Saturday, 30 June 2012

June 29: Day of mourning

Sad, sad days in the Territory. Woke up on Friday June 29 to discover the Stronger Futures legislation had passed through the Senate at 2am that morning.

I guess we were expecting it, though they kept us on tenterhooks for the entire 2-week parliamentary sitting, leaving it until just two days before the new financial year kicked in - the thing being, if stronger futures didn't pass. what  would happen to those bits of the budget?

Djiniyini Gondarra has labelled the bill's passage a declaration of  "war on democracy". Alyawarr and Yolŋu Nations declared a day of mourning.

Soon there  will be blogging about it. Just giving people up here time to regroup and plan their next steps...

Stay tuned.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Aboriginal voices oppose Stronger Futures

(Editor's note: Stronger Futures has not yet been put before the Senate, despite it being touted to pass this week)

Aboriginal people across the NT have spoken out against the Stronger Futures laws, which they say continue the discriminatory and racist laws launched with the NT intervention five years ago today.

Maurie Ryan, of the First Nations Political Party said: “The First Nations political party does not support the Stronger Futures legislation. There are no Stronger futures unless we are part of it. The legislation takes away our autonomy; it’s just empty words.

“How can there be Stronger Futures if we aren’t in control of our own communities? This is why we oppose the Shires system, which has forced distant communities together and taken away community control.

“Stronger Futures is just the intervention under another name.”

"As a Yolngu woman I am strongly opposed to this law. Things will only get worse if the government tries to punish us for our situation. We need a way forward that is based on a solid partnership. We want control of our land and our communities, not this blackmailing TO's for houses." said Helen Nyomba from Galiwin'ku community on Elcho Island.

"We have made it very clear that we don't want the government to pass this law. When will Jenny Macklin listen to us? We are sick of being pushed around. We demand to have our law recognised, we want real employment and to be treated as equals in this country." said Matthew Dhulumburrk from Ramingining.

Joy White from Bagot Community said: "The government needs to look to its own parliament before condemning us mob about our actions does ... (he) ... Have a sign in front of his house saying no alcohol and pornography?"

"These people need to account for what they do themselves before judging us"

Phillip Goodman from One Mile Community said: "Some aspects of the intervention have not been offensive and I have no problem with these. But why has it just been rolled out in the NT and only for aboriginal people, there are people all over australia dealing with the problems we face, why was it only rolled out in the NT and let us not pretend that this is not racial discrimination when the racial discrimination act had to be suspended for the measures of the intervention to come into place"

Judith Donald from Kalkarindji said: “We’re not going to have it.” She supports the stament put out by the Gurindji people available here:

These voices join those of the 43,000 who signed a petition opposing the Stronger Futures laws, which was accepted by Australian Greens MPs on June 18.

On Friday June 22, we will hold a press conference outside NT Parliament at 10am to call on the NT government to stand with those who have stood with us for freedom and against the Stronger Futures laws.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Four-Wheel-Driving Adventures!

Last weekend we went to a secret (well just not signposted) campground just south of Hayes Creek. There we had an opportunity to justify our ownership of a 4WD.

Here we are - in low 4!

For those who don't know, low 4 is the gear setting you can choose to turn your 4WD into a tractor, the vehicle can now trundle over everything in it's path.

The campsite was gorgeous, bordering a series of cliffs cut by a creek. the rocks are gorgeous forming a chaotic staircase of blocks.

There was time for swimming.

And reading.

This is our campsite, a simple place, a retreat from the world.

Gotta watch that fire.

Emma got tired sometimes.

But found time to take some arty nature photos.

I also got tired.

But still found time to read.

It really was pretty.

Friday, 15 June 2012

A bad week for the Northern Territory...

The week of June 18-22 will be a difficult one for Aboriginal communities in the NT, and defenders of Aboriginal rights the nation over. While rallies and meetings will take place to commemorate June 21 - the anniversary of that fateful day when John Howard and Mal Brough announced the NT Intervention - Labor's Stronger Futures legislation is expected to pass through the Senate on June 18.

Here's a talk I wrote thinking about that, and about the Yolngu friends and colleagues who will bare the brunt of whatever might come next.

* * *

This talk will be a bit different to others I have given, although it feels like I’ve been talking about the NT intervention for so many years I don’t have to think about it.

