I’m delighted to be here today at the National Native Title Conference and I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak.
Firstly I want to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land and waters of the country we are on today, the Kuku-Yalanji people. And I pay my respects to Kuku-Yalanji elders past and present.
The country of the Kuku-Yalanji peoples extends from here to Cooktown in the north and to the Palmer River in the west. The Kuku-Yalanji people are often described as rainforest peoples and the Daintree Rainforest is one of the oldest tropical rainforests on earth, but their country is diverse – covering the saltwater coastal areas, the mountains and the freshwater rivers.
The word “kuku” means “talk” or “language” and “yalanji” means a place or area. So Kuku-Yalanji literally means the “talk of this place” or the “language of this area”.
With few exceptions humans traditionally use the same or similar words to describe themselves, their country and their language. English is the language of England and the English people. Nihongo (Japanese) is the language of Nihon (Japan) and the Nihonjin (the Japanese people).
And so too, Kuku-Yalanji describes a people, a language and a country.
The alignment of people, language and country is the essence of what makes a nation. The Oxford Dictionary defines a “nation” as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory”.
The Kuku-Yalanji people have lived here on this country for tens of thousands of years. And when you are talking about that timescale you’re basically talking about time immemorial. This concept is described beautifully in a resolution declared by the Cherokee People of North America in 1838 where they asserted the title to their country as follows:
“…the title of the Cherokee people to their lands is the most ancient, pure, and absolute, known to man; its date is beyond the reach of human record; its validity confirmed and illustrated by possession and enjoyment, antecedent to all pretense of claim by any other portion of the human race”
When the British first came to Australia in 1788 there were hundreds of nations here – hundreds of groups of people united by common descent, history, culture and language and inhabiting their country. These groups had their own languages, kinship systems and laws, culture and arts. They knew what was their country and what was the country of another group.
To use words of the Cherokee Nation, these groups existed in Australia since beyond the reach of human record; they have had possession and enjoyment of their country preceding any other claim. These groups were the first nations of Australia.
By and large, most Europeans who came to Australia beginning in 1788 didn’t understand complexity and variation of its native populations.
Our mobs, too, were cautious about sharing the details of their societies and systems. There were strict rules about how, when and to whom knowledge could be shared. Some knowledge was only allowed to be known by men, or by women, or by members of one moiety but not another.
The overwhelming mindset amongst Europeans was that Aboriginal people lived in unstructured societies with no recognisable civic or legal systems of any substance. This isn’t correct.
Our ancestors had complex civic and legal systems based around the kinship system - a highly developed system of rules that defined your position in the tribe, who you could marry and interact with and even your rights and responsibilities over land and sea.
Europeans saw Aboriginal people living in family groups, not in an organised civil society. In our traditional systems your nation is your family and your family is your nation, despite being thousands of people spread over a wide geography.
Under traditional law, there’s no distinction between your family and your nationality, between the private and the public, between family life and civic life. This was very different to British society, even in the 18th century where family and nationality/citizenship were different concepts. Where there is distinction between the private and the public; between family life and civic live.
Likewise, Europeans did not see Aboriginal people managing the land in ways that they could recognise - there were no farms, crops or herds of animals. In fact, our ancestors did manage the land but not in the ways of the northern hemisphere. Indigenous people didn’t need to develop mass production or cater for major seasonal shifts in food availability. They did, however, modify and intervene in the environment to improve food sources and availability. Traditional knowledge is used on Indigenous owned cattle stations today to deliver improvements in production and land management.
Early Europeans also didn’t appreciate that that Indigenous people were capable of navigating and had trading routes. Our ancestors used the sky and the stars, songlines and stories to navigate and find their way over long distances. But to an outsider our ancestors seemingly wandered aimlessly around the bush telling children’s stories and singing songs.
All of this underpins the myth of terra nullius.
Despite the fact that European countries colonised most of the world, there were in fact rules under international law about taking control of an external territory.
If the territory was inhabited, Britain could purchase land from the inhabitants or conquer it by force. Conquest did not negate the inhabitants pre-existing rights to land, however. So both avenues usually involved a treaty or agreement with the indigenous peoples. Britain signed numerous treaties across Polynesia, India, North America and Africa.
