How loud will the Aboriginal voice be as activism looks to the future?
The Aboriginal ‘voice’ seems quieter than in previous decades.
But as Ann Arnold discovered this NAIDOC week, the lack of a strong national representative body, and the dispersal of Aboriginal policy across government departments, hasn’t made life easy for activists.
A decade or two ago, Aboriginal leaders like Mick Dodson, Pat Dodson and Lowitja O’Donoghue were household names.
Firebrands like Michael Mansell and Gary Foley regularly caught our attention.
And the ALP was seen as the party more naturally aligned with Indigenous causes.
Now, the Liberal Party has its second Aboriginal Federal parliamentarian —Ken Wyatt, from Western Australia. The first, so long ago now, was Senator Neville Bonner in the 1970s.
The Labor Party has never had a Federal Aboriginal MP or Senator.
In the Northern Territory’s CLP government, the Chief Minister Adam Giles is Aboriginal, as is one of his ministers, Alison Anderson. She defected from the Labor Party, was more recently an Independent, and has four portfolios.
“Everyone needs someone sticking up for them. That’s what the National Congress can do for Aboriginal and TI people. It’s the mark of a country’s maturity to enable people to have a voice.”
Kirstie Parker, Editor, Koori Mail
Another newcomer in that government is Bess Price, an outspoken supporter of the Northern Territory intervention. She’s the CLP member for Stuart, comprising most of the Territory’s west, and held for the past thirty years by Labor.
Despite the Territory’s thirty per cent Aboriginal population, compared to three per cent nationwide, the NT ALP has never fielded an Aboriginal federal candidate. That was one reason why Julia Gillard, as PM, overrode the local branch and in January installed the athlete Nova Peris at the top of the Labor Senate ticket.
Epitomising the changeable political realities is the stance of Warren Mundine. The former National President of the ALP quit the party last year, and has said that he would welcome the opportunity to work with Tony Abbott should he become prime minister.
More recently, Mundine talked on National Indigenous Television about Kevin Rudd’s return as leader. ‘How amazing is Kevin Rudd!’ he exclaimed.
As a result of the apology to the Stolen Generations, Mundine said, Rudd is ‘immensely popular in the Aboriginal community, in fact I haven’t heard anyone saying anything bad about him’.
Given there’s some Aboriginal disillusionment with Labor over its dearth of Indigenous candidates and its continuation of the Northern Territory intervention—a policy which divides Aboriginal people—it’s not surprising, perhaps, that some allegiances are shifting.
Warren Mundine told The Australian: ‘I will walk with anyone who is going to help us as a nation achieve the outcomes that we need to achieve for all Australians. And I don’t care what politics they are.’
The splintering of the Aboriginal vote is one of the reasons there are less likely to be recognised, national Aboriginal spokespeople. The loss of ATSIC, dismantled by the Howard Government, is another. It was as chair of that body that Lowitja ‘Lois’ O’Donoghue became so well-known.
Pat Turner, a former CEO of ATSIC, and Australia’s most senior Aboriginal government official to date, believes there’s now a gap. ‘There’s no focal point for Aboriginal people,’ she says. ‘That collective voice has dissipated.’
Turner is a critic of The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the entity intended to replace ATSIC, because it is not perceived to have had much impact. ‘I’m not a fan of it. I can’t see what they’ve done.’
Before ATSIC, Pat Turner was deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and deputy CEO of Centrelink. She rarely made her views public. Now retired in Alice Springs, she shakes her head as she watches policies unfold. When the NT intervention was announced, in 2007, she came out swinging, furious that Aboriginal communities would be controlled in ways that would never be applied to other communities, and without consultation.
But if there hasn’t been sustained, unified protest at the intervention from Aboriginal leaders, Turner believes it’s partly because of the ‘whole of government’ funding model now in place. Instead of dealing with one department—Indigenous Affairs—groups have to make their case with numerous government departments.
While Pat Turner agrees with the principle that every department should fulfil its obligations to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there are practical problems. ‘Every department has its own guidelines, performance indicators, requires a financial report, and a progress report.’
‘If you’re [an Aboriginal organisation] administering over one hundred grants, you can imagine how burdensome that is.’
It means leaders are overstretched as well as wary of damaging their government ‘partnerships’ through criticism.
