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Keynote speech at Garma Festival

Posted: Tue, August 04, 2015

NLC CEO Mr Joe Morrison (right); to his right is Professor Pat Dodson.

NLC CEO Joe Morrison's keynote speech delivered at Garma Festival on 1 August 2015:

I begin by paying my respects to the Gumatj people, and their traditional owners past and present, on whose land we are gathered today.

And I thank the Yothu Yindi Foundation for the invitation to speak this morning at this prestigious cultural festival. 

It is indeed an honour and a privilege.

I acknowledge the presence of the Federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Mr Nigel Scullion, and the Northern Land Council’s chairman, Mr Sam Bush-Blanasi, who’s here at Garma with other members of the NLC Executive Council.

I also acknowledge my good friend David Ross, Director of the Central Land Council, the other big land council on the mainland, and of Mr Tony Wurramarrba, chairman of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, which administers land rights at Groote Eylandt.

The NLC Executive and I were briefed yesterday afternoon, before the formal opening and the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Gumatj Corporation and Minister Scullion, to do with a 99-year Township Lease of Gunyangara  - known more commonly, perhaps, to non-Indigenous people as Ski Beach.

Nigel yesterday said the MOU was entirely the work of Gumatj, and I want to acknowledge today the work and leadership of the greatest living leader of the Gumatj, Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

Galarrwuy served two long stretches as Chairman of the Northern Land Council and he led the organisation through those turbulent times of the 1970s and 80s, when Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory had to be so hard-fought for.

The MOU signed yesterday is HIS legacy.  Behind it is an eight-year history of HIS advocacy.

Galarrwuy wrote to our chairman last month, giving the NLC good notice that he was wanting our assistance to create a modern township that reflects and is consistent with Yolngu values.

The MOU is the manifestation of that aspiration, and the NLC will work closely with the Gumatj and the Commonwealth Government over the coming months.

It envisages a 99-year township lease to be held over Gunyangara by a community entity owned and controlled by the Gumatj themselves.

That makes it fundamentally different from the township leases that the Commonwealth government has negotiated on the Tiwi Islands, and at Groote Eylandt, just across the waters from here. 

Those leases are held in the name of a Commonwealth Officer called the Executive Director of Township Leasing  - EDTL, we call that person.

The EDTL consults with Aboriginal Traditional Owners about subleases.

But, ultimately, he -- and at the moment the EDTL is a he -- controls development in those communities and settles the subleases. That model was created by an amendment in 2006 to the Northern Territory Land Rights Act  -  the work of former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough.

It’s a model which the Northern Land Council Full Council has opposed, because it sidelines Traditional Owners  -  they can ultimately lose control about how their community is developed and who gets a sublease.

Minister Scullion yesterday mentioned the difficulties around his attempts to secure a 99-year township lease at Gunbalanya, or Oenpelli, in West Arnhem Land - that’s in our NLC region.

Before any deal like a township lease, the NLC has a statutory duty to ensure that Traditional Owners are consulted and that they give their free, prior and informed consent.

I won’t go into all the details, but the NLC and Senator Scullion have been at serious loggerheads as negotiations over a township lease at Gunbalanya have bumbled along.

Senator Scullion yesterday described the model being proposed for Gunyangara as an elegant solution, one that strikes the right balance. 

I’m inclined to agree, and I want to congratulate Nigel for his willingness to demonstrate flexibility.

So, for the record, let me say that the Northern Land Council is not opposed to township leases per se.

It’s just that we don’t want to see traditional owners having to forfeit control, and lose their property rights.

We remain hopeful that that will not be the outcome at Gunbalanya.

I know that Minister Scullion spoke in a lecture here last night about early difficulties in his relationship with the Northern Land Council, and I can attest to that. 

I suppose we’ve both been a couple of stubborn beasts.

But there are heartening signs that Minister Scullion is genuinely committed to resetting our relationship, and we are surely open to that.

In that context let me tell you about another 2006 Mal Brough amendment to the Land Rights Act, which was being pursued early in the term of this government.

It’s caused much angst between the Minister and ourselves.

The purpose of the amendment was to delegate functions of the Northern Territory land councils to regional corporations that would not necessarily comprise Aboriginal Traditional Owners.

