As Clare Martin, the first Labor Party Chief Minister of the Northern Territory observed on the ABC News broadcast this evening, Jack Ah Kit came to Northern Territory politics at a ‘really difficult’ time. Current Chief Minister Michael Gunner described Jack as ‘a giant and a fighter.’
Both statements are true but neither catches the fire that burned deep in Jack Ah Kit’s soul, too few glimpses of which I was privileged to catch at close hand early last year when he returned to the Northern Land Council as interim CEO for a few months.
Following is his inaugural speech—somehow ‘maiden’ doesn’t fit the man—made to the NT Legislative Assembly on 10 October 1995 following his election for the seat of Arnhem. There was no shortage of fire in the belly from which these words came. This is truth spoken to power in a way too rarely heard nowadays.
If after reading this speech you need any convincing of the toxicity that ran through NT politics during the 80s and 90s read the debate (I cannot call it ‘parliamentary’) that followed Jack’s speech at the link below.
DEBATES – Tuesday 10 October 1995
Mr AH KIT (Arnhem): Mr Speaker, it is an honour for me to be in this place, standing on Larrakia land. Although I was born in Alice Springs, I spent much of my childhood in Darwin – the traditional land of the Larrakia people. It is with great pleasure that I pay tribute to the traditional owners of this city with the first words that I speak in the Assembly.
The pity of it is, however, that the traditional owners of Darwin have yet to be properly acknowledged by many of the people who now call this place their home. I also place on record my desire that the stolen generations of the Northern Territory, those people wrongfully taken from their families, receive justice. I will do all I can to help the people who have been so badly affected by such misguided government policy.
It is a great honour to be here today representing the people of the electorate of Arnhem. Moving around the electorate over the last 2 months, meeting and talking with old friends as well as making new friends, has brought home to me the need for members of parliament to represent all the people in their electorates, and not only those who vote for them or those in positions of power or influence. That is what parliamentary democracy is about, and it is what all of us in the Legislative Assembly should be dedicated to.
I also thank the people who worked on my campaign. The Labor Party has a great and enthusiastic network of members and supporters. It is a pity that members opposite, in this sorry excuse for a government, do not understand this simple truth about parliamentary democracy.
The by-election campaign over the last month saw a sad demonstration of the utter contempt that the Country Liberal Party has for the constituents of Arnhem and indeed for people generally in the Northern Territory. On becoming Chief Minister, the member for Port Darwin made much of wanting to change the way the rest of Australia looked at the Territory.
However, his actions and those of his ministers and his backbench during this campaign have served only to reinforce their redneck image. All members opposite shamelessly damage the reputation of the Territory.
I am aware that it is not normal in a maiden parliamentary speech to raise contentious issues, but these are not normal times. Let us talk about traditions. Let us look at the traditions of the Country Liberal Party and the people who run it. These people know their traditions well and the most hallowed of them is to raise issues of race at every possible opportunity, and there is no better opportunity than at election time.
It does not seem to matter to the CLP that the rest of Australia is talking about reconciliation between the first Australians and those who have migrated to these shores over the last couple of hundred years.
It does not seem to matter that the rest of this nation has embraced multiculturalism. No! The troglodytes of the Country Liberal Party consistently fall back on their decades-old tradition of promoting racial division and fears as actively as they can.
They have done so in different ways for different audiences. In general elections, it has been an ‘us and them’ campaign of provoking fears about Aboriginal people in the wider electorate – fears about land rights, fears about sacred sites and fears about our religions and cultures. CLP politicians talk in code.
There are ‘true’ Territorians whose future is under threat from the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory who are, one can only presume, non-Territorians.
In the last 2 by-elections, for largely Aboriginal seats – Arafura and Arnhem – they introduced a new twist to feeding the cesspools of prejudice. This was the use of the disgusting tactic of creating the idea of ‘real’ Aboriginals. By this, they mean that the only real Aboriginals are the so-called full-bloods who live in the bush. The rest are not ‘real’ Aboriginal people. They are half-castes and yellafellas.
