• 'You have to understand that those languages are as much a part of the Territory community as English is': John Elferink, left, responds to the controversy over Bess Nungarrayi Price. (Facebook)Source: Facebook
EXCLUSIVE | A change that would allow native languages to be spoken in the NT Parliament could happen as soon as the next parliamentary sitting in March.
Rachael Hocking

19 Feb 2016 - 12:44 PM  UPDATED 19 Feb 2016 - 5:24 PM

“We always hear you speaking all the time.”

It’s the sentence, spoken in Warlpiri, that’s triggered a debate about whether parliamentarians can speak their native tongue on the floor of NT Parliament without prior permission.

And changes could occur as soon as March, if a motion is moved during General Business at the next parliamentary sitting date, on March 16.

Leader of Government Business, John Elferink, has spoken with NT Local Government Minister, Bess Nungarrayi Price, following a failed request to freely speak in her first language of Warlpiri in NT Parliament last December.

Minister Price was warned over her ‘disorderly conduct’ by NT Speaker Kezia Purick, after she interjected in a parliamentary debate in Warlpiri. She was told by Ms Purick that, "the language of the assembly is English."

Mr Elferink says he is not satisfied with that response.

“If you want to be smart about that process, then the member speaking a language other than English, should pre-provide a translation."

“But if a member sort of off-the-cuff makes some comments in another language, which I’ve also done in Parliament (in Dutch), well if someone wants to get that translated, well there’s more than enough interpreter services in the NT to do that,” he said.

Minister Price has since written a letter to the Speaker challenging the Parliament’s interpretation of its standing orders, and seeking clarification, "as to where in the standing orders it states the official language of the chamber can be English only."

Mr Elferink says Mrs Price has two options to pursue changes to the standing orders.

'You have to understand that those languages are as much a part of the Territory community as English is.'

She can do it through the Standing Orders Committee, which Mr Elferink chairs, but that could be a lengthy process if the Committee calls for submissions from witnesses.

“Or alternatively the House itself as a Parliament could resolve by way of a motion, and that could be done basically at the next parliamentary sitting,” Mr Elferink said.

Speaking to the ABC, Mrs Price said the issue for her was one of respect.

“I don't see why we shouldn't be able to use our own languages. Because that way we would be far more confident and our people would understand much more clearly what we are saying on their behalf,” she said.

Mr Elferink said it made sense for Mrs Price to speak a language that was spoken by many people in her electorate.

“If those people want to read Hansard to know what their local member is saying, then that’s probably not a bad thing at all,” he said.

He said the real issue is the treatment of Mrs Price by the NT Labor party.

“There are a number of occasions where Mrs Price has tried to speak in the House where they have made fun of her incapacity to clearly articulate what she was trying to say."

“So she wants to use occasionally her first language, so she can think clearly in that space,” he said. 

Responding to these claims in a letter to Mrs Price, Ms Purick said allegations of ‘slurs and innuendo’ towards Mrs Price were ‘unfounded.’

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She argues that changing the Standing Orders would be a "complex and costly exercise," and wrote that she was not convinced that requiring members to communicate in a common language represented an inequality, noting 34 Indigenous politicians had served in the NT Parliament.

Mr Elferink says the reality is that Parliaments are expensive to run.

"But we still run them because they are necessary. We live in an environment here where there are a number of languages that predate the arrival of English by only about 50,000 years."

"You have to understand that those languages are as much a part of the Territory community as English is.”

Ms Purick said Minister Price has the right to challenge Parliament's standing orders.

NITV has asked the NT Labor Party for comment.

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