I did think about it this time though. For many years, whenever I gave a talk about the struggle of Aboriginal people in Australia, it was me, a non-Aboriginal person, talking by and large to other non-Aboriginal people, about something I’d glimpsed and thought I knew enough about that I could share it.

These days, on a typical day, as a non-Aboriginal person, I am often in a minority.  I work and travel with Yolngu - the First People of the North East Arnhem Land region. Often I have no idea what is going on. The people I call my colleagues, friends, family, are affected by the government’s racist policies on a very personal level: their son is in prison, their daughter attempted suicide again, their grandchildren are disengaged from mainstream education because all of a sudden it’s all in English - their fifth language. They themselves have been diagnosed with a disease otherwise eradicated from the First World.

So these days, when I think about the NT intervention, these are the things that first come to mind. And I feel I owe it to the people I work with to bring some of that into this talk.

That’s not to say it isn’t political. In fact, what we’re talking about cuts to the very heart of
Australian politics: we’re talking about a country founded on racism, on dispossession, a wealthy First World nation made so with stolen resources taken from stolen Aboriginal land, on the back of unpaid Aboriginal labour. When I travel through Arnhem Land today, I think what I am seeing is just the continuation of those colonialist, assimilationist, interventionist policies we
may have hoped ended with the so-called era of self-determination.

It’s the pointy end of what, actually, Labor is doing everywhere. Maybe it’s just more obvious in the NT, where Aboriginal people make up 30% of the population, as opposed to less than 4% in other states.

The NT Intervention was launched by the Howard Coalition government in 2007. Its extension, insultingly called “Stronger Futures”, is a wake-up call for anybody who’d forgotten about
the bipartisan nature of Australian racism. Labor’s Stronger Futures strengthens many of the more punitive aspects of the NT Intervention - the ridiculously harsh grog laws, income management, the linking of welfare payments to school attendance - and enshrines them in law for decade.

By the time the legislation is up for review in 7 years, there will be Yolngu teenagers who have lived their entire lives under this apartheid system, regulated by laws nobody else in Australia is governed by.

I feel I owe it to my Yolngu friends and colleagues to re-frame some of the things I said at the start of this talk. Aboriginal people are imprisoned at much higher rates than non-Aboriginal people, they die much earlier... there are so many shameful statistics that I hope many people here are already familiar with. But it is important to also celebrate their strength, resilience, their spirit of resistance and survival. Not only did the first nations of this continent live sustainably in sometimes pretty harsh environments. They have resisted and survived 220 years of explicit or implicit genocide at worst and government neglect at best.

They still hold their heads up high and speak with pride of their language and culture. Where I spend my time, Yolngu people still practise their rich cultural and legal traditions. It might
be banned in the schools, but they’re still speaking their languages - the oldest living languages on the planet. We have to celebrate that.

In the last year, there has been a movement in Arnhem Land to revive the Yolngu Nations Assembly. This isn’t a new development on one level - it’s a reminder of the political and
legal institutions that existed here long before someone decided planting a flag on a beach meant anything significant.

But in a way it’s a new development - the onslaught of the intervention and Stronger Futures policies has forced Yolngu leaders to regroup, to unite to fight. They’re doing it combining their own ancient languages, political structures and clan associations with a feisty, media-savvy, campaigning approach that personally I find quite humbling. People who don’t speak an awful lot of English are moved by the solidarity coming from down south, and are gaining the confidence to do things like radio interviews, or fly to Sydney to speak at rallies. 

They might have to stand on top of the troopcarrier to get mobile coverage, and they might have to put on the first pair of socks they’ve ever worn, as they fly into a NSW winter, but they are seeing the importance of grassroots campaigning and solidarity in a way reminiscent of the Gurindji struggle, and Vincent Lingiari’s fundraising trips with unionists and radicals.

I’d encourage everybody to have a look at the statement the Yolngu Nations Assembly released condemning the Stronger Futures package as it prepared to pass through the Senate. (

The statement calls on traditional owners and land councils to refuse to release any more land for government leases until the Stronger Futures legislation is withdrawn in its entirety. That’s quite radical. They call for homelands –some of which may only have 20 or 30 people – to be given equal weight to larger communities in terms of resource allocation and economic development.

That is important because, at the same time the federal Coalition was rolling out the intervention- literally rolling, in army tanks – the NT Labor government was enacting a “Hub Towns” policy that starved the homelands of funds, channelled people into large communities. And all the evidence shows that the health, education and general wellbeing indicators on homelands far outweigh those in the larger communities.

