This is a lightly edited copy of the speech given on Saturday 3 August 2019 by Denise Bowden, Director of the Garma Festival

Good morning and welcome everybody.

In the places where Aboriginal people live in remote Australia we lack the basics that are taken for granted by the rest of Australia – if it’s not health facilities it’s housing support.

If it’s not the power it’s the sewerage. If it’s not the absence of a decent road, it’s the lack of a proper school, or a safe place for old people.

For many Australians these things are taken for granted and when they are not there it’s inconvenient at worst. For many Indigenous Australians these things can be a matter of life and death and they are part of day-to-day life.

And that is what I want to talk about today – the way government has ignored the needs of Aboriginal people and the mismanagement of government spending on Indigenous communities. This year is the 10th year I have worked for the Yothu Yindi Foundation (YYF).

Can I say that it is a privilege and an honour to serve the Chairman and the Directors of this great organisation for Yolngu and other indigenous Australians to have the same level of well-being and life opportunities as non-indigenous Australians.

Thank you Galarrwuy, thank you Djawa, Yananymul, Barayuwa, Balupalu, Djapirri and Binmila. Thank you Eddie Gumbula, and Murphy Yunupingu. And thank you to our dear departed directors and members, some of who stand in our Hall of Yolngu Heroes, and all of whom we remember with tears and grief but also with pride and love.

I remember in particular Mrs Gurruwiwi who lobbied for an Aged Care home in this region for Yolngu women like herself. I sat in a meeting in 2014 as Mrs Gurruwiwi pleaded with senior public servants to build such a facility with money that was already appropriated. She died a few years later in a place that was not fit for human habitation. She is not alone.

There are many other elders who carry the ancient wisdom, knowledge and beauty of our people who die every year for simple and avoidable reasons. And today – 5 years later – this facility in Nhulunbuy has still not been built and we are still waiting for a tender process to get underway.

This is one of hundreds of examples that make my blood boil.

Few things focus your mind like grief and anger and over the last decade YYF has analysed spending patterns & formulas through the Commonwealth Grants Commission data, Northern Territory & Federal budget reports & audits.

This work confirms everything we see in front of us and explains why many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory continue to live impoverished lives.

The data shows time & time again that hundreds of millions of dollars of untied GST funds sent to State & Territory governments to address Aboriginal issues diverted to other urban priorities, or are spent on administration in Darwin or other urban centres. Here’s an example of our frustration.

Since 2006 the NT Government has spent over $300 million, presumably from its untied GST payments, creating a Waterfront precinct, which in large part has been turned over to property developers and business.

In addition to the sunk costs, every year the NT Government grants up to $20 million to the Darwin Waterfront Corporation to run a conference centre and tourist facilities including a wave pool & an artificial beach & events like fireworks, concerts and driverless cars.

Forgetting the hundreds of millions in capital costs, that’s an annual payment equivalent to 40 remote houses a year so local Darwinians and people visiting Darwin can enjoy themselves.

Don’t get me wrong – we understand the importance of tourism to the economy but meanwhile in the bush the housing crisis continues, the housing deficit grows, indigenous people are living lives characterised by poverty and neglect and despair.

Another child is born to another overcrowded home. Another kid gets no sleep and can’t get to school. Another assault takes place in a house full to bursting point, and so on.

Recently the NT Government published a report by respected economist John Langalout which confirmed everything we have said for over a decade. Mr Langalout found the Territory is in a structural deficit.

That is, the books don’t balance and this has nothing to do with short-term factors; it’s a locked in situation caused by decades of overspending and maladministration. He says that the Territory is in an almost bankrupt situation with forward estimates driving debt so high that by 2030 the interest bill alone will be $2 billion dollars a year.

Thinking back to Mrs Gurruwiwi, who died waiting for health services that have still not materialised, can you imagine trying to process the news that $2 billion a year of Territory funds would be spent not on improving the lives of some of the most marginalised people in the world, but on paying the interest bill?!

Again, that makes my blood boil. It is the high level of maladministration that is occurring that is the most extraordinary.

Let me put some facts on the table:

“99% of Territory government spending is unscrutinised outside of any internal agency reviews. As a result almost all expenditure is simply rolled over from one year to another with little external assessment of effectiveness, efficiency and alignment to government priorities”.

  • There are over 970 different allowances being paid to NT Public Service employees
  • The Territory Government does not have a single integrated management system for agencies capable of budgeting at the cost centre or providing consolidated cashflow information
  • Agencies have adopted a range of in-house solutions, including rudimentary spread-sheet based approaches to prepare manual monthly cash flow reports
  • Over the past two decades the Territory’s government owned corporations have collectively persistently … have operated at a net cost to Territory taxpayers

If the Northern Territory Government was a corporation serious thought would have to be given to winding it up.

If it was an Aboriginal Corporation its Cabinet ministers would be prosecuted. It makes me cry that we are prisoners to this incompetence and maladministration.

Yet for all of this there seems no prospect of change. Why would they? For the moment the Northern Territory Government is unwilling or unable to respond to the deep outrage around deeply flawed processes, decision making and funding models.

For its part the Commonwealth seems to have happily wiped its hands of the mess it created when it left the NT to a small group of inexperienced administrators in 1978. The Commonwealth created the system that is currently in play in the Territory and has sat by and allowed it to continue unabated, dining out on the back of Aboriginal misery.

So we call out the Commonwealth Government as well. The Commonwealth is responsible for the Northern Territory under the Self-Government Act. It is responsible for the GST formula that gives the rivers of gold to the NT Treasury.

Under the principle of responsible government the Australian Parliament is duty bound to set the mistakes of self-government right. We call on the Australian Parliament to do so – because the lived experience of the current arrangements are defined by poverty and frustration. Once again, it makes my blood boil. That’s a lot to think about, so let me conclude. Many of us – and I hope many of you too – see the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a light on the hill.

A beacon, a flame of hope where for too long there has been none. There is no doubt we need a Voice and we will support that with all our heart. But at the same time we cannot lose sight of the urgent need to change a system that is fundamentally broken, a system that is impoverishing Aboriginal people by clipping the ticket of Aboriginal disadvantage.

These are not easy truths and I don’t expect I will have made any new friends in Darwin but that comes with the job. I take strength from my Chairman who has weathered decades of attacks and undermining and has never deviated from his course.

Under his leadership YYF has not and will not hesitate in exposing to scrutiny an awful system that lives off the misery and disadvantage of my brothers and sisters.

I ask you to join us in this challenge and set thing right.

Thank you.


Denise Bowden is a born-and-bred Northern Territory Indigenous woman. She has an extensive experience in Indigenous affairs in the more remote regions of Australia’s north.  Denise is the Chief Executive Officer of the Yothu Yindi Foundation (YYF) and has worked has worked in this capacity for ten years with the Yolngu clans.