Turner observes that community leaders are tending to operate more locally now, finding they can achieve more within their regions than on a bigger scale.
There are of course many Aboriginal voices that are still loud and spectacularly clear. Linda Burney, Larissa Behrendt, Noel Pearson, and Marcia Langton come to mind; all integral to this country’s intellectual and political fabric, and engaging in multiple ways—writing, debating, speaking in various forums.
Tom Calma, Mick Gooda, Tanya Hosch, Aden Ridgeway, and Sam Jeffries are some of the more versatile leaders. There are dozens of others, spread across the professions, the arts, business and sport.
That is the good news story. According to John Maynard, a historian of activism: ‘We have educated lawyers, doctors, people in a variety of areas, so the real smart, street savvy Aboriginal political activist has probably diverted into different areas.’
Professor Maynard, an ARC Research Fellow based at Newcastle University, nonetheless worries that the Aboriginal voice does not appear to be so strong. He believes that ironically, it’s one of the side effects of land rights and native title.
‘We’ve been steered off to localised battles, fighting over money and land. That has stopped people thinking bigger and nationally. We need a united voice to come together.’
The prevailing reconciliation template may also have diverted some energy away from advocacy.
John Maynard’s grandfather Fred Maynard was a prominent activist in the 1920s, albeit one who has been under-appreciated historically. In 1924 he was calling for citizenship, an end to the forced removal of children from families, for Aboriginal people to be in charge of Aboriginal affairs, and for government to respect cultural knowledge.
Fred Maynard also wanted every Aboriginal family to be given 40 acres. Had that been done, his grandson believes, much of the hardship that has been endured since would been averted.
Professor Maynard is the deputy chair of AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies). Mick Dodson is the chair. At an AIATSIS conference this week, Maynard will present a session on activism, celebrating the heroes, and actions, of the past—Charlie Perkins and the Freedom Ride; the Garindji walk off at Wave Hill; Chicka Dixon who in the late ‘60s was ‘inspirational’.
‘Paul Coe, Gary Foley, Michael Anderson—there were a whole host of articulate, confident outspoken activists,’ Maynard says. ‘Their strategies were amazing’.
For the 21st century, though, the focus needs to be different. ‘We’d like to unearth some coming through now into politics, probably mainstream politics.’
Kirstie Parker, the editor of the national newspaper the Koori Mail, agrees the strategy has to be different now. ‘A couple of decades ago, there was one pan-Aboriginal view. Governments were not paying their dues to Aboriginal people’s views. We were fighting for basics.’
Now, she says, activism has to have a fluid definition. ‘You’re active for a cause. How you do that is irrelevant. We need people in every realm.’
‘If it’s worked, people respond to it. If they don’t, it hasn’t.’
But still, that missing national voice concerns Parker. She has been on leave from her editor position to campaign for the position of female co-chair of the National Congress for First Peoples. Voting closed last Friday.
Parker doesn’t see the Congress as ideal, but worth putting her energy into.
‘Everyone needs someone sticking up for them. That’s what the National Congress can do for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’
‘It’s the mark of a country’s maturity to enable people to have a voice.’
‘None of us are big, healthy or robust enough independently to not be threatened by political whims—ill-thought out decisions by government like blanket discrimination under the NT intervention.’
There are still hankerings though in some Aboriginal quarters for another act of powerful symbolism. The 50th anniversary of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions is being celebrated as part of this NAIDOC Week. That the Yolngu people, in 1963, brought those petitions from the Northern Territory’s Gove Peninsular to Parliament House seeking recognition of their traditional lands and a say over mining rights was surely an inspiring act of defiant dignity.
Hear Phillip Adams in discussion with Kirstie Parker, Pat Turner and John Maynard on Late Night Live.
- Land rights are empty, Yolngu elder tells Rudd on bark petition anniversary (guardian.co.uk)
- Rudd pledges indigenous referendum (news.theage.com.au)
- Yirrkala bark petitions: A turning point in recognition of Indigenous rights (abc.net.au)
- Australian PM Vows Referendum to Recognize Aboriginals (thejakartaglobe.com)
- NACCHO 2013 election alert: Warren Mundine is poised to assume a powerful position in Tony Abbotts Aboriginal affairs (nacchocommunique.com)
- Rudd hails ‘Aboriginal Magna Carta’ (nzherald.co.nz)