This is the speech delivered by the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion at the annual Garma Festival, held at Gulkula, north-east Arnhem Land. As it was provided in draft form it should be checked against delivery.
The Land is our Backbone
More than five decades ago, on these lands, Yolngu people carefully inscribed and designed two petitions on bark.
They were from voices that had not been allowed to resonate loudly enough in the halls of Parliament House in Canberra and they were partly in Yolngu Matha, , a language that—I venture to say—had not been heard there before.
Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, Mr Wunungmurra and Mawalan Marika as they considered the wording and design of the petitions: full of hope that someone would recognise their prior claim to land; despairing of all they might lose; and frustrated by the fact that people were just not hearing their message that connection to land is lasting, it is alive and it cannot be disrespected.
They could only hope that a Minister of the Australian Government would one day stand on land at Yirrkala, recognise it as ancestral land and utter words of respect and recognition.
Today, I honour a tradition that we have established between us and thank you for inviting me to speak with you on your lands.
I humbly pay my respects to the Gumatj people, the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to your past elders, who protected and cared for this land for tens of thousands of years and who cared for community.
I want to especially acknowledge Gallarwuy (sic) Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj and my good friend, for the invitation to be here today. I acknowledge your leadership of your people and thank you for your wise counsel over many years. I look forward to continuing to work with you and Gumatj over the coming years.
I also want to acknowledge the work of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, led by Denise, in the preparation of the Festival.
Before I get into my speech, I would like to acknowledge the absolute horrors that have occurred within the Don Dale Correctional Facility.
I, like everyone who saw the footage this week, was shocked and appalled by the mistreatment of children at the detention centre.
Every child in our justice system must be treated with humanity and respect at all times.
And there can never be any excuse for authorities entrusted with the welfare of children held in custody meting out brutality on these same children. We should have zero tolerance for such practices.
I am pleased that the Prime Minister has acted decisively and immediately to establish a Royal Commission. This needs to be an open, transparent and forensic inquiry that shines a bright light on what occurred and why the atrocities were concealed for so long.
It is important the failures at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre are identified – as well as the causes of these failures – to provide lessons to all correctional institutions in Australia to ensure they are never repeated.
We must all take appropriate responsibility for what has occurred – including myself.
I am sorry that I was not aware of the circumstances that were exposed this week. Clearly, I must be better informed about such matters – particularly when the vast majority of youths held in detention in the Northern Territory are Indigenous.
I commit to better monitor the actions of all state and territory governments – and I have already written to my counterparts in each government offering my support and seeking their advice.
I am sorry that I accepted advice indicating the Northern Territory Minister was responding to the concerns that were previously raised.
Just very quickly, there has been some commentary in the media in recent days from people criticising me for not watching the Four Corners programme live – with the suggestion I only did so because the Prime Minister rang me.
This is utter nonsense. I had a longstanding engagement of a very private matter that I honoured. I watched the programme with horror and outrage when I returned home.
Now onto the rest of the speech and why we are here at Gulkala this weekend.
The theme of this Festival is the land is our backbone.
It is a sentiment I think is apt.
As it says in the original bark petition—and I quote—‘the land in question has been hunting and foot gathering land for the Yirrkala tribes from time immemorial.
– ‘napurru dhawalguyanana dhiyala wanganura’.
– You were all born here.
The story of thousands of years, encapsulated in those two bark petitions, wasn’t enough to stop the bauxite mine, but it led—eventually— to recognition in ‘white man’s law’ and to the creation of the Land Rights Act—one of the strongest pieces of legislation to protect the land of Aboriginal people in the world.
We are now navigating a transition from a system geared towards the recognition of rights in land and waters, to a system that supports Indigenous landholders to use these rights to develop their own economic or cultural aspirations.
It’s taken 40 years.
And the challenge is still before us. We are not there yet.
The challenge is one that many of you including Gallarwuy would have considered 40 years ago as part of the formation of Justice Woodward’s report.
Who are the traditional owners?
What roles and responsibilities will the traditional owners have?
How can we translate the recognition of land rights into better outcomes for our First Australians?
These are questions that now, 40 years on, remain the challenge in front of us.
