Empowered Communities - Responsibility, Reform and Recognition

2014 Garma Festival

2014 August, 2

Empowered Communities - Responsibility, Reform and Recognition

I want to acknowledge the Gumatj and the Yolngu people of North East Arnhem Land for their gracious welcome to their country. I want to particularly acknowledge my brothers Galarrwuy and Djawa and Balupalu for the leadership they've shown their people and to the rest of us across the country.

I'm really privileged to be here with my colleagues from the Empowered Communities. It’s a project we've been working very hard on for the last 12 months. A friend of mine Morry Schwartz is here from Black Inc Publishing, pursuing me for a delinquent Quarterly Essay. And in that essay, I'm struggling to come to terms with some of the issues that we're grappling with Empowered Communities and constitutional recognition. I tried to avoid the whole conflagration about the history wars but it is not possible. I tried to disremember the history wars but it is not possible.

I read the forward to an illustrated version of H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds which I purchased for my son Charlie and we read it together several years ago. But in the forward to the book there is this paragraph that completely took me by surprise:

‘The inspiration for The War of the Worlds came one day when Wells and his brother Frank were strolling through the peaceful countryside in Surrey, south of London. They were discussing the invasion of the Australian island of Tasmania in the early 1800s by European settlers who hunted down and killed most of the primitive people who lived there. To emphasize the reaction of these people Frank said, “suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly and begin taking over Surrey and then all of England.”

To that point, I had no idea that that was the inspiration for The War of the Worlds.

So, Tasmania has been much on my mind these recent weeks and months. And the efflorescence of the classical culture in this part of Australia, which was, of course, always part of the imagination of my childhood - Arnhem Land. If there was any place in the country that harbored the culture of our past, it was Arnhem Land.

But of course, Tasmania was the same. There was a time in the human history of the past 40 to 50,000 years when Tasmania possessed as rich a culture as you will see here in this part of the country. We cannot disremember Tasmania. And the survival of the original peoples there is, of course, a matter of great importance and celebration on our part, for the rest of Australia. That god's grace enabled a people to survive a holocaust.

I think the fundamental question about the dispossession and near complete annihilation is a question we're still grappling with today. Which is: will the European settlement of Australia enable a different people with a different heritage to have space in it? That question is still unresolved. It is as pertinent today as it was when we answered it in the negative in the 1820s in the southernmost part of our country. Is there space for an aboriginal culture and aboriginal languages and an aboriginal heritage and an aboriginal people? When a remnant three percent of us live in a nation of 97 percent descended from people overseas.

It is still an unresolved question. It was answered in a malign way at the other end of our history and I fear that if we don't come to a just answer to that question today that same answer will come about for benign reasons. If it was originally malign, we will waste the original cultures of this country in a benign way if we don't soon make accommodations for it. If we don't soon make provision for it.

And our project with the Empowered Communities is about nothing less than carving out a power for ourselves to maintain the distinctness of our people and yet at the same time the equality of our citizenship. Why is that such a contradiction? Why can't we be equal citizens like the rest of Australia? And socially and economically aspire to the same things Michael Rose's children and grandchildren aspire to? But at the same time be acknowledged as one of perhaps seven to ten thousand peoples that live distinctly across the globe who are trying to squeeze into just 200 nations.

This is the problem of the world. How do seven thousand distinct peoples find a foothold in 200 nations? And here in Australia we have failed in two centuries to answer how it is that perhaps at the broadest level two distinct peoples - the Aborigines of the mainland and the Torres Strait Islanders of the North - how is it that we can have a place and a space in the Australian nation? The Empowered Communities project is about nothing less than saying that the three percent mouse has got a right to determine its own future.

And we brook no distinction between those descendants of Tasmania and the descendants of the southernmost clans and tribes upon whom was visited the worst depredations of history. Upon whom was visited the worst depredations of history, we brook no distinction about their entitlement. The peoples of inner Sydney are as entitled to attention and recognition. And the people of the Murray River at Shepparton, the Yorta Yorta no less, deserve no less recognition than our peoples in the north. And our project is about nailing the correctness of that recognition on the national masthead.

