From the battles for basic civil rights four decades ago, to the overturning of terra nullius and the stolen generations apology, Australian Indigenous activists have achieved much over successive generations. Yet it would seem many aspirations have been left behind along the way, and there is so much left to achieve. What are the short-term and long-term goals Indigenous Australians are setting for their communities, and who will be leading the way? Karla Grant leads a panel of Kim Hill, Linda Burney, Tania Major and Robbie Thorpe through these contentious questions.
Grant begins by asking panellists to consider what, in their opinion, constitutes the best and worst developments in Aboriginal affairs. This soon leads Burney to draw attention to John Howard’s political legacy, which she says unravelled much of the good will that emerged in the 1990s.
Hill talks about the Northern Territory intervention and the lack of proper dialogue between agencies. He discusses his current focus on economic development and expresses disappointment about the disparity between money being earned and spent in the territory and the money which arrives in indigenous hands.
Conversation moves onto the subject of a treaty. Thorpe stresses the importance of establishing the correct relationship between Australia’s first peoples and the Western society built atop and in spite of them. Following on from Thorpe, Burney speaks to the complexity of what a treaty means both symbolically and practically, taking into account the “hundreds of nation states” prior to European settlement. Despite the difficulty of establishing an appropriate treaty, Burney says that developed countries with treaties are “way ahead of Australia” on social justice issues concerning first nations.
Major then talks about vision and representation for Aboriginal youth, including the need for elders to listen to modern, grassroots ideas that address the context and reality of contemporary society (she cites tools like technology and in particular social media as examples). Major argues the importance of providing role models which help young Aboriginal people to understand how they fit in to modern Australian societies.
Acknowleding Major’s work, Hill partly agrees, but adds that there is a conflict: in order for elders to accept leadership from younger people, traditional values around cultural authority would have to be bypassed. “We see the need for young people to come through the system,” he says, “but should it be at the loss of our culture, our language, our practices?” He admits that striking a balance between better opportunities for young people — jobs, education — can be cast in conflict with one’s cultural responsibility for the maintenance and continuation of an often small clan’s culture.
“What’s really missing in Aboriginal affairs … is that there is no national agenda any more,” continues Burney, who calls for a more coordinated approach which she says has not strongly existed since the 1990s. Thorpe discusses the ways in which Aboriginal people can take control of their lives before Burney emphasises the importance of good quality Aboriginal representation in the mainstream political realm.
Finally, Grant asks the panel to think about the future, and to consider the directions in which indigenous affairs might shift.
Presented in partnership with the Melbourne Festival.
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