Before I discuss with you these important questions and how we can wake land rights up once and for all….
I want to take this opportunity, here at Garma, to say it’s a privilege to get another opportunity to be the Minister for Indigenous Affairs – it’s a privilege that I don’t take lightly and I intend to hit the ground running because Indigenous people deserve nothing less than a fully committed Minister.
And as I have often said, this portfolio, working with First Australians across the country, is the only portfolio I want.
Two years ago in a Garma speech, I quoted Djawa Yunupingu, who said in an ABC interview that ‘it’s action, we want to see from these people, from the politicians. Not just talk, talk, talk, but action. After talking, bang, that’s what I want to see from these politicians’.
I also want to take this opportunity to recount what I’ve heard in my discussions with our First People – and to outline actions for our second term.
The work programme of my first term was influenced by and constantly evolved because of the discussions I’ve had in 200 community visits with over 150 communities.
Progress and priority in my portfolio should not be judged or determined by bureaucrats or academics in major centres based primarily in the south-east corner of our country.
It is something that we need to hear from the people in community. Something we need to listen to whether that community be in Redfern, Yalata or Yirrkala.
I want to reflect on what Gallarwuy recounted recently as part of his essay in The Monthly.
With my family I have built Gunyangara into a place that we hoped all Yolngu places might be, back when hope powered the homeland movement. Men and women go to work and sweat for their wages, children go to school, old people are safer and happier, and we are making our way.
It is these priorities that I have heard across this great country – time and time again.
They are priorities held as much by non-Indigenous people as our First Australians.
And they were the priorities that we all recognised needed to be acted on after many years – across both sides of politics – where the change that Indigenous Australians should have expected, had not been delivered on.
Now this change has not always been popular, and I acknowledge that we have not got everything right.
But things have started to change…
Through the funding reforms we have introduced as part of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, we now know for the first time where Indigenous Affairs funding is going – something that I was never able to get an answer on when I was in Opposition.
We now have a much better understanding of what’s working and what’s not; and, importantly, approximately 55 per cent of the funds are going to Aboriginal organisations.
And despite some of the myths that have been peddled by those with alternative agendas, there has actually been an increase in the number of Indigenous organisations funded.
But it’s still not high enough and I’ll be pushing to make sure that good, robust organisations that are getting the job done are getting funding and they better be run by Indigenous people or have a high number of Indigenous people working for them.
And, my commitment to you today is that we will work to better understand what each community wants and needs, and support activities to reach their goals.
Increasingly, we will work with communities to move beyond the old transactional way of doing business.
I want relationships that are based on understanding your goals, the future you want to build and working to tailor local solutions.
This is what I have previously spoken to the Dilak here in North East Arnhem land about.
About respecting the Dilak as the cultural authority of the region, the source of advice for government when it comes to policies and programmes.
To lock in this relationship will be a challenge for this term, and one that I am looking forward to taking on.
It is not just in North East Arnhem land that we are working on this new approach.
Across the country, we are working with Indigenous communities as well as part of our Empowered Communities initiative by funding backbone organisations to move this new way of thinking and working to the next level.
I acknowledge the work of many of you here today in this important initiative.
Looking ahead, I know that the key to Closing the Gap lies not just in me spending money rolling out programmes.
It requires all of us to work together with shared purpose.
My responsibility is to redouble my efforts to work with my ministerial colleagues across the Australian Government and the states and territories.
Over the next three years my mantra will be ‘every Minister, every department, every government’, and my colleagues will be hearing it over and over.
They’ll be sick of hearing it!
Getting better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be front and centre for every Minister, every department, in every state. I won’t rest until every Minister, every department head steps up.
This national effort will build on the solid foundation established over the last three years.
I came to the job with a very clear agenda –getting children to school, adults into work and making communities safe. Some said this was simplistic, a three line slogan, but focusing on these basics has given us a fundamental framework for our future direction.
So, for example, by getting kids to school our commitment to them is not just about feet in the door of the classroom, but the best possible education, to see them attain at the same level and have every opportunity post-school that their white friends have– whether through further training, education or employment.
In the same way, we have put in place policies to support Indigenous businesses.
