Last month I camped on the banks of the Mary River in Western Arnhem Land with 100 other Aboriginal and Islander peoples who had met to discuss issues related to the use and management of the water resources across northern Australia. The Mary River, as it is known to non-indigenous Australians, is on the land of the Limilm Ngari — people who are living on and sustaining their land and waters in the traditions of the forebears while endeavouring to develop a tourism enterprise that is framed around sharing their country with visitors from Australia and other lands.
In that country, on the edge of Kakadu, where the great rivers of the north make their way from the majestic Arnhem Land escarpment across vast flood plains and into the Arafura Sea, Aboriginal people are seeking to play a role in sustaining the resources that have been entrusted to them by their fathers and mothers and those before them.
Whether they will be allowed to participate in the future is yet to be seen: along with all other Aboriginal people living on Aboriginal titled land in the Northern Territory, the Limilm Ngari are subject to the provisions of the Federal Government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation. In the wider context of "the Intervention" Aboriginal people, including the Limilm Ngari, are required to cede control of their residential lands, in the short term, in order to receive services and infrastructure that are the rights of all Australian citizens, land owners or otherwise.
In the longer term they stand to lose control of their ancestral lands and waters altogether. But because Aboriginal society has been confronted with interventions in many different guises, the traditional owners of the Mary River Country and other Aboriginal people across Australia will survive this latest endeavour to engineer assimilation on our people.
In this context, assimilation is aimed at achieving the original colonial dream and assertion that Australia was terra nullius — land belonging to no one. This gloomy forecast is founded upon the experience and models to date of dealing with Aboriginal rights and interests — even legislated ones.
After 200 years or so, we have to question the philosophical underpinnings of the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the mainstream of Australia — especially via governments.
What I believe is required is the courage and vision to create a new national framework for dialogue in this country so that better designed structures for participation, infrastructure and service delivery can be agreed upon to respond to the challenges that change throws up. This is a process that has been initiated by General John Sanderson and myself and supported by many likeminded Australians which aims to develop a new philosophical underpinning to guide the development of a just relationship between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australia.
Debate or commentary about Aboriginal peoples affairs are too often determined by the non-indigenous population or designed to take place within the mainstream paradigm. Very seldom is the voice from within Aboriginal and Islander society and culture heard.
Until, as a nation, we reach a different plateau of maturity in our quest for full nationhood we will continue to be diminished as a society and will inevitably repeat the disasters of intervention, increased public sector domination over Aboriginal lives, continued removal of our children, high incarceration rates and increased destabilisation on our traditional homelands.
This is how assimilation has manifested itself to us for the past two centuries.
If a new national framework for dialogue is to be constructed then it will require all our governments, institutions and best minds to be brought to the task.
A new national framework must take into account the rich diversity that has built up among our population since 1788; it must be inclusive of the richness and complexities of all the peoples that make up our diverse society.
If we revert to the old paradigm — where one sector of our society asserts its values over all others — then we will fail in our task and the foundations of our future society will be as unstable as the flawed pillars of the British-centric Australia of the past.
Our joint custodial duty to our country is a heavy burden for all citizens. Our part in the ongoing nation-building endeavour requires that we question our foundations, philosophy and institutions. There should be a consideration of the real legitimacy of our constitution as a true reflection of our modern nation state. We must consider whether or not it is representative of the multi-dimensional society that we have become since 1901, when a British settler elite drafted and put forward the rules for the governance of the newly created nation to Westminster England. Like the South Africans in the post apartheid period, we should consider how our nation will govern itself as we confront our historical failure of recognition and acceptance of the first peoples.
Australia’s land tenure systems are based on 18th and 19th century values and ideologies when colonial governments equated occupancy with development based on pasturing sheep and cattle on vast tracts of land far too fragile to sustain them or exploiting scant water resources for food production — always to the exclusion of the interests of the traditional land owners.