In the campaign for Arafura, we were treated to the idea that people had to have a ‘ceremony man’ in parliament and not one of the yellafellas that the CLP asked Territorians to hate and despise. In the recent by-election in Arnhem, the dirty tricks brigade advising the CLP decided that, this time, people should vote for a ‘traditional man’ and again reject the half-castes, the yellafellas, the ‘un-real’ Aboriginals.
At least one of the members opposite, the member for Millner, is proud about it. He openly admits to using terms of racial abuse as an electoral tactic. I wonder how his relations feel about that. Do his children enjoy being called ‘yellafellas’? Do they and their relations like the fact that the member for Millner is publicly urging and promoting the line that yellafellas should not be able to enter politics? He cannot even get his terms of racial abuse right.
For better or worse, ‘yellafella’ refers to skin colour, not whether you are this thing called a ‘traditional man’. How do you think those men and women of mixed descent from throughout the Territory, who are full and active participants in traditional ceremonies, feel about the member opposite and his terms of abuse?
The member for Port Darwin, no doubt with a caution born of his legal training, has been a little smarter. When tackled on the issue of the CLP’s use of race in the election, he played the innocent, weaseling out of it by saying that the CLP raised the issue because, and I quote him, ‘that is what we are being told out in the electorate’.
Does this mean that, if a particular electorate was saying that it did not want a Catholic, he would run an anti-Catholic campaign or, if the electorate was saying it did not want a Vietnamese, or Chinese or Greek or Cypriot as its representative, he would mount campaigns against those ethnic groups? O f course not.
That would be immoral, shameful and contemptible. However, that is precisely what the parliamentary leader of the Country Liberal Party has condoned, promoted and sanctioned.
Despite his words earlier in the year, that his leadership would mark the beginning a new era in dealings with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, he could not help himself. He crawled back to the morally bankrupt traditions of his party. In returning to those traditions, he has given a new meaning to the words ‘traditional man’. No wonder the electorates of
Arafura and Arnhem rejected this despicable tactic. I will not go into the bizarre methods by which the Country Liberal Party preselected its candidates for the recent by-election except to say that a number of senior Aboriginal people who were approached to stand for the Country Liberal Party rejected those advances. They would not participate in an election with a party that promotes racial division.
These racist tactics have affected another part of my electorate. Did the Country Liberal Party ask the many non-Aboriginal people on Groote Eylandt and elsewhere whether they wanted a ‘traditional man’? Of course not.
If they had bothered to talk to the electors on Groote at all, they might have been told that they wanted to have someone who would represent them in parliament, who would fight for the diverse needs and interests of the whole electorate, not the invented constituency of the ‘traditional man’.
No other government leader in the nation uses race as an electoral tactic yet the Northern Territory government is run by such a party. The world is approaching a new millennium. The Northern Territory government appears to want to dwell in the past and promote racial taunts and abuse.
If we are to reach the new millennium with any hope at all of having a cohesive, stable society, which respects and celebrates difference, there must be a stop to the use of race as a way of promoting the kinds of fears that we have, all of us, suffered from for so long.
This is not to say that we should be responding out of some sense of guilt. Guilt is the worst possible motivation for action. What all Territorians should be doing is responding with their hearts and minds and eliminating racism from our society.
The Chief Minister deserves the censure of this House because he was ultimately responsible for the conduct of his party’s campaign. I ask the Chief Minister to respond to this question: when he allows his party to actively attempt to exploit racial division, does that do anything to advance the cause of the Northern Territory?
Last week, I lost my eldest daughter, and she left behind a daughter of her own. When I look at my other kids, I am reminded of the future that has been taken away in such an untimely fashion. I look at my little son and I am reminded that the Chief Minister also has a little boy, and I understand his wife should be congratulated on another child on the way.
All of us treasure our families and, on both sides of this House, we are united in wanting to create a better future for our children and grandchildren. Let all of us here today commit ourselves to a future where issues of race can be an expression of unity and not division.
Let us not have the racist sins of the fathers visited on our children.
To read Jack’s original speech in the NT Legislative Assembly Hansard—and just as importantly the fiery debate that followed—go to the 7th Assembly Parliamentary Record for 27 June 1994 to 12 August 1997 at the following link: https://parliament.nt.gov.au/business/parliamentary-records