Our procurement policy has seen Commonwealth contracts with Indigenous-owned companies increased from around $6 million in 2012/13, to over $200 million in the 2015/16 year. Let me repeat that: $6 million to $200 million, and growing. Why is this so important? Because Indigenous owned companies are 100 times more likely to employ First Nations people.
I will talk more about this in my speech tonight to the corporate dinner but my commitment to you is to continue to grow this – more companies owned by Indigenous people will benefit from Government contracts.
We need a joint effort from governments and business if we are to deliver the change that is needed.
This is why, during the election campaign, we committed $90 million over three years to support more enterprises – more new and emerging businesses – more opportunities for entrepreneurs.
And each day, as a result of our programmes, about 60 Indigenous people are reaching a six-month employment milestone.
We now only fund companies on outcomes – not just taking people on – we pay them when Indigenous people are employed for six months.
So too, our new Community Development Programme is starting to build positive change. I know from speaking to leaders in communities that this is the change they want.
They’ve said very clearly to me: “We want our people to be active, to be trained, to contribute to the community and its future and to be helped into long-term jobs.”
It is a message I have heard loud and clear – and I am committed to overcoming the barriers in the halls of Parliament House and other houses of power across the country to deliver what the community wants.
A return to many of the positive elements of the old Community Development and Employment Programme – especially a return to the direct relationship between local community organisations and job seekers instead of Centrelink.
If our employment programmes are to be successful, we know that we need to make a real impact through the support we provide to improve education outcomes for our First Australians.
At higher levels of education there is virtually no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. And it’s inspirational to see the rapidly increasing numbers of Indigenous students pursuing higher education – a 70 per cent increase between 2004 and 2014.
Education begins early – quality early childhood education helps a seamless transition to school. This is why we have the ambitious target of having 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education.
And I don’t need to say it again but you know that while I am your minister, school attendance will always be firmly on the national agenda.
I will not tolerate ‘passive racism’ where entrenched low expectations of Indigenous children relegate them to getting a second-class education or no education at all.
Changing this starts with making sure kids attend school every day, working with parents to make this happen and having the best teachers.
You can see this here in the Yolgnu region where around 130 dedicated school attendance workers are supporting kids and families. Every one of them deserves recognition for their creativity, tenacity and commitment to improving the lives of children in their communities.
We must also make changes to broaden the education system – to recognise Indigenous Australia at the heart of the nation, and to make this a core area of studies for all.
It is my strong belief that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history must be explored and explained in our schools.
Our Indigenous culture is at the heart of our nation, so Indigenous history and language needs to be at the heart of our curriculum if we are to educate students to be truly respectful and value our nation’s heritage.
I commit today to work with the Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, state and territory governments, and communities and schools to ensure the Foundation to Year 10 curriculum is designed to enable all students to engage in reconciliation, respect and recognition of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures.
It should not only be those of us fortunate enough to attend events like Garma who have the chance to engage with this culture and language.
I look forward to the focus on Indigenous education being rolled out in schools across the country as a matter of priority.
As I said earlier, this year’s Garma theme – land is our backbone – rings so true to me.
Over the years, I’ve seen people connect with their land, their country, their culture. I’ve heard the stories from the dreamtime, the songlines that are so much a part of culture and the land is the backbone of those stories.
At Garma last year, Gumatj traditional owners and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding to negotiate a township lease for Gunyangara, held by a community organisation, not a government statutory office holder.
Over the last 12 months, great progress has been made towards what will be the first township lease to be held by a traditional owner corporation.
This new type of township lease will unlock opportunities for its owners, for its community and for this region. It will be an example of traditional owners taking up the opportunities of their land and using it to create the community they want for their kids and future generations.
And this isn’t a standalone example. Government is working with other communities and Land Councils to support traditional owners with similar aspirations. I look forward to working with other communities wishing to adopt this township leasing model in the future.
There are so many good stories to tell from this part of the world that show Gumatj traditional owners leading the way developing businesses on Aboriginal land.
Not far from where we sit right now you can see the accommodation facilities for Gumatj’s mine training centre. Here, Gumatj employees will be receiving on-the-job training in a range of fields.