The international effort to address global warming and climate change will in the future demand that nations begin to manage and use their natural assets in a more considered way than they have in the past. Indigenous people must be allowed to participate in the planning and decision making in relation to these resources as had been our right and responsibility prior to 1788. A national dialogue should engage Indigenous, government, environmental, agricultural, scientific and pastoral interests in negotiating how our land, water and sea resources can be effectively managed, sustained and equitably shared in the future.
The recent controversy over the management and access to the Wild Rivers of Cape York to the exclusion of the consent of the traditional owners and the resistance by tourism operators and politicians to respect the cultural responsibilities of the Anangu of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to ban climbers to the top of this most sacred of sites are indicative of the exclusion of native peoples from the negotiation about the future use of lands and waters in this country.
Climate change, global warming and food security are not simply about developing alternative energy sources, finding ways of burying carbon dioxide in cavities in the earth or the development of super seeds that double yields while using miniscule amounts of water. These might be a useful start but they in themselves are never going to deliver long term structural change — economic, social or environmental in Australia or anywhere else on the globe. Development and distribution of natural resources must involve processes of negotiation and consent with Indigenous peoples.
As a consequence of industrial development post-World War II we have seen the movement of young people from the bush to the city. Rural decline and the use of "fly-in, fly-out" strategies by mining companies since the 1980s have also had an impact on the demographics of the bush. As a result, Indigenous Australians have found themselves standing alongside a group of almost equally politically excluded Australians: those living in the northern half of the nation who are non-indigenous but who have chosen to contribute to the future of the nation by working for the development and sustaining of our deserts, our northern coastal regions and the pastoral regions of the Northern Territory, Western and South Australia and Queensland.
People in remote Australia, covering most of our continental land mass have found themselves more than ever subject to the decision making processes and priorities of governments authority in southern cities, far removed from the reality of the lives of those in the bush. It is a paradox that greater access to communications, roads and transport has for many Australians meant a diminishment of political power rather than an enhanced capacity to engage and contribute to regional governance.
The dialogue for a new national framework will begin to open the discussion on how the north of the continent might be developed in a meaningful and productive way so that the experiences and the lessons of the past can be built on. To do this, we need a northern regional development authority to allow for regional participation with government and industry. The function of such an authority would be to preserve our great remaining wilderness regions, provide the basis for the first elements of the new green economy, the creation of renewable energy sources, the development of sustainable low impact tourism, assist to identify carbon abatement project opportunities and promote the production from traditional food and medicine sources.
These industries of the green economy are not incompatible with existing mining or food production industries but we must take the opportunity to plan for the inevitable development of northern Australia so that we enhance our economy, provide meaningful employment for our children and allow for the growth and development of the Indigenous peoples — along with the sustaining of our culture and the management of our traditional estates.
The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, often speaks about turning to a new page in the national narrative. The dialogue for a new national framework must not be simply about a new page — but the next book in a trilogy of human endeavour on this continent.
The first book relates to the occupation and use of this land by the Aboriginal people where the creation story began and the laws, languages and customs of Aboriginal people and the land prevailed.
The second book is about the colonial engagement and the two centuries of dispute and conflict between our peoples, occupation and alienation for the natives and economic windfall at the expense of the environment and the native peoples for the colonial society.
The third book must be about social, economic and environmental sustainability of the continent where Australians address the challenges of the global world, develop and create new economies based on sound environmental practices.
It must be a tale of regional reconstruction where the unsustainable urban sprawl gives way to new green industries based in regional centres where the standards of health service and education are equal for all Australians. Where living in the bush is an advantage not an impediment to our opportunity.
Where the exploitation of our natural resources is undertaken in a sustainable manner.
Where the arrival of a mine in a region does not herald generations of social upheaval and disintegration for the people whose homes and communities sit alongside the mineral development.
It must be where we take pride in the vitality and strength of the Aboriginal cultural and spiritual realities.
Where the continent’s first peoples are involved in all aspects of the negotiation of the nation’s future, our rights and responsibilities are enshrined in the laws of the land and our ceremonies celebrated in the nation’s institutions.
This is an edited version of a speech given by Professor Patrick Dodson at the launch of the Indigenous Policy Dialogue and Research Unit of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales on 20 August.
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