The challenge begins

- September 21st, 2007
Author: Galarrwuy Yunupingu

ONLY when we are empowered to take full responsibility at a local level will change occur.

IN August, I called Aboriginal leaders together at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land to talk about the federal Government's intervention in the Northern Territory. I sat for three days with many clansmen and leaders including Pat Dodson, who has been my friend for many years.

Everyone expressed their concern about the intervention, which had been announced with great haste a few weeks earlier. With my daughter I carved message sticks that were sent to Canberra seeking a halt to proceedings so we could obtain input into the debate, which affects every aspect of our lives.

I was surprised, and pleased, when in response federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough made the decision to visit me at my homeland at Dhanaya on Port Bradshaw. He came and told me that he wanted to protect children and improve lives. I told him that my life had been spent working on such tasks and if this was genuinely what he sought to do then he had my full support. Not only that, but I would join him, as I would join any minister with the same good intentions, and put my shoulder to the wheel.

Brough was confused about why I had criticised the Government when I had addressed thousands of people attending the Garma Festival.

The answer is simple. I told him I was a landowner and leader and he had not spoken to me. He had acquired my land and sought control of my life without talking to me, let alone seeking my consent. Nor had he spoken to the hundreds of people like me throughout the NT who spent their lives coping with Third World conditions, a lack of services and the abject failures of governments. That simple failure to consult, I told him, would eventually undermine his good intentions. The conditions that hurt children and that he was pledging to fix would remain while he sought to impose a solution.

It really is that simple. He could not work for us unless he worked with us.

Today, I have signed a memorandum of understanding that satisfies my concerns about the land-leasing issues and will ensure that the changes to the permit system will be workable and not undermine land rights. I believe this new model will empower traditional owners to control the development of towns and living areas, and to participate fully in all aspects of economic development on their land.

I have also sought and received the minister's agreement to the establishment of the Mala Elders group.

These elders are those who hold the highest authority in Aboriginal law. The Mala Elders group will take responsibility for the future of our children.

I will ask the Northern Land Council to work with me in the formation of the Mala Elders group. We will not be a construct of government but self-forming and self-funded. The concept, I hope, will translate throughout the NT. I think this is the opening we need to create a new era of empowerment for Aboriginal people.

Governments must stop babysitting us because we are not children. But if treated like children, people will behave like children. It is time for us to be given responsibility in the right way. And let me be clear, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was not the right way.

The Mala Elders group will remind governments that they are not to control our lives but to empower our people. We will remind all politicians with great seriousness that the land is our backbone and that for Aboriginal children land remains central to their identity. This is something that must never be forgotten. Land ownership is the past, the present and the future for each child in Arnhem Land. Without their land they will not be people. That is why I said at the Garma Festival recently that I was worried sick. And I was, worried sick by the prospect of a land grab.

I am not worried at all by the other aspects of the Government's plan. In fact I welcome them. I welcome the tight controls being placed on alcohol. I ask the Government to go further and shut the two takeaway outlets in Nhulunbuy, the Walkabout and the Woolworths. And I welcome the abolition of kava. What a ridiculous argument to make that kava is good because it stupefies people. And I urge zero tolerance for other drugs.

We must have real jobs, which community development employment projects have not delivered. Nearly all the real jobs in our communities are taken by non-Aborigines, which is an unacceptable situation.

And we must have real schools and we must have real training.

On these matters -- low levels of education, training and employment, and the crippling of our people by alcohol and drugs -- I am in agreement with Noel Pearson of Cape York. He came to meet me and we discussed these matters.

I have seen many challenges in my life. This is the greatest challenge.

We must take advantage of the efforts of governments to ensure that benefits flow and that change is lasting. But we must take responsibility for our future.

Only when we are empowered to take full responsibility at a local level will change occur.

The Government cannot do it for us but it can clear the path, which has never been done before.

And this can be done with respect for land, law and culture.

From there on it is up to us.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu is a former Australian of the Year and veteran land rights campaigner.