Kwementyaye Tilmouth: The Passing Of A Legend


The Northern Territory – and the nation – has lost a larger than life figure, and an Aboriginal icon. Justin O’Brien pays tribute to friend and mentor Kwementyaye Tilmouth, who passed away in Darwin recently after a long battle with illness.

I hope that men and women powerful in the life of our nation will have much to say about the passing of Kwementyaye Tilmouth last week. I simply wish to share some personal reflections on hearing this sad news.

Upon being introduced to Kwementyaye in January 2000 in Jabiru, in a house we would share together as staff of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (then under the inspirational leadership of Jacqui Katona), he promptly offered a short description of the general role he played in things: “I’m the guy that holds people upside down by their ankles from the helicopter.”

Okay. Straight from working in the Senate for two years I could spot a political animal at 100 yards – but this was something entirely different. This man, marked by his beautiful, shining eyes and uniquely elegant manner of movement, had an unaffected intensity one rarely sees in a politician, for that he clearly was.

I was to learn much from Kwementyaye over the years, be frustrated by him, feel betrayed and hurt by him, but by Christ, be taught.

He took no time in setting to steadily dismantle any silly pretence I put up that I properly understood a single thing about Indigenous politics, either nationally or locally. He was blunt, not necessarily cruelly so, but driven by a history and political exigency to always be direct.

Kwementyaye couched much of this in humour, almost as if to sweeten the bitter truth of his instruction. If I was to work with him, I needed to understand a few things, and understand them well. Only much later did I realise what had transpired in his immediate past that gave his manner a particular earnestness during those first few months I knew him. Only later did I begin to realise the sheer historical import of the man I’d stood innocently before that afternoon in Jabiru.

With a sort of gallows humour, like a field surgeon, Kwementyaye set to cast out from me and other staff – through force of reason and abundant example – as much as he could of the insipid undercurrent in so many of us Euro-Australians to manage, indeed micro-manage, Aboriginal lives.

He would say, “You white people are strange; you’re all dreaming you’re the ‘Great White Hope’, coming to save us, yearning to save us. We don’t need saviours. You end up disabling us. It’s about political and economic rights, forget the rest.”

Kwementyaye cut a path parallel to the mainstream political process but separate from it. Notwithstanding his unswerving loyalty to the union tradition, he was never destined for political office, although he came very close. Having worked in the Parliament and felt that nuanced disappointment unique to the once starry-eyed political staffer, I always delighted at the idea of Kwementyaye in a good suit cutting a swathe through the Senate; but that didn’t happen.

Instead, his political life was his own, and he coloured it with captivating and often outrageous one-liners that political speechwriters could only envy.

Kwementyaye was a wit, a genuine force of nature, a man of great ideas and great vision. His faults, which would sometimes smart, I always saw in the context of an unease driven by denial of what he (I think rightly) regarded as his proper place in this country.

He thought quicker and more creatively, was smarter and more inventive than almost all other political figures I’ve met, Prime Ministers and influential apparatchiks included. This man had such a wealth, a veritable trove, of information at his call, and such a vast network of contacts.

It always struck me that he wasn’t in parliament. The only thing that properly distinguished him from the bulk of politicians, the swill of both houses in Canberra, was his colour and his background.

Simply put, anyone that smart, that witty, that connected, that personally charming is usually a major political or business figure – but they’re invariably non-Indigenous. This is Australia, after all.

Kwementyaye’s detractors will say he was his own worst enemy, that he ruined his own chances of political advancement with his manner and approach to business. Firstly, his flaws were not more fatal and usually far less so, than the plain pollie in our current crop at a state and federal level.

Secondly, I saw and still see it entirely differently and, let me stress, I was neither naïve to his particularly hard-hearted and solo style of doing things at times, nor especially enamoured of his political vision. I write as a friendly observer.

Kwementyaye was driven to act in a certain, unflinching manner not particularly because of his own view of things, but in large part due to the cards he’d been dealt in life. Given a different background, a different set of opportunities (and one or two aces in his hand), Kwementyaye would have played an entirely different game. I, among many others, was always willing to put his actions in their full context.

At a meeting a few months back, in Jabiru, during which he was seeking to lock in a deal on a crocodile hatchery, “for a friend”, I’d vented about unrealistic expectations of Indigenous people by Euro-Australians pre-occupied by their own ‘coloniality’, and he cut me off with the simple rejoinder: “Just ignore anyone who isn’t working for the economic rights of Aboriginal people; it’s a war on the whites, it always has been.”

This isn’t an obituary. Kwementyaye’s political and economic achievements can be accounted for elsewhere. But people should know that he was a man of great stature.

Unquestionably one of the key Aboriginal powerbrokers in NT Labor Party history, Kwementyaye was in the thick of every significant decision by the ALP, including nationally, for over three decades.

He also represented an important aspect of our national development, both in terms of regional economic development but also in terms of the broader, as yet, unsettled reckoning of Euro-Australia’s occupation of the Aboriginal continent.

We might imagine, as above, that a few different circumstances might have changed Kwementyaye’s life for ‘the better’ (whatever that is), but we shouldn’t lose perspective on what he was – a sentinel of reason, with a lifelong demand for political and economic common sense and justice for Aboriginal Australia.

As a national debate raged following Kevin Rudd’s announcement from opposition that he would apologise to Aboriginal Australians for the Stolen Generations, Kwementyaye sat patiently around a table in Jabiru while the local Uniting Church pastor and I spoke of the national importance of the apology, until he interrupted.

Kwementyaye was, of course, a member of the Stolen Generations, and someone who would later give public voice to criticism of the apology, for what he regarded as the emotional excess and indulgence (on the part of Kevin Rudd and other Euro-Australians) around the apology detracting from the real work in Indigenous affairs he thought the Prime Minister should attend to.

That day, however, he had a different line. “Listen, you blokes, it’s more important to the people who lived through it rather than the country.” Speaking somewhat beyond the Reverend and I he said, “These people who were taken away still blame themselves, as if it was something that they did, when they were kids that caused all this to happen to them. An apology would tell those people, tell everyone, that it’s not their fault; that it was all done to them by someone else – it wasn’t their fault.”

I’d never heard that tone of quiet solemnity from Kwementyaye before, and I never would again. It was a brief glimpse into a world of pain that he largely conquered, or at least denied the governing authority over his life.

Lastly, happily, Kwementyaye has left his legacy both etched into this country’s political life, its union movement and all sides of politics, but also, especially, in his gifted children.

Many hearts and minds reach out to them and his wife at this time. All of us, whether we always agreed with him or not, have lost something of a compass in Kwementyaye departing. His wit and warmth will be sorely missed.

As a Canadian-Australian friend said on hearing the news, his absence feels immediately “so strange”.

Vale Kwementyaye.

Justin O'Brien is the CEO at the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, and a long-time Territory resident and advocate for First Nations people and organisations.