There is an important process of constitutional recognition that is currently before the nation. I see that the project for Empowered Communities has a connection with that agenda. It is important for us to ask ourselves, is there a place for the aboriginal peoples of Australia to be guaranteed that their cultures, their languages, their heritage and their tradition has got a place in the future of this country and will not just benignly fade away?

I've been extremely privileged to see the leadership shown by my colleagues across the eight regions in the country. We are about self-determination, no less. If you want to know the meaning of self-determination it is the right to take responsibility. It is the right to power. Why is it that our future is so parlous and our present so precarious, and yet the government who knows ‘this much’ about us has ‘this much’ of the power? And we who know ‘this much’ about ourselves have ‘this much’ of the power?

The Empowered Communities project will bring these questions to a crux. It will bring these questions about our entitlement to have a say over our own lives. To have not just a say, to have the say. How can we not have a say over our future? How can we not make a guaranteed provision for the people who possess this sovereign land? And in a real sense this is a sovereign land.

Let me tell you what sovereign means. It's the best definition I've ever read. In the Western Sahara case Judge Ammoun said in 1975, he said it is a spiritual emotion.

‘It is the ancestral tie between the land or mother nature and the man who was born there from remains attached thereto and must one day return dither to be united with his ancestors. This is the basis of ownership of the soil or better of sovereignty.’

The question that we face as a nation is one in which we have got to define a place. The country has got to define a place for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders within the life of the nation. Otherwise, how can it be said that we have a rightful place in this our own country?

The Empowered Communities project is about articulating the architecture of power to enable communities to decide their own futures. It is about creating the architecture of power so that we have a strong say in what happens in our communities in the directions we take.

You know, my big complaint about our history, and my big complaint about even contemporary thinking about indigenous policy is this: we've never been allowed to come to our own accommodation between European and western and global development and the maintenance of our own culture and identity. We've never been allowed to articulate that fit.

And yet all over the world peoples have come to terms with development. Have come to terms with capitalism. Have come to terms with wealth, and maintain their culture and languages. They've been allowed to carve out that accommodation and reconciliation, and we never have. We are always either urged to be disinterested in development and to abjure development, or we’re urged to assimilate. We're never allowed to say well actually we want development. We want mining. We want our children to accumulate wealth, and possessions, and strive for a better life. But we also want to keep our languages, our heritage, our traditions. We want to keep the sacred relationship with our sovereign lands. Why can't we define what the Japanese defined in the mid 1800s. The Meiji restoration was a time when Japan came to grips and they had the leadership and said; ‘we are going to embrace and contend with western development in this way, but we are going to keep our traditions and culture in this way’. They came to a fork in the road and they made their own decisions.

Finally, the Jews are our best example. I've always said this. The Jewish people are a people that participate in the wider world at the absolute forefront, of politics, science, the arts, culture, academia, politics, power. But on the other hand, they have a communal identity and a historic solidarity based on persecution. They have languages and learning and traditions and rituals. And they have people at the center of their society who are keeping the hearts of orthodoxy burning. And they have people on the fringes of their society who are engaging in all kinds of ways in the ways of the world. And yet at the center of their society is a gravitational pull of their communal identity and religion. Why can't we be the same?

And how is it that we don't permit people like the Yolngu, people like the Gumatj, to define a future for themselves where they maintain a communal heart of religion, traditions, rituals and beliefs and languages, whilst at the same time participating in the wider world of development and so on? The Jews have shown us how to do it. Extremely able to operate in two ways. And yet the answer from the majority of Australia still is this: we have got to choose either assimilation or we've got to remain in some kind of romantic undeveloped past.

It's a real challenge, some of our greatest allies advocate one or the other. In many ways we kind of half agree with those who say development and we half agree with those who say that we should simply protect our culture and our lands. But on the other hand, both sides kind of also have a horrible dilemma for us. And both sides won't allow us to define the balance between those two things that we so desperately seek.

Our Empowered Communities project and the whole process of constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians has got to allow us to come to our own Meiji Restoration moment. To choose development and cultural determination. Because we don't want to be developed and to be cultural paupers, but at the same time it is surely apparent that the absence of development will pauperise us in any case.

Thank you very much.