We resisted that strenuously – because we would have inherited the liability if one of those corporations went belly up.

And, the corporation’s devolved powers would have ended up with the Minister.

We also thought it was preposterous that a corporation which receives delegated powers from a Commonwealth statutory agency could not be subject to normal fiscal strictures imposed by the Commonwealth.

In March last year, we successfully lobbied the then Senate to disallow Senator Scullion’s regulations, which would have enlivened that Brough amendment.

Again we were at loggerheads - and seriously too, I might say - with Minister Scullion.

But he’s since agreed not to reintroduce those regulations to the NEW Senate.

Rather, he’s prepared to negotiate a compromise with the land councils.

He wants to hear from us, just as he listened to the Gumatj about their prescription for a township lease, and was prepared to be flexible.

At the opening here yesterday, he spoke a fair bit about listening with respect to Aboriginal voices. 

We take him at his word, and I only hope that that mindset could permeate whole-of-government thinking.

Only nine days ago, I was in Townsville to give a speech to a conference about developing northern Australia - very much the subject of our times as we ponder outcomes of the Federal Government’s recent White Paper.

Isn’t it time, I asked, to bring Indigenous people into the planning paradigm?

Let me remind you, that in the Northern Territory Aboriginal people have freehold title to around half the Territory’s landmass, and title to 85 per cent of the Territory coastline, thanks to the High Court’s Blue Mud Bay decision in 2008.

Native title has been granted, or is under claim across the remainder. 

So, Aboriginal people have an essential stake in the future of northern Australia.

That has not been realised.

As I stated in Townsville, Aboriginal people must be front and centre in planning processes for the north?

This is a fundamental gap in the national discourse about northern development.

It’s a theme that I’ve been pushing for a long time, long before I took up my job 18 months ago as the NLC’s Chief Executive, when I was heading up a research agency called the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance. 

I’m not one to despair, but I do wonder when the day will come that we have a seat at the planning table.

Because Aboriginal people want economic development.

The Gumatj want development.

That’s why they’re pursuing their idea, on their terms, of a township lease at Gunyangara.

To my mind the abandonment of the Rio Tinto bauxite refinery here in Gove underlines the vulnerability of Aboriginal people in remote parts of the Northern Territory as development comes and development goes.

The Aboriginal community at Ngukurr in Central Arnhem Land has suffered too in the past year from the collapse of two nearby iron ore mines - Western Desert Resources and Sherwin Iron.

Jobs and royalties were promised.  Jobs and royalties have evaporated.

And in the case of Western Desert Resources, Aboriginal Traditional Owners were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars when the company folded.

That’s left them highly cautious when they hear promises of jobs and riches at a time when there’s all this talk about developing the north.

They’ve come to realise that some of the economic development in northern Australia which they are expected to consent to comes with risk and cost.

And it’s not all monetary risk and cost.

There can be a cultural dimension too, like near the West Australian border where we are having to consult with native title holders about the planned expansion of the Ord River Irrigation scheme into the Northern Territory.

It’s one of the projects touted in the White Paper on developing northern Australia.

Aboriginal people are being asked to extinguish their native title in return for money and jobs.

It’s one thing, of course, for Traditional Owners to consent to extinguishment.

But its another thing for senior lawmen who are in charge of ceremony and preserving the many sacred sites and dreaming tracks which characterise that country.

It saddens me to tell you that those consultations are causing heartache and strife.

So there are special dimensions to consider when grand plans for development are pushed in the north, where Aboriginal interests are dominant.

That’s why the Northern Land Council is proposing to develop what we’re calling a prospectus to identify opportunities for development on Aboriginal lands across our region.

Not a prospectus in the stock market sense, but a document that will have Aboriginal landowners and townships themselves identify developments that embraces their cultural and environmental values as well as their economic aspirations.

I believe we’re making real headway in our negotiations with the Federal government for support of this project.

It’s a project that would certainly fit Nigel Scullion’s recognition of the need to listen with respect to the voices of Aboriginal people, to take account of their ideas and empower them.

And let’s hope that prescription is heeded when Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are called to consider two fundamental questions which loom on our horizon.

