Tribute to Jak Ah Kit, trail blazer of the NT

14 July 2020



FRAN KELLY, RADIO NATIONAL: Malarndirri McCarthy welcome to RN Breakfast.

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Good morning Fran. Good morning to your listeners.

KELLY: John Ah Kit, known to many of his friends as Jak, was loved by many. From your experience and friendship with John Ah Kit, how would you describe him and what made him such an important leader for Indigenous Australians?

MCCARTHY: He was just an amazing character Fran. Someone who I think touched the lives of most people who met him over his many years and not just in political spheres, but also in the footy world, sporting world and more broadly not just with First Nations people but with all Australians and he was a larger than life character