Warren Snowdon, member for Lingiari in the Northern Territory and then Federal Labor leader Mark Latham with children at Yarrkala School during a visit to the remote Indigenous community in east Arnhem Land in 2004.
(AAP Image/Karen Michelmore)

Telling it like it is

ISSUE 108, June 29, 2006:

Twenty years on the Member for Lingiari, Warren Snowden, is still telling it like it is. Graham Ring talks to the former teacher who has been a consistent campaigner for the rights of Indigenous Territorians.

In September 1987, Warren Snowdon rose from the green leather benches of the House of Representatives to address the parliament for the first time.

The 'maiden speech' is a set piece where the new chum congratulates the Speaker of the House, and acknowledges the other new arrivals to the parliament. Then they thank their family and supporters, speak of their deeply held beliefs, and throw in a few personal anecdotes to make themselves appear human.

Snowdon ticked all these boxes, then had some rather more chilling observations to make: 'All Australians should understand that in the first 120 years of colonisation, somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent of the Aboriginal and Islander population was wiped out.'

'It is probable that at least half a million Aboriginal and Islander people died in this period, either as a direct result of the wars that were fought between black and white people in this country, or as a result of the diseases that were introduced by colonisation.'

Hansard does not record how the members representing the well-heeled electorates of Sydney's north shore or the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne responded to this barrage.

No doubt they found the whole thing a bit 'black armband', and looked forward to getting away to a reception at one of the embassies, where people were not quite so tetchy.

Snowdon was born in Canberra, but moved to the Northern Territory in 1976 to work as a teacher.

He was elected to parliament in 1987 and has been there ever since - save for a one-term holiday granted to him by the NT electors in 1996 when the Keating Government went down the gurgler.

The Member for Lingiari knows the lie of the land.

'I feel that I have a significant responsibility in this place. Forty percent of my constituents are Indigenous and I have a particular responsibility to represent their views.'

The electorate of the Northern Territory was split in two following the 2000 electoral redistribution.

At the 2001 federal election, Snowdon won the seat of Lingiari for the ALP. The electorate is named for the great Gurindji leader who put land rights squarely on the national agenda at Wattie Creek back in the mid-sixties.

Lingiari is impossibly large, encompassing 1.3 million square kilometres of the Northern Territory, as well as the Christmas and Cocos Islands.

By way of contrast, the Territory's other federal seat, Solomon, is based on the capital Darwin and covers all of 326 square kilometres.

But Snowdon gets to the far corners of his patch regularly and routinely. It seems that it's possible after all for a politician to visit a remote community without bringing a camera crew to record the visit of a big man from Canberra.

No screaming headlines here. But for real expertise about what's happening on the ground, few in the federal parliament can touch the member for Lingiari.

Warren has fond memories of his time working at the Central Lands Council in Alice Springs from 1983-87.

'It's a good organisation,' he offers in his understated way. Given this background, it's no surprise to learn that Snowdon is deeply concerned about the government's proposed amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

'I think it's very clear that the government wants to undermine the integrity of the Land Rights Act. They want to remove the right of traditional owners to have control over what happens on their country.'

Snowdon also feels that the amendments are designed to nobble the land councils.

'They want to further restrict the ability of the land councils to act as advocacy organisations. What they are clearly trying to do is quieten any potential for Aboriginal people to have a voice.

'Everywhere I've been in the bush, Aboriginal people have expressed concern and even anguish about the proposed changes, most of which come as a complete surprise.'

Snowdon is gravely concerned that Aboriginal communities who don't 'play ball' may be punished by a reduction in the provision of government services.

He is also deeply unimpressed by Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough's mantra that individual property rights drive economic development and that 'the days of the failed collective system are over'.

'The 99-year lease provisions have not been properly thought through. The private ownership issue is an absolute red herring. What the government has to do is address Indigenous poverty,' says Snowdon.

'The Minister just does not understand the Land Rights Act. He doesn't understand the way in which Aboriginal people hold land. He has adopted the naive and crude approach which is symptomatic of what is coming out of the right wing think tanks around this country.'

In April 2004, Snowdon produced a thoughtful discussion paper called After ATSIC: Revising elected Indigenous representation.

The document identified the strong desire of Indigenous Australians to maintain elected bodies at both regional and national levels.

Snowdon says it was 'designed to provoke a bit of thought'.

In March this year, shadow spokesperson for Indigenous affairs, Chris Evans delivered a speech called The End of Ideology, which recalled Labor's pride at establishing ATSIC and conceded complicity in its abolition.

However, the paper was pretty skinny on the future for Indigenous voice.

The ALP policy wonks could do worse than rescue Snowdon's document from the bottom draw and use it to put some meat on the bones.

Snowdon concluded his maiden speech with a burst from Xavier Herbert: 'Until we give the black man back just a bit of the land that was his, without strings to snatch it back, without anything but complete generosity of spirit in concession for the evil we have done him - until we do that we will remain what we have always been: a people without integrity, not a nation, but a community of thieves.'

But the man himself puts things more prosaically.

'People have the right to make their own decisions in relation to their own country. This is for all intents and purposes private land.

'We are talking about understanding, knowing and appreciating difference. It's about understanding cultural diversity. None of these things are appreciated by the current level of leadership in the Australian bureaucracy or the Australian government.'

Warren Snowdon didn't mince words in his maiden speech. Twenty years on he's still telling it like it is.