of next year, when the five-year period of the emergency phase of the intervention is due to end, there will be no future funding for the homelands.
The Northern Territory government has played a game, saying, well, we’re not cutting them off, we’re just maintaining the funding.
But the funding that keeps these children alive principally comes from the federal government. And that funding is due to end next year.
So I say to you, raise your voice and tell others. This is the frontline fight.
We must say that we will not stand by and allow the rewording — the change of words is not a change in this discrimination and this assimilation.
If [NT chief minister] Paul Henderson says the best I can give you is that I will not use the word “intervention”, again, don’t be fooled. The policy is still intact.
The man can stand there and look the Gurindji in the face and say “I honour Vincent Lingiari,” without understanding that this was about Aboriginal control of their destiny, on their lands.
So, the Northern Territory’s policy has so far not been moved. They are moving towards a slow drip: attrition, social engineering — however you want to describe it — it is intended to move people from the homelands.
If they want a school, they will have to buy the promise that by moving into one of the growth towns they will not end up on the worst street, in one of the worst parts of town, in the same old pattern that has divided us for two centuries.
So let the federal minister and let the chief minister and let our own government here in NSW know that we won’t live with discrimination.
Recently in Canberra, Michael Kirby — one of our most eminent former High Court judges — said, in a challenge to all of us, that it is clear constitutionally that we still live in a White Australia.
We live with a constitution that is stained with discrimination and racism.
That is a personal, individual responsibility for every one of us.
Don’t let government get away with this vicious lie. Let’s oppose the racism, the discrimination and this onslaught on Aboriginal culture, language and the right to their lands. That is what comes through in this book.
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks wanted me to tell you tonight that she knows, at [the NT homeland] Utopia, that she knows the shires, the Northern Territory government and the federal government have brought her people to a very dangerous state.
But she said: we will not be put in the yard. We have seen this before. We know how they look at us. We know how they try to dismiss us.
But the courage of that woman — at her age she should be sitting down with her family and resting. Instead, she’s travelled across the seas to Geneva. She’s raised her voice in the United Nations. She’s brought together so many of the elders who have travelled around the country, trying to get the community to see what is happening.
She wanted you to know that the voices in this book are true. This is what is happening and they want us to walk with them.
[Walk With Us can be ordered at the Concerned Australians website.]