Recently a journalist from the Sunday Age, Russell Skelton, visited Central Australia. What his reports offered the newspaper’s readers over several editions in May and June 2005 was a sketchy view of two small, isolated Indigenous communities that have been overwhelmed by the force of historical and contemporary circumstances—circumstances created by Australian governments and their mandatory policies enforced through rule of law. Skelton is well meaning and has good intentions. But what his cursory view did not make clear is that in every state and territory there are Indigenous communities stricken by poverty and associated injury of enormous magnitude, and that we cannot be held accountable when we are prevented by foreign, imposed systems of law from being in control of our lives.
Most Indigenous people working for their communities, such as Alison Anderson, are not sightseers or cultural tourists who fly in one day and leave the next. Aboriginal leaders, as all Indigenous people in this country, have been shaped by a history of more than two centuries of political domination, theft of land, and widespread suffering. In the face of this onslaught our leaders have struggled to continue their responsibility as the residents and caretakers of their traditional country. Yet the administration of Indigenous policies and programs is largely by white workers holding positions of domination over Aboriginal people.
Do not go looking for angels in the Indigenous nest. Communities of people stricken by unrelenting poverty based on their race and culture are not the place to find angels. People just survive, just as they do in wartime, but as also happens in wars, heroic feats are accomplished by Indigenous people—feats such as the achievement of Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory.
Just as important are the unsung or less well recognised achievements of many individuals and communities, such as the valiant stance taken by Alison Anderson and the Papunya Community against the Northern Territory government in 1992 in what is now known locally as the Papunya Power dispute. In an act that can only be described as one of state terror, the government turned off the community’s power supply for nearly five months during a bitterly cold winter. This community also challenged the might of the NT government during the 1990s over a number of other issues that they saw as essential to their survival, including health and education, direct-funding mechanisms and governance. These struggles led to the creation of the Combined Aboriginal Nations of Central Australia, an organisation set up to realise the principles of the Kalkaringi Statement, which issued from the Aboriginal constitutional convention at Kalkaringi in Central Australia in 1998 and includes the right to self-government as a way of safeguarding the future of Aboriginal culture. For these efforts this community, and Alison Anderson in particular, have suffered much abuse. Papunya has felt the full force of the might that the government will wield to maintain its own status. Russell Skelton did not see this.
Another unsung hero, except among his own people of the Western Desert, is an elder from Kintore, Mr Kumantjayi Zimran, who, sadly, is no longer with us. He was blind, an amputee and suffering virulent end-stage renal disease, but he forged ahead in his efforts to raise funds through art for a dialysis unit at Kintore. His vision for the establishment of the Combined Aboriginal Nations of Central Australia continues to offer hope to many of his countrymen and women.
There are many Indigenous communities across the country that, like Papunya and Kintore, are maintained under an imposed and imported set of colonial Australian laws. With perhaps the exception of land rights legislation, which remains continually prone to dilution by Australian governments, government policies and laws have generally served to create tyranny over the lives of Indigenous people. The use of colonial laws and the policies associated with those laws has been, and still is, an abusive weapon, which is rendering more and more Indigenous people powerless, apathetic and tragic.
Any system of governance requires systems of checks and balances. Western Desert law is founded on a system of checks and balances that prevents dominance by a minority or even a democratically imposed majority. Decisions taken within the Western Desert body politic under Indigenous law are arrived at by consensus; it cannot be otherwise. But our systems of law and government are not formally recognised in this country, so what can you expect, except that the situation will worsen.
Where were the checks and balances in the set of laws that were imposed on and remain operating in Papunya? The Office of Local Government in the Northern Territory administers compliance by communities funded under the Local Government Act. If Russell Skelton’s article is correct, the department and its officers clearly failed in their responsibilities to monitor good governance in the community. More pertinent, though, is that it is the system of imposed laws in itself that has failed. The proper response to such failures is the decolonisation of our communities and of the administration of our communities. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights led by Justice Woodward in the early 1970s handed down an interim report to government, recommending the establishment of Aboriginal Land Councils to advise the commissioner on matters relating to land rights. This happened, and the final report of the Royal Commission recommended these principles be enshrined within the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act of 1976. Importantly, the basis of those principles was that the governance of such lands must be based upon local Indigenous systems of law. That is what happened and for thirty years Aboriginal lands of the Northern Territory in limited matters relating to Aboriginal land use have been administered under those Indigenous systems of law. Numerous reviews of the operations of the ALRA have found that the administration has been a model of good governance.
A movement of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, in which Papunya and the Western Desert communities have played a leading role, has campaigned for their rights to govern themselves more extensively under their own systems of law. The Combined Aboriginal Nations of Central Australia led the campaign across the Northern Territory to defeat the flawed referendum for statehood in the 1990s, and this in turn led to the defeat of the long-standing CLP government in the Northern Territory. If Governments had the wisdom to listen to this campaign, the alleged state of affairs in Papunya could not have arisen. Bureaucrats in charge of implementing the status quo have instead worked to squash the legitimate voices of Aboriginal people who threaten their control, and have maintained the widespread, ingrained belief that Aboriginal people are incapable of self-determination.
Eventually, Indigenous culture—our ancient tradition of songs and myths, laws and language—will die if we cannot withstand the imposition of control that is based on resentment towards the will of Indigenous people to maintain what is rightfully theirs. The need for Australians to come to terms with what is happening in Indigenous Australia has never been more urgent. It is also necessary for Indigenous people to be able to define an appropriate response and to build a framework for a future. This is what is meant by Aboriginal government, as understood by the terms of what other Indigenous peoples have achieved in Canada and the USA. Now do not jump to conclusions by thinking that the only solution to all of our problems is for all Indigenous communities to have the same laws as all Australians.
Too many non-Indigenous people have wanted to save us and have failed. We have been left with the results of two centuries of their ‘solutions’, including those who keep saying that we should be like all other Australians. Thousands come and go to work in Indigenous communities, some staying longer than others. Governing Indigenous people can be a very seductive idea in this country. Everyone would love to have a go if given the opportunity. The reality, however, is that most of those who have wanted to help us have found that it is too exhausting. Moreover, the federal government’s policies of shared responsibility are open to the types of abuse that we saw in the days of the missions and government reserves.
It may be that in planning and owning our future we would have to make some hard decisions, but only we as Indigenous people with our own culture at stake are able to make those decisions. The constant state of flux caused by the coming and going of other people with ideas about how to save us cannot be allowed to continue. The good, the bad and the incompetent have created chaos with their myriad solutions that bear little or no relation to one another. They are features of a governance system that still cannot, even to this day, do one simple thing: embrace the Indigenous vision.
My goal is to create an Institute of Aboriginal Government in the Gulf of Carpentaria, built on our terms in order to build our dreams. Its work will be to challenge the status quo in similar ways to those devised by the Combined Aboriginal Nations of Central Australia in 1998. The idea of Aboriginal government is growing stronger in our imagination and in our hearts. Our spirits have prospered. Our people continue to turn up to the negotiating table, and we continue, out of necessity, to ride out the storms. Working for this goal is a contribution I can make to help us move towards a future that we can claim as ours.