The Yolngu Nations know this, because this is their home: the government might not have graded the road for five years, there may be no medical services, the place might be inaccessible during the wet season, but the homelands are their strength. It’s where they go to get away all the heavy crap the government keeps laying on them. It’s where they take their kids who are trapped in the cycle of racism and poverty and are succumbing to petrol sniffing. It’s where they are alive and strong.

But these aren’t things the government is concerned about. The economic rationalist agenda implicit in the government’s “Closing the Gap” strategy doesn’t quite have the imagination to work out how 30 people living simply with a diesel generator could be “economically viable”.

How does the government encourage the important things like private home ownership and economic participation in a place where there is only one house, and no economy – at least nothing resembling the market economy the government is hellbent on thrusting  onto Aboriginal communities, never mind it’s the same market economy that is destroying the climate and undermining workers’ rights.

I think the homelands movement is an important precisely because it doesn’t fit this capitalist modus operandi – it asks us to think differently about “economy” and “employment”. It asks us to take risks and allow Yolngu to take risks too – maybe even risks that a resourced by the taxpayer, god forbid.

I don’t believe Stronger Futures, and all the associated federal and territory neoliberal policies, will destroy Yolngu communities. But that says everything about my confidence in the strength of the First Nations – not about my conviction that these racist, regressive laws are a huge step backwards that will take years to recover from. Aboriginal people will survive. With our help, they will change the laws, and rebuild.

But they will need our support and solidarity. It will be a long struggle. It will require that we take risks, are willing to take the lead from an ancient people with a wisdom very different from our own.

Healthy homelands, successful two-way learning, strong and confident community leaderships can take years to build up. And, as recent policy shifts show us, they can be destroyed in the time it takes to pass a new law through the Senate. But the underlying resilience, the fighting spirit and commitment of Aboriginal people, are still there. These will be the foundation for whatever struggle comes next.

When the dust settles on Stronger Futures and apartheid in the NT is “normalised” for another generation, let’s make it our duty to not let this fall off the agenda. Yolngu will continue to fight, in ever-changing ways, and we can make it our pledge to fight alongside them.

In the future – the truly stronger future, when we live in a society that celebrates human worth, community control & a sustainable environment- we will look back with pride, in ourselves and our Aboriginal brothers and sisters that we ensured the  world’s oldest living culture survived even this - and shame that it came so close to destruction.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The joy of Yolngu Matha pronouns

English personal pronouns
1st person singular                   I
2nd person singular                  you
3rd person singular                  s/he/it
1st person plural                      we
2nd person plural                     you all (y'all)
3rd person plural                     they

Yolngu  Matha personal pronouns
1st person singular                ngarra
2nd person singular               nhe
3rd person singular               ngayi
1st person dual inclusive       ngali
1st person dual exclusive      linyu
1st person plural inclusive     limurr
1st person plural exclusive    napurr
2nd person plural                nhuma
3rd person dual                  manda
3rd person plural                nhuma

Confused? Basically this means you can talk about someone in a gender-neutral way.

Also, here's a conversation I had with a colleague today that made me realise how awesome the inclusive/exclusive concept is.

We (James and I) worked on it today and if you're free tomorrow we (you and I) could go over it and then on Friday we (colleagues other than you plus I) have a meeting until ten, but  after that we (you, James and I) could finish it off.

Yolngu Matha (or at least, YM pronouns- keeping the rest in English out of respect for the English-only readers):
Linyu worked on it today, and if nhe are free tomorrow ngali could go over it and then on Friday napurr have a meeting until 10, but after that limurr could finish it off.

Am I the only one who finds that exciting? Still confused? Study another language, it changes your world.... :)

Friday, 1 June 2012

Barge landing near Ramingining. Dropped a colleague off this afternoon-
 he was hitching a boat ride over to Miliŋgimbi for the night. 

On the road back to Ramingining, awesome clouds and some
beautiful birds which moved too fast for me to photograph.

And if we put that bit in there...?

Doing cross-cultural, multi-lingual sexual health education makes for some interesting dinner table conversation with my colleagues...

I feel a bit sorry for the people we're sharing our digs with this week. We've taken to sitting under the trees in the yard when our discussion gets particularly... technical..