06 August 2018



SUBJECT/S: Garma, First Nations Voice to Parliament

KARVELAS: This year the Garma festival has been conspicuous because of the absence of Federal politicians. One of the few that is here, other than the Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion who was there for the opening ceremony, is Federal Indigenous Labor Senator and former NT Government Minister, Malarndirri McCarthy, I caught up with Malarndirri.

KARVELAS: Malarndirri you are the most senior Labor politician at Garma the 20th anniversary, why is Labor so missing at this gathering?

MCCARTHY: Labor is very much represented here, in terms of my presence here, but also the Northern Territory Labor Government as well with the new announced Education Minister, Selena Uibo and also I understand Ken Vowles. This year has been an important year for the Northern Territory on many levels, not only the Garma festival of 20 years but recently the Barunga Festival of 30 years of the treaty. And what Labor focussed on, specifically under the guidance of the First Nations Federal Labor Caucus was that our focus was on the Barunga treaty and the Memorandum of understating in terms of moving treaty in the Country.

KARVELAS: So I know Labor in the Northern Territory is pursuing treaty, of course, there are other state governments including Victoria pursuing that, South Australia has changed their position because of a change of Government. Clearly, this is happening at a State and Territory level at some extent, what is missing is some sort of national approach. Is that significant, is that missing in action causing distrust, resentment among Indigenous people.

MCCARTHY: It is important that you have pointed that out, Patricia. I think what is missing is the fact that the Federal Government under Malcolm Turnbull is not focussing on treaties, is not focussing on a universal approach to it. It is the Federal Labor opposition thats focussing on it and clearly, should we be fortunate to win Government in this country it would be front and centre of our focus.

KARVELAS: But of course you need a bipartisan approach if you want to change the constitution to enshrine a voice to the parliament in it. We have seen this interim report from a Committee recommending different models. Do you have a favoured model? Is the old ATSIC model which is even talked about in that report, is that something that you would like to see in the representative model in Australia?

MCCARTHY: Look Patricia I have been enormously heartened by the evidence that has come to the Parliamentary Committee and you are right we do need a bipartisan approach with any constitutional change and the fact that we can now say the voice is another option that is clearly back on the political table has been an important step given that less than 12 months ago it was rejected outright by the Prime Minister. So that is firstly the reassurance that needs to happen across the country with First Nations people, that the option of a voice is well and truly back on the political agenda.

In terms of what that would look like, the former structure so ATSIC, looking at whether it is an elected body or an appointed body, looking at the boundaries, the regional boundaries, I can only speak for the Northern Territory in terms of what ATSIC looked like. It was very very good for the grassroots and regional communities of the Northern Territory. Garra Garju was ours in the Gulf Country and people felt like they were included and people felt like they had a voice right to the parliament via that process. So naturally, our bipartisan committee is looking at this very closely in the coming months.

KARVELAS: A national resting place is another item on the agenda. There are people pushing for a nation resting place for the repatriation of your ancestors remains, there are so many in museums across Australia. Do you support the idea of a national resting place or institution where this happens?

MCCARTHY: I support the view that there is unfinished business in this country around truth-telling and one of those areas of truth-telling is the deaths of First Nations people, the fact that whether it is through massacres or through the fact that we need a landmark recognition or memorial we even now today still today have problems burying our dead and having their remains recognised in locations throughout the country. So there is still unfinished business in that space. What we have to be careful of in terms of the bipartisan committee is that there is so much that we could be looking at but we need to stay focused on the fact that if we are able to deliver a voice to the Federal parliament then that voice should be able to work on the unfinished business like this landmark resting place.

KARVELAS: What does truth-telling mean to you?

MCCARTHY: Truth-telling means being truthful to each other as Yolgnu, Balanda, Aboriginal, non-Aboriginal; truth telling in terms of our history. We have one perspective of our history through the eyes of balanda what about the First Nations perspective of history. I only had to reflect this week on a personal level when Alexander Downer made his comments after the Mayo by-election in relation to being enormously proud of his ancestry as being nation builders, and I just reflected and I thought well, you know you ask the Yanyuwa, Garawa, Mara and Gurandji peoples we would have a different perspective of that with the Downer name being very much front and centre of the South Australian Government at the time when massacres were occurring in the Gulf Country. Does that mean that Alexander Downer is wrong, that he shouldnt be proud? No that doesnt mean that at all, but it does mean that there is another side to that history that needs to be told and that is truth telling.

KARVELAS: Isnt it natural that Alexander Downer is proud of his familys rich history in political life, and I am sure if he was here and I am asking the challenging questions as a journalist, he would strongly contest your statement?

MCCARTHY: Look what I am pointing out is that there is always two sides to a story. And what that comment did was make the families of First Nations people reflect on another side of that history, of who was in charge at the time, who may have given the orders in terms of those massacres, what have historians written that are now read today as documentation which shows a connection. So that is really the truth telling that needs to take place. It is not about disputing a persons pride for their family, it is about saying yes I am proud of my family but maybe there were some things that were not so good.

KARVELAS: In 20 years from now, I am sure that Garma will still exist, it is such a strong national conference and festival that brings so many people together. In your ideal world, what would Garma be discussing in 20 years?

MCCARTHY: That is a great question isnt it. In 20 years time, it would be wonderful that Garma would be looking at what kind of funding there is for languages that are being taught in our schools, what languages are being offered for employees in different places and organisations across the country, how it can be celebrated in terms of cultural understanding. I think that Garma itself could also hold itself in the strength of spirituality in the fact that however we progress as a country that we should always remember that we are people and that we should always come back to our sense of spirit and that is what this place is about. Its also spiritual as much as it is in terms of academic learning under the bough sheds of these beautiful trees.

KRVELAS: Malarndirri thank you so much for your time.

MCCARTHTY: Thank you.

Click here to listen to the interview.