Britain could only claim outright ownership of a territory, as happened in Australia, if it was uninhabited. Clearly Australia was inhabited. Even the British could observe that. But they took the view the inhabitants didn’t make any claim of ownership to the land. To the British, Australia’s first peoples were nomads who moved seemingly randomly over vast areas but didn’t claim any particular territory for themselves by farming it, for example.
The Mabo decision and the Native Title Act put an end to this fallacy, acknowledging that Australia’s first peoples did in fact occupy, possess and enjoy particular areas of land and sea to the exclusion of others which was inherited and succeeded to subsequent generations.
British colonisation cut a swath through the first nations of Australia. Indigenous people had to adapt to new situations — outsiders on their country who were not under the kinship system; being moved off country to another nation or to mixed settlements with people from other nations; being prohibited from speaking their languages or practising ceremony.
Some groups didn’t survive intact. Those who did survived the way any nations do when under threat or upheaval - by preserving what they could of the old ways and by adapting to the new. But we did not forget or abandon our first nations – or to use the word that Indigenous Australians use – our mobs. One of the first questions we ask each other when we meet for the first time is “Who’s your mob?”.
The idea of a single Aboriginal identity is a construct borne from the way other people looked at Indigenous peoples, not from the way we look at ourselves. The idea of framing Indigenous Australians as one group – also known as the “pan-Aboriginal movement” – was also adopted by Aboriginal leaders at various times in in campaigning for Aboriginal rights. It was particularly strong in the 1960s and suited the politics of the time with the Black Panther movement and the idea of a global black movement or consciousness. Unity was strength. And as a united group we achieved a great deal.
Indigenous Australians will always be united as kindred spirits in our shared history. But we will also always be separate mobs with distinct and unique country, heritage, languages and cultures.
Mabo and native title created the opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to return to the essence of who we are – to reinvigorate our culture, to re-focus land rights back to our first nations and to do so with good governance and a strong economic base.
A strong economic base is the critical part. Because the only way to move people out of poverty is economic development. Poverty isn’t solved by welfare or by giving communities money. Poverty is solved by commerce and economic development – by individuals within a community making money.
So when I was first approached by Tony Abbott to chair the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, I said I’d only be willing to participate on one condition — that the focus of the Council and government Indigenous policy be commercial and economic development and on Indigenous Australians participating in the real economy.
The government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy is centred around this theme with the three priority areas of getting children to school, adults into work and building safe communities. These are the three fundamental pillars of a real economy – educated people, adults participating in the workforce and communities with the conditions necessary for investment.
All aspects of the Council’s activities are also centred around this theme. So, for example, when the Council looks at proposals on welfare policy we apply a lens of commercial and economic development. And we ask things such as – how will this help people escape welfare dependency and get into a real job or start a business; or how will this policy encourage parents to send their kids to school?
The Council has reviewed, discussed, debated and advised the Prime Minister and his team on key policy shifts and proposals including — the Forrest Review, the Indigenous Procurement Policy, the Employment Parity Initiative, school attendance initiatives including the Remote School Attendance Strategy, Empowered Communities and the reformed Remote Indigenous Housing Strategy.
We have reviewed and advised on two Budgets and have advocated for retaining the overall funding envelope with savings from efficiencies reinvested into more effective programs.
We have also assisted the Federal government to work with the States and Territories on a range of areas that fall within their responsibility such as justice and incarceration, diversionary programs, community safety and wellbeing, housing and health.
More broadly the Council is assisting the government to implement one of the biggest reform agendas in Indigenous affairs for several decades.
The seeds for this reform agenda were laid by the previous Labor Government who introduced the Closing the Gap framework. This was a ground-breaking initiative because - for the first time - governments committed to specific, measurable outcomes and transparent, fact-based reporting on whether those outcomes are being achieved.
Every year the government releases a Closing the Gap report. And every year we have seen the gap persist despite hundreds of billions spent to reduce Indigenous disadvantage.
So the Closing the Gap initiative has already achieved something – It has forced governments to critically evaluate what they are doing in this area and to question and challenge embedded beliefs and assumptions and even kill some sacred cows. It has forced governments to look at where all these billions are being spent and tackle the inherent waste which sees a whole Indigenous affairs industry that sucks up money without delivering results, with much of that money not making it past the front doors of government departments and agencies.
