Garma 2018: Indigenous truths cut through government inaction

Without the distractions caused by political heavyweights, this year's Garma Festival catapulted First Nations voices well beyond Gulkula, with Indigenous truths reverberating loudly across the country during the four-day event.

In its 20 years, the festival has evolved into one of Indigenous Australia’s premier political and cultural events. 

But unlike last year, the absence of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition allowed Indigenous voices to cut through, and for festival goers to get on with the business of truth-telling and celebrating culture.

'Humiliating a generation of great black leaders'

Every year, the Garma Festival ends the same way it begins: with a magical bunggul ceremony that comes to life as the vivid sunset colours pierce through the dusty horizon.

The ancient meeting place of Gulkula, in northeast Arnhem Land, begins to quiet as visitors make their journey home.

For locals, it’s an opportune time to reflect on the past four days.

Unlike last year, there was no prime minister and no opposition leader in attendance, and their absence allowed other voices and powerful messages to be heard.

Although absent, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull still managed to reiterate his unwillingness to call a referendum on the proposal of an Indigenous voice to parliament. 

"I don't believe that would be able to be passed at a referendum and it's not a policy that I would support," Mr Turnbull told the ABC over the Garma weekend.

This follows his decision to formally reject the Referendum Council's Indigenous voice to parliament proposal in October last year, saying it lacked detail and was undemocratic.

An Indigenous voice to parliament was one of three key recommendations of the Referendum Council’s report and a pillar of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

However, the prime minister did say he would consider the findings of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reform when they are handed down. 

How long do we have to wait? Yolngu leaders demand recognition of ancient sovereignty
Senior Yolngu leaders say they've grown old waiting for the original sovereign leaders of the country to be recognised.

Award-winning author Richard Flanagan gave a powerful speech at Garma condemning the government for 'washing its hands' too quickly of the Uluru statement, saying it "publicly humiliated a generation of great black leaders".

“All that the government has achieved in so doing is to lay a fertile ground for proponents of extremism and violence to preach to the next generation of black leaders who will rightly think Australian democracy is a sham that excludes them,” he said.

Mr Flanagan said Australia needs to embrace Indigenous culture "in all its complexities", adding that he thinks the nation is ready to face its own truths and vote in favour of the referendum changes.

"I think we’ve been told for 20 years that we’re a nation of small-minded racists and bigots, but you give people the chance like they did with the marriage equality vote and the result was extraordinary. It showed we weren’t those things."

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion was the only coalition representative at the festival.

“A voice to parliament in terms of constitutional change, in my view and [to] anybody who is fair dinkum about it, will say it's not going to cut it,” he told NITV News.

“People will want to know what that means, what that change is going to mean in actual detail – that’s certainly been the historic view of constitutions.”

'No more excuses’

Sean Gordon, chair of Uphold and Recognise, doesn’t believe any more detail needs to be provided to government.

A sweeping set of new proposals was released by the group of legal experts and Indigenous leaders in June.

“Uphold and Recognise did a lot of work of developing the legislation, the bill, how a voice can be enshrined in the constitution,” Mr Gordon told NITV News.

“Governments have got to move away from that excuse. There are no more excuses.”

Mr Gordon says the government needs to "step up" and not push it back onto Indigenous Australians.

“To ask Aboriginal people, with no resources, to go back out and do more work after 300 submissions have just been received by the Joint Select Committee is really lazy politics on behalf of the government,” he said. 

Upholding the big ideas: Heavyweights provide legal pathway for voice to parliament
A sweeping set of new proposals have been offered up to show how an Indigenous Voice to Parliament could work.

In March, a Joint Select Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reform was formed to listen to ideas on how to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

An interim report based on the submissions found widespread support for an Indigenous voice to parliament. The final report is expected in November.

NT Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy reaffirmed the federal opposition’s support for an Indigenous voice.

“We’re absolutely committed to this,” she told NITV News. 

“We made that commitment 12 months ago, we are still committed, should we be elected it is certainly a top priority for our caucus and we will pursue a voice to the federal parliament,” she said. 

As a member of the committee, Senator McCarthy says her party saw an opportunity to overturn the coalition’s resistance.

“We now have a voice back on the political agenda."

‘Turnbull government chose to write itself out of history’
Australian author Richard Flanagan says the Turnbull government wrote itself out of history when it rejected calls for an Indigenous voice to parliament.

One of the prime minister’s top advisors says the proposal of the voice to parliament is so crucial, that the livelihoods of Indigenous Australians depend on it.

NPY Women’s Council CEO Andrea Mason says many are disappointed with the outcomes of the government's efforts on improving Indigenous peoples' lives. 

“There is so much money that comes into Indigenous affairs and, you’d have to say, in terms of a report card, we have to do better,” she told NITV News.

“If you look above those [Closing the Gap] targets and other areas there have been gains made, but we don’t want to feel like we can just allow the status quo to continue.”

She says political leaders need to see the benefits in having First Nations peoples in the driver’s seat.

“This is what we’re all looking for: the agency of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be activated,” she said.

Ms Mason says she longs to see the day when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders are co-designing and shaping law.

“Who wouldn’t want that level of counsel?” she said. 

“As an Aboriginal woman, as a Ngaanyatjarra woman, I welcome that. I would encourage politicians to see the advantage of having Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islander people, providing that level of high-level advice for the good of our communities but also the good of all Australians.

“The voice to parliament is that, it’s our authority, it’s our voice, it’s our knowledge.”

A history of dismantled Indigenous advisory bodies

Indigenous Australia has seen a long list of advisory bodies come and go. From the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) established under the Whitlam government to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in the 1990s.

But a history of successive governments establishing and dismantling these bodies has left communities calling for one that cannot be disbanded.  