Then there are Gumatj’s many other enterprises that focus on sustainable jobs and income for Yolngu into the future. We have seen this first-hand in Galiwin’ku – local Yolngu building houses for their people from timber trusses and concrete blocks made right here in East Arnhem Land by Yolngu.
We have backed in Gumatj on these projects – because we know that every dollar invested by Government delivers outcomes for Indigenous communities.
It is about traditional owners and communities stepping up and speaking up, and government and representative bodies like Land Councils listening and asking where and how we can assist. Government and Land Councils are the supporting actors; traditional owners and communities are the stars in this story.
That is why I am providing $5 million funding for Gumatj to build additional employee housing in Gunyangara.
Gumatj’s efforts in training and employment are significant, and this government recognises the importance of ensuring organisations like Gumatj have the economic-enhancing infrastructure to capitalise on the potential of their land and ingenuity and effort combined.
We have also worked with Land Councils to improve processes for the delegation of certain Land Council functions to subcommittees or sustainable local or regional organisations.
I want to see these delegations used to support the aspirations of traditional owners and reduce unnecessary bureaucratic process.
I want to work with Land Councils to continue to implement what was always intended under the Land Rights Act.
It is about implementing what was always intended by Justice Woodward, what leaders like Gallarwuy told him 40 years.
Justice Woodward said:
It is important that Aboriginal communities should have as much autonomy as possible in running their own affairs. They should receive the necessary funds to cover administration and other normal recurrent expenditures. Aboriginal people should be free to follow their own traditional methods of decision-making.
It is in the implementation of this agenda – your agenda – that I have committed to making funds available in the Northern Territory for traditional owners to pursue local decision making, whether it be through community entity township leasing or delegations.
My Government is already supporting Baniyala traditional owners to build their capacity and work towards taking the decision-making power for leasing and land management for their community.
I hope that the lessons Baniyala learn can be shared with other groups that are interested in going down this path.
Traditional owners shouldn’t have to jump through the same hoops as mining companies or big business to invest in and utilise their land assets.
I want to work with traditional owners and Land Councils on how we can better support traditional owner-developments and ensure the process for local people to use land is as simple as possible – this is how we will wake up land rights.
This is how we can find a better place, a proper place for traditional owners in the system that is currently focused around governments and land councils.
We must also remember that the struggle for land rights continues for some – despite the bi-partisan, universal support for the recognition of traditional ownership of land.
I have committed to provide $1 million in additional funding over the next four years to support the work of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner. This money will contribute to the resolution of the remaining land claims in the NT.
The Government will also continue to provide $110 million a year over the next four years to help finalise all current native title claims within a decade.
This vision for land rights is big, and it will take work. It also can’t be done by one person or one organisation. It requires partnership between traditional owners, representative bodies and governments.
I will continue to meet you in your communities, on your terms. To hear your feedback on how I am going – to guide our work programme.
One strong example of this is the Redfern Statement released during the campaign. It is a good read – a good read indeed. It has been developed by good people.
I share the aspiration outlined in that document. Be really clear – it speaks to me. We must connect in dialogue. I will be speaking to the architects of the Redfern Statement, hopefully over this weekend. We should meet – we should talk.
There is not a world of difference between our dreams. And while we might not always agree on how to get there, our views align.
Like all of you here in this room, leaders of your communities, those making a real difference on the ground, we have common ambitions.
There are times when the strategies outlined to address these issues might not be the ones I would propose. But that will never stop me consulting, meeting together and talking.
In this spirit, I will be inviting the signatories to the Redfern Statement to a workshop – to constructively work through the issues they have raised. I am up for the discussion.
We will also continue along the important journey to constitutional recognition – and the Parliament looks forward to receiving the recommendations of the Referendum Council soon.
In closing, let me again acknowledge that we here on the most important of lands – country where the land rights journey began.
Lands that have triggered the most important shifts in how governments work with our First Peoples.
More than 50 years on, let this be the start of a new chapter of working together to ensure the people get to use the values of their land in their way.
 This is Australian Matha (local language descriptor at the time) for “you were all born here”.
 Djawa Yunupingu will be attending Garma.
Photo: ABC News/Stephanie Zillman