Bonjour, Uluru


Theatre company Big hART has a show in the Sydney Festival this month – but they also appear to be staging an intervention in Federal politics.

The Ngapartji Ngapartji (Pitjanjatjara for "I give you something, you give me something") theatre project narrates the effect of the Maralinga nuclear tests on the Spinifex people.

But behind the scenes, it’s also telling another story about contemporary cultural politics. The show has been accompanied by a political dance-off of almost slapstick proportions, with the theatre company keeping one step ahead.

Celebrities such as Cate Blanchett have been tripping over themselves to be seen at the show and pollies like Peter Garrett tripping over celebrities in their rush to fill the seats (which are now sold out), no doubt wanting to be associated with a powerful example of Indigenous storytelling.

But the behind the scenes story of Big hART’s approach to politics is an object lesson in political leverage. Ngapartji Ngapartji doubles as a
lobbying organisation which aims to save Indigenous languages in danger of extinction. Some 150 Indigenous languages are spoken in Australia, where it is
estimated there were once 300 – and of the remaining, 70 per cent are critically endangered (spoken by a handful of people).

Ngapartji Ngapartji producers regularly contact Government Ministers to advocate for a national Indigenous language policy to remedy this situation.
They’re also happy to offer advice (however unsolicited) about a few other things on their minds.

After last week’s launch, SBS TV and Radio National both broadcast reviews containing a similar soundbite from Big hART, which stated that Kevin Rudd can speak Mandarin but neither he nor Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin would know "how to say hello at Uluru".

According to creative producer Alex Kelly, Macklin’s office then rang Ngapartji Ngapartji and asked for help. Apparently, journalists had been calling
demanding a "hello" in Pitjantjatjara. Her advisors also apparently rang Alison Anderson, the Indigenous Member for the remote Northern Territory seat of MacDonnell, to ask for a few words in her language, just in case they were harassed by journalists. They got the right woman – Anderson speaks a total of six Indigenous languages.

Macklin and Rudd were quickly offered the opportunity to redeem themselves. Macklin has been signed up to Ngapartji Ngapartji‘s online language course. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has also been invited to sign up and attend the stage show. What is the Pitjanjatjara word for embarrassing?

This approach is perhaps worthy of the project’s central notion of reciprocity – if what one has been given over the years is bureaucratic shaming and a scrabble for image management.

‘The arts’ has been on a back foot since 1996, desperately trying to niche-market itself in a very strictly monitored funding environment. With the change of government it seems that more aggressive strategies are being used, not just to get money for the arts, but to get political leverage for the issues being covered.

And even the money they get is not good enough, apparently; Big hART is now telling Government departments how best to spend their cash – and they’vestarted by giving some of it back. The company behind Ngapartji Ngapartji this week returned three quarters of a million dollars to the Australia Council, with company director Scott Rankin saying "you’re not being wise about using the taxpayers’ money, so we’re going to be wise with it and give it back to you… please do something wise with it."

Rankin argued that the amount they were given was not worth the money it would cost to administer the grant under the Australia Council’s complex acquittal procedures. He called the funds, from the new Community Partnerships/Key Producers category, "funding for failure"
which "perpetuates mediocrity in the field of community arts."

Ngapartji Ngapartji already receives some of its funding from Federal crime prevention moneys: almost half a million from the Attorney General’s Department over three years. The scale of the show – it involves, for example, an entire choir of Pitjanjatjara speakers who must be replaced halfway through the season to attend to family business – clearly requires a great deal of financial backing.

It remains to be seen if handing back the money will be an effective strategy, or just tarnish the project’s organisers as a bunch of political ratbags. The Australia Council has stood by its decision, but Peter Garret has admitted there is too much "red tape" involved in arts funding, and he wants to "simplify it".

This kind of political manoeuvring leaves paternalistic approaches to Indigenous social policy in the dust.

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.