In his Garma address, Cape York leader Noel Pearson explained why an Indigenous voice needs to be constitutionally protected.

"It's got to be pinned down. Without it, we'll get pushed around," he said.

He said the government’s rejection of calls to create a permanent advisory body to parliament had "destroyed" people.

"We can't take the word of an ordinary person, we can't be intimidated, can't be told that the Australian people are so racist or redneck or opposed [to a referendum]," he said.

"This is life and death.”

Mr Pearson's speech followed media coverage of former Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone saying it "might have been a mistake" to dismantle ATSIC.

“I didn’t have as negative a view of the ATSIC regional structures as of the central one, but if something’s going to go, you really have to make a clean job of it,” she told the Joint Select Parliamentary Committee, co-chaired by Liberal MP Julian Leeser and Labor senator Patrick Dodson.

“In hindsight, that might have been a mistake.”

Andrea Mason regularly spoke to ATSIC's regional councils while working with the South Australian government.

“As we’re having these national discussions, I think people who were active at that time in parliament and in ministries, I think history allows you to look at not only the challenges but enormous good that happened through that institution,” she said.

“And so… I thank [Amanda Vanstone] for that. That’s another aspect of truth-telling, and we should see that as a positive conversation that she’s having and it feeds into the leadership that we know works in our community.”

Former ATSIC chair Bill Gray said he’s not surprised by Ms Vanstone’s comments, but no less disappointed.

He believes one of the commission's greatest strengths was its broad community and regional participation. It had 60 regional councils when established.

“To throw the baby out with the bathwater was, not just disappointing, it was irresponsible,” he told NITV News.

“It was in total disregard of what the people, the Indigenous people, were involved in at the local and regional level.”

He says without strong local and regional participation, any body would lack legitimacy.

“I think it stands as a model which is worthy for further examination,” he said. 

“That is the local and regional structures of ATSIC providing the sort of participation which was important and fundamental to winning credibility - and thus legitimacy - for the organisation, and that’s going to be the same as any structure for an organisation that may emerge.” 

Grassroots Indigenous voices take centre stage

Indigenous truths reverberated loudly across the country during the four-day event, and Arrente man William Tilmouth's heartfelt plea was a stand-out.

Taking the stage, one of Alice Springs' most respected leaders was taken aback by the magnitude of his surroundings.

“I just need to take a breath,” he said. "I didn’t know the calibre of people I was talking with.”

Through a moving speech, he spoke openly about being stolen as a child – a nod to the festival’s theme of truth-telling.

“I’m a product of assimilation. I’m a product of being denied my identity, my family, my country, my culture and my language,” he said.

“I’ve been created by others who decided they knew for me what is best.”

As chair of Children’s Ground, a not-for-profit providing education and programs to Indigenous youth, William works to ensure children have a promising future.  

He’s spent his life trying to rebuild and recapture all that was stolen and denied to him and his family.

“The tragedy of all that is that not one Aboriginal person in Australia escaped the policies of assimilation, and assimilation was and still is in the mindsets of decision-makers today.”

He says providing First Nations peoples the space to ‘do it our way’ will allow them rebuild their nations.

“This is about basic dignity and respect,” he said.

“Constitutional change alone cannot achieve that. This is also about how the government chooses to treat the sovereign peoples of these lands.

"For those of you in power and government and many corporations - you have all benefited from the theft of these lands. I’m inviting you to partner on our terms.”

Uphold and Recognise chair Sean Gordon said he was moved by William's words.

"For me that was the most powerful address at Garma," he told NITV News.

"To hear the story of him being removed from his family, from his brother, from his country, his language, from his identity as an Indigenous man brought tears to my eyes. It hit close to home. People need to hear these stories."

Mr Gordon he could relate because he too was taken away as a child.

"I know what it's like to be disconnected from family, disconnected from country, from language, all of those things that connect us as Indigenous people," he said.

What is ‘truth-telling’ and why does it matter to Indigenous Australians?
How do you hold a commission into telling the truth?

He says truth-telling will only bring the country together.

"The great things about truth-telling and this process of recognising Indigenous people is that this 230-year-old Australia will all of a sudden have 65,000 years attached to it that makes us the oldest continuing culture in the world that non-Aboriginal people can come and celebrate with us.”

John Christophersen, a Traditional Owner from the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory, said Australia has nothing to fear from truth-telling.

“The day after a successful referendum, Australia will wake up, and the world will go on," he said. 

Independent Member for Nhulunbuy Yingyia Mark Guyula says for too long governments have failed to tell the truth about 'invasion, sovereignty and massacres'.

"Right now, this federal government does not recognise our sovereignty at all. It does not see what we have to say as important let alone recognise Aboriginal people as sovereign nations," he said.

"It is time for all of us to recognise the law of this land and abide by it."

The Northern Territory government is currently entering into Treaty discussions, with Chief Minister Michael Gunner confirming his government will 'deliver a Treaty for the Northern Territory'.

As a senior elected Yolngu elder, Mr Guyula hopes the government brings transparency into the consultation process.

"But so far they are yet to include the people. Governments must negotiate with Nations and allow for traditional decision-making processes and this will require resources," he said.

"Ultimately, we want the big one – a Treaty with the federal government that is long overdue. But Treaties of different types at all levels of government that recognise Sovereignty will bring vast improvement."

Mutitjulu Elder Vincent Forrester said the calls for a Treaty would not hurt anyone.

“It will enhance Australia as a nation."

As Garma ended for another year, Indigenous leaders hoped their calls for hope and honesty would remain on the table permanently.

OPINION: Truth-telling shouldn't stop at the Garma Festival
Truth, a powerful word and notion was in the spotlight during the 20th Anniversary of the Garma Festival.