Winds of Change


Galarrwuy Yunupingu is nobody’s fool. For 23 years he was Chairman of the powerful Northern Land Council (NLC), the body that manages Indigenous lands north of Tennant Creek on behalf of traditional owners. A former Australian of the Year, he is a dab hand at negotiating successful outcomes for his Gumatj clan.

In an article in The Age on Saturday, Yunupingu revealed his intention to return to the national stage. ‘I’ve got nothing much to do so I thought I’d better get myself active and useful again’ he said. Observers could be forgiven for having failed to notice Yunupingu’s alleged withdrawal from the spotlight. This senior Yolgnu man has all the political acumen of the fixers and number-crunchers who prowl the eastern seaboard doing the bidding of their masters in the major political parties.

At the recent Garma festival, held on traditional Yolngu land near Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem land, he made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the Federal Government’s intervention into Indigenous Affairs in the Northern Territory, describing it as ‘sickening, rotten and worrying.’

Some weeks after the festival he entertained an unlikely visitor on his traditional land at Port Bradshaw: Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough. Brough told Yunupingu that his interest was in protecting Aboriginal children and improving the quality of life. The wily Indigenous leader agreed that he had spent his own life in this service, and offered the Minister his full support in these noble objectives. ‘I would join him, as I would join any minister with the same good intentions and put my shoulder to the wheel’ Yunupingu wrote in The Australian recently.

Yunupingu’s subsequent decision to sign a memorandum of understanding committing his people to exploring the possibility of a 99-year lease over the Ski Beach (Gunyangara) settlement set tongues talking. On the face of things, it was a political coup for Brough to be seen to have recruited the great land rights warrior into his 99-year lease cart. But closer examination suggests that Yunupingu hadn’t missed a trick.

Some weeks earlier, a 99-year lease over the Aboriginal township of Nguiu on Bathurst Island had been signed in an atmosphere of bitter acrimony among the traditional owners. The Tiwi Islanders have their own small, independent land council, making them arguably a softer target than the Top End mainland communities which are aligned with the NLC. Under the Nguiu deal, the head lease will be managed by an ill-defined ‘government entity’ and the local community will potentially lose influence in decisions about what happens on their traditional land.

But Yunupingu was never likely to sign over a head lease to such an entity. Should the Ski Beach deal be completed, the head lease would be administered by an Aboriginal-controlled organisation. It seems that Brough was prepared to wear a trade-off of this magnitude to get one of the most astute and powerful Indigenous politicians of this generation on side.

Professor Jon Altman from the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research wrote in recently that the Ski Beach community had simply made a sensible commercial decision. They chose to negotiate a 99-year leasing arrangement with very substantial financial benefits for the community, rather than accept the compulsory acquisition of their township for five years with the risk that just-terms compensation may not be paid.

It is unclear whether the Ski Beach scenario whereby traditional owners will control the head lease sets a new minimum standard for these deals, or whether the Minister will make the more generous package available only to selected communities. If the latter, then the Minister must explain why some communities will be treated more favourably than others.

Recently in The Age, Patrick Dodson expressed serious reservations about these deals. He described the 99-year leases as the ‘practical and symbolic instrument of our Government’s crusade to make Indigenous people culturally invisible’. He spoke of the need for a national dialogue focusing on mutual respect, common ground, and the importance of enhancing and sustaining cultural and social values. Dodson remains the pre-eminent voice in Indigenous politics in this country and his views rightly command respect. However, on face value, the Ski Beach deal appears to recognise at least some of the key principles that Dodson espouses.

In the red dust of the Central Desert 1500 kilometres to the south-west of Ski Beach, the winds of change are beginning to blow. The received wisdom that the ‘rights agenda’ is paramount and that land rights are sacrosanct is being re-examined through the pragmatic prism of the human beings who live on these communities. Many of these people are crying out for decent housing, an end to the ravages of grog, and some economic opportunities for their kids. Owning their land may be cold comfort if their life chances, and those of their children, are so brutally curtailed.

It is important to realise that those entertaining this point of view will not countenance any sort of cultural trade-off. They are bush people who are steeped in culture, law and language. These things are simply not negotiable. Indeed some of these people find a certain dark humour in overblown policy pronouncements from the government of the day. They recognise that governments are transitory: like trains, there will be another one coming soon.

Shortly after the intervention was announced, I travelled with the ALP member for MacDonnell, Alison Anderson out to the community of Hermannsburg, an hour’s drive west of Alice Springs. Her mission was to reassure her voters that the Government was not intending to again steal their children. Her advice to them was to carefully consider the assistance being offered through the intervention, and to assess how the community which has been starved of resources for so long might take maximum advantage. Anderson grew up on this country and her loyalty to the people who live here is unequivocal.

However, it is abundantly clear that the ‘traditional’ land rights agenda also continues to enjoy strong support. Last month, 100 Indigenous activists from all around Australia, including representatives from land councils, health services, legal services groups, members of the Stolen Generation and housing bodies met to form the National Aboriginal Alliance. The new organisation ‘rejects outright the discriminatory and coercive elements of the Commonwealth’s invasion in the Northern Territory’. Their manifesto states that ‘the lack of national political representation for Aboriginal people has left us vulnerable to harsh government policies’ and calls on all Australians to ‘engage with, speak up and support Aboriginal people’s self-determination’.

Indigenous Australians entertain a range of views that stretch right across the political spectrum. Black Australia is sufficiently robust and sophisticated to manage this diversity, despite the propensity of tabloid newspapers to beat-up any divergence of views between Indigenous leaders.

The Nhulunbuy negotiations, like the discussions in the desert, will only add rigour to the Indigenous position. Neither the determinedly assimilationist Howard Government, nor the ‘smooth the dying pillow’ anachronisms of the Bennelong Society should regard these apparent reappraisals as a capitulation. Rather, they are simply a recalibration of the weaponry that is being used in the great battle for Indigenous justice.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.