The Council’s most important task is to push this government to do what no other government has ever had the courage to do – focus on practical outcomes and sort out the mess in Indigenous spending.
This means directing funding only to initiatives that commit to – and deliver – practical and measureable outcomes for the people they serve and social impact targets for the communities in which they operate. And to do so in a cost effective way.
In Indigenous affairs we often hear about this or that “great program” that’s “really making a difference”. But how do you know it’s a great program? Too often the answer to this question relies on the activities and resources the program delivers.
That is not the right answer.
I’m not interested in the activities or resources a program delivers. I’m interested in the outcomes it achieves. Real outcomes like people getting a job, children and adults earning to read and communities becoming demonstrably safer.
The Council urges the government to demand evidence as to what difference a program has made. What does the data say about the communities in which the program operates? Have there been improvements in school attendance, retention rates and NAPLAN results? What are the statistics on incarceration rates, recidivism, police callouts and crime? What percentage of adults are now employed in a real job? How has the relevant data moved during the operation of the program? Is the gap actually closing?
If there is no evidence that a program is producing real improvements on the ground then it shouldn’t be funded, even if the activities and resources delivered by the program are considered to be first rate.
The Council also urges the government to focus on cost effectiveness. Programs that are very expensive but only deliver results for a small number of people need to be reviewed. If the same result can be delivered for less money in a different way that frees up funding to reach more people.
It is never easy to implement major reforms. The transition to the new Indigenous Advancement Strategy has been difficult for many organisations, with uncertainty around future funding and funding pathways.
The Council is not involved in decisions on who gets what funding and who doesn’t. Our role is to advise on the principles on how funding decisions should be made. But ultimately these decisions are made by the department and the Minister.
Council members, too, have expressed concerns about how long the process has been taking and that some organisations have had to manage long periods of uncertainty about their long term funding position. And we’ve made that known to the government and the department.
However, one reason the process has been protracted is because organisations have been asked to apply for future funding based on these outcomes-based principles. Sometimes that requires organisations take a completely fresh look at their structure, operations and deliverables and transform how they do things. It can also be very confronting to take on accountability for outcomes. Activities are easy. Delivering on the promise is far more difficult.
But that’s the whole idea.
The initiatives announced this year and in the last Budget in particular provide unprecedented opportunity for Indigenous people to move from poverty to prosperity. They also provide a real pathway for remote Indigenous communities to carve out sustainable futures.
Of all the damage done to Australia’s first nations by British colonisation, possibly the greatest threat to the continuation of our first nations is chronic dependence on government without needing to meaningfully contribute in return.
Our elders knew this. It was they who came up with the expression “sit down money” to describe the mass transition of Indigenous people from work to welfare in the early 1970s. But even before welfare, Indigenous people had become accustomed to subjugation - the flip side of which is dependency. Sit-down money came off the back of decades of Indigenous people not having control of their own destiny which only exacerbated the challenges we face today.
Sit down money, helplessness, subjugation, removal of responsibilities and accountability, chronic dependence on others – all of these are the opposite of what our first nations were about.
In our first nations everybody worked. They hunted and gathered food; they cared for children and elders; they built things; they educated their children through ceremony, songlines and stories; they managed the land around them. In our first nations everyone was expected to contribute to their communities, obey the laws, performing civic duties and take responsibility. Everyone was expected to bring something to the campfire and people would not turn up empty handed.
It is frustrating to hear people talk about “self-determination” as something government needs to provide; or equate “empowerment” with having control over welfare payments or government services. Self-determination and empowerment mean taking responsibility for yourself, your family and your community, ensuring your kids get an education and that you get a job. There can be no self-determination or empowered communities if there is total dependence on government.
No nation can survive without an economy to support it. Our first nations are no different.
The Mabo decision and the Native Title Act have given our mobs an opportunity to rebuild based on a real economic base, one that is founded on the inheritance of our ancestors’ land and waters; our birthright.
Old is new again
Speech by Nyunggai Warren Mundine
National Native Title Conference - Leadership, Legacy & Opportunity
Port Douglas, Queensland