This is the first of four extracts from the speech given on 8 October 2014 at the 2014 H.C. “Nugget” Coombs Memorial Lecture at Charles Darwin University, Darwin.


Until its recent relegation by events in the middle east and the war on terror, constitutional reform, involving some kind of specific acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians, was hanging in there as a top order topic in the national media. The ‘Recognise’ movement has had some success in recruiting celebrities to its cause, and Noel Pearson has published a Quarterly Essay, bringing his not inconsiderable powers of persuasion to bear on the issue. The usual suspects have expressed concern about bills of rights and making blackfellas a specially favoured and privileged class of citizen. As if.

Going back 10 years or so, my support and enthusiasm for ‘Recognise’ would have been almost automatic. Even now there are probably some arguments from the no-change camp that will fire me up and make me bite back hard. Like the one which equates us with immigrant minorities, and characterises  Aboriginal identity and culture as just one feature panel in the national multicultural patchwork quilt.

But in the main, the contemporary push to secure a proper place for Indigenous people in the Australian constitution finds me, as an Aboriginal Territorian, weary and wary. This disengagement stems from the fact that it was Commonwealth power that was unleashed on us from on high in 2007. That power was ultimately sourced from the same constitution which was purportedly amended for our benefit back in 1967.

None of the currently proposed constitutional amendments seem to directly address the Intervention or how to prevent its repetition. And that may well be because there are no realistic constitutional reform scenarios capable of descending to the level of local and regional detail which needs to be grappled with. The challenge would be to preserve a capacity for effective action to fix our special Territory problems, while at the same time protecting us from any renewed exploitation of our special Territory vulnerability.

So my initial strong reaction to the constitutional reform agenda has been one of ‘what’s it good for – what’s the point of all this symbolic feel-good stuff if, after some future weekend brainstorming session, the Federal Government could just come in over the top of us again with a new shock and awe campaign?’

But I have come to the view, hesitantly and somewhat reluctantly, that it is better to be a contributor than to just snipe away from the sidelines. The content of our national governing document deserves attention, even if the modest potential changes that are being canvassed at present will probably make no difference to life here in the Territory. The Intervention was 7 years ago now. I cannot, Aboriginal Territorians cannot, live in its shadow forever. We need to move on. But before we do so, we need to make some attempt at confirming and explaining what happened and putting it in a meaningful perspective.

What I want to do in this lecture is to take you on a somewhat meandering journey back through a few decades of Territory history, intersected to some extent with my own history. We will stop off at 2007 along the way and we will finish with my own still developing thoughts on constitutional reform.


Out of respect for the honoree of this lecture, the journey starts in 1989 with a reference to him.

HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs was the NADOC[1] week guest of honour back in September 1989, and in that capacity he attended the NADOC national flag-raising ceremony. The national flag-raising ceremony for 1989 was held in the tiny town of Elliott, about half-way between Darwin and Alice Springs.

Elliott was a poignant and appropriate choice. The shared circumstances of the mainly Aboriginal population of the town were broadly representative of the national experience in terms of the cards they had been dealt by settlement history. In this respect they were distinguishable from, for example, those of the Yolngu of North East Arnhem Land, or of my people the Tiwi, both of whom have been fortunate in retaining occupation of, and substantial control over, their land.

The Jingili traditional owners, and the residents from other Barkly Region groups (mostly Mudbura, Wampaya, and Waramungu), were surrounded by cattle stations. In the pre- Mabo and Wik legal landscape of the late 1980’s there was precious little opportunity to assert still strongly felt and held connections to the vast pastoral estate that spread out in all directions from Elliott. And at either end of town, Aboriginal people had a feeling of being cooped up in the two ‘town camp’ communities, known back then as ‘North Camp’ and ‘South Camp’.  Available housing stock was inadequate and in disrepair, and there were still people living in car bodies.

But despite poverty and marginalisation, there was a spirit of defiance and pride amongst the Elliott mob. The slogan from the previous year’s anti-bicentennial – ‘we have survived’ – had continuing resonance. There was respect for the endurance and fortitude of the many former stockmen who lived in the town. Through their skill and discipline they had earned a limited degree of autonomy, despite working for white bosses, and they had managed to maintain culture and ceremony under difficult conditions.

Held in particular regard were the stockmen who, together with their families, had on the 28th of April 1966 walked off Newcastle Waters station. They set up a strike camp at ‘Union Paddock’ on the Newcastle Waters township common, moving between there and Gurungu, or North Camp, in Elliott. The strike went on for months. It wasn’t until August of that year that that the industrial unrest spread to Wave Hill. The rest – as they say-  is history, only a history which often tends not to mention the role played by the men from Union Paddock, a fair few of whom were community elders in Elliott in 1989.

A national flag raising at a frequently overlooked place like Elliott, a place where Aboriginal people had few resources or options, reflected Nugget’s lifelong championing of remote Aboriginal Australia. His insightful advocacy picked up on the views of Aboriginal people in terms of the linkage between land rights and social and economic self-determination. As befitting an economist and a former senior bureaucrat, his focus was nevertheless on concrete initiatives, achievable in the here and now.

Will Sanders’ 2012 Nugget Coombs Memorial Lecture was called ‘Coombs’ Bastard Child: The Troubled Life of CDEP’, and in it he told the story of the battles Nugget  fought to keep CDEP as a Department of Aboriginal  Affairs employment subsidy program, rather than a Department of Social Security quasi-welfare program. That was back at the time of the first beginnings of CDEP in the late 1970’s. This story was a revelation to me. I hadn’t realised that CDEP had started so early.