The first is Statehood for the Northern Territory.

The second is recognition of Indigenous peoples in the Australian Constitution  - and that, of course will have to be considered not just here in the Territory, but by all Indigenous people across Australia.

The revival of the idea that we should be the seventh state of Australia certainly came out of the blue when it was promoted a couple of weeks ago by our Chief Minister, Adam Giles.

Sure, both major political parties in the Territory, Labor and the Country Liberals, have long supported a push for statehood.

But this one took us all aback.

Former Chief Minister Shane Stone QC famously had a go at becoming the first premier of the State of the Northern Territory back in 1998.

He put Statehood to a referendum that was held in conjunction with the Federal election in 1998.

The people of the Northern Territory voted it down, albeit narrowly, and Shane Stone lost his Chief Ministership a few months later.

The ‘No’ vote of Aboriginal people has been credited with the loss of that referendum.

And that’s because they harboured serious reservations about the fate of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act, enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament in 1976.

Various CLP politicians over the 39 years since then have called for the Commonwealth to surrender the Land Rights Act to the Territory, and Aboriginal people still fear the consequences of that.

I say that the recent history of government here gives little comfort to anyone, least of all Aboriginal people, that this jurisdiction has attained the political maturity or has the machinery robust enough to deserve the recognition of being a state.

Only nine days ago, Chief Minister Giles won the support of COAG leaders for another go at Statehood, this time by July 2018.

However serious the reservations that Aboriginal people continue to harbour, however extensive consultations with them about the implications of Statehood might be, I say the timing’s all wrong.

Much more important is consideration by the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal people, one third of the total population, of how they will be recognised in the Australian constitution.

Any campaign for Territory Statehood in the meantime would be a damaging distraction from this much bigger question.

Constitutional recognition of our Indigenous peoples is a critical next step in this nation’s maturity. 

And it must come with a prohibition of racial discrimination by all governments.

Remember that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory had to suffer the ignominy of the Howard government’s decision in 2007 to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act so that it could implement that dreadful suite of measures that was called the Intervention.

What sort of a nation are we if our politicians can’t countenance a prohibition on racial discrimination by governments?

Yet some of them seem crippled by a caution that that would be a step too far, by a fear that the people would not stomach a change to the Constitution which would contain such a prohibition.

But remember that the joint select committee of Parliament found overwhelming support for just that.

More importantly, any referendum question on recognition will fail if it doesn’t first have the support of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

That’s why I support the case put by Patrick Dodson and Noel Pearson to Prime Minister Abbott that his Government resources a round of conventions just for Indigenous peoples so that they truly understand what this referendum question, once it’s drafted, is all about.

While we’re all here on Gumatj country, let’s remember that Galarrwuy Yunupingu in 2013 presented to then newly-returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a petition calling for Constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples.

That was on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the presentation to the Commonwealth Parliament of the original Yirrkala bark petitions.

The petitions protested the taking of land on the Gove peninsula for the bauxite mine that’s now owned by Rio Tinto.

And they marked the start of the Aboriginal struggle for land rights in the Northern Territory.

Galarrwuy helped draft those petitions.  His father was a signatory.

How fitting it is that, as he prepares to retire from public life, Galarrwuy Yunupingu will be honoured at this place later today.

And that leads me to recognise another great Aboriginal leader from East Arnhem land who will also be honoured separately here today.

Wali Wunungmurra is a Mala leader and lawman from the Dhalwangu clan and he also signed those Yirrkala bark petitions in 1963.

He, too, has a long history in the struggle for land rights.

Born and educated at Yirrkala, Wali studied in Brisbane before returning home to assist the Yolngu clans during the historic Gove Land Rights case in 1971.

And he too attended the 50th anniversary of the presentation of those petitions in 2013, the same year as he retired after two terms as chairman of the Northern Land Council.

So, the Aboriginal people of East Arnhem, two former chairmen of the Northern Land Council in particular, have been at the forefront of the struggle for Aboriginal rights, not just land rights, for much longer than I’ve been on this earth.

Recalling that history of leadership gives me nourishment in my job as chief executive of the NLC.  It makes me feel proud to continue in the job.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.