But in the Northern Territory it was exactly around the time of Nugget’s NADOC flag-raising in 1989 that CDEP started to be rolled out in earnest. The then NT ‘state’ manager for DAA was a comparatively young man from an Alice Springs family called Wes Martin. His politics – to the extent that they could be ascertained through his professional bureaucrat’s exterior – probably tended to the conservative side. But he was a passionate believer in CDEP as a mechanism for steering Aboriginal people away from welfare dependency. Which, as Will explained in his 2012 lecture, was the same objective which drove Nugget.

Wes Martin and other DAA representatives took the concept of CDEP to Aboriginal communities from Borroloola to the desert and beyond and won them over. Signing up to CDEP meant being taken off the unemployment benefits drip feed to which people had become accustomed. This was and remains a powerful rebuttal of the notion of Aboriginal communities as pathologically work-shy.

DAA was subsumed into ATSIC in 1990, and the CDEP rollout continued under the new representative body. By then Wes Martin had been tragically killed in a plane accident. He never got to see the Territory-wide establishment of the program which he, like Nugget, had championed.

I have mentioned Wes Martin for two reasons:  firstly because the Aboriginal communities he was talking to about CDEP  in 1989 included  Robinson River, which is where I want to go to next in this time travel journey; but also because he was a good example of so many non-Aboriginal people working with and for Aboriginal Territorians  in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. Individuals who were dedicated to achieving practical and pragmatic outcomes.

Whether we are talking about teachers, nurses, Police officers, or public servants involved in other essential services or government programs, the vast majority have always been focussed on the basics, the same challenges we face now. Improving remote housing and related services. Addressing sickness and ill-health. Getting kids to school and making sure that they learn once they are there. Getting people off the grog. Stopping the violence against women. Getting people into jobs. Those of them who were and remain committed to assisting Aboriginal people in maintaining their culture and connection to country saw that as a complementary not a competing priority.

Despite the claims of a chorus of commentators that rose to a crescendo in 2007, there never was a time when the so-called ‘Aboriginal industry’ in the Northern Territory was distracted from the core task of working at the coalface of Aboriginal disadvantage. It certainly doesn’t mean that they always got things right, but past failures were not attributable to their being held hostage by political correctness and a fixation on symbolism. That has been a convenient fiction enabling politicians and others to spout simple-minded ‘practical reconciliation’ sound bites as if they were saying something new.

I’m not disputing that in the big metropolises down south there are, and have always been, a lot of well-meaning but naïve enthusiasts for a kind of Aboriginal rights agenda. You know the type I am referring to, the ones who have an idealised and fairly generic understanding of Aboriginality and the challenges facing Aboriginal people. They have always been at one end of the policy debate spectrum. Just as there has always been a hard core of white supremacists who view Aboriginal people as being genetically inferior at the other end.

But bleeding heart do-gooders have never had a significant influence on Aboriginal affairs up here. Tactical deployment of that stereotype as part of the conservative ideological armoury, in particular throughout the years of the Howard government, has resulted in great damage to the Northern Territory.

The damage has been most directly sustained by Aboriginal Territorians and their communities, but there has also been a long term negative effect on the quality and content of political discourse about the Northern Territory generally. We are a body politic which is markedly different from other parts of Australia. This remains poorly understood. Our prospects of statehood or a meaningful evolution of our current status appear to be diminishing not increasing.

Returning to 1989. During that year I was part of a large Northern Land Council team of workers tasked with facilitating and supporting the taking of evidence in the Robinson River land claim. A tireless bush catering crew prepared a production line of station tucker meals for claimants and professional representatives alike. Other staff like me travelled far and wide throughout the region and into the Queensland gulf country to pick up extended family members whose knowledge and participation was sought.

Robinson River was already an Aboriginal-owned pastoral lease, but the prospect of confirming its status forever as Aboriginal freehold land clearly inspired the local Garawa people. Their pride and enthusiasm in demonstrating their cultural and ceremonial knowledge was infectious.

The land claim was successful, and throughout the 90’s and into the 2000’s a local organisation called Mungoorbada Aboriginal Corporation established and developed an extremely innovative and successful suite of community enterprises and operations, utilising a CDEP workforce. This was a good example of land rights and employment strategy working in tandem.

[1] At that stage still ‘NADOC’ not ‘NAIDOC’ – the inclusion  of reference to ‘Islanders’ only came  in the following year.

Dr Scrymgour was born in Darwin to a Tiwi mother and a father who had been removed from Central Australia as a child and later sent to the Croker Island Mission off the coast of Arnhem Land.

She became a member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in 2001 and was appointed a Minister in 2003, holding various portfolios including Education, Family and Community Services, and Environment Heritage and the Arts. From November 2007 to February 2009 she was Deputy Chief Minister. She retired from politics in 2012.

Dr Scrymgour is currently the CEO of the Wurli Wurlinjang Health Service. She is also the Chair of the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney Faculty of Health Sciences in 2013.

Photograph of the conferral of the honorary degree of Doctor of Health Science upon Marion Rose Scrymgour by the Deputy Chancellor Mr Alan Cameron AO in the Great Hall on 29 November 2013. Photograph by Louise Cooper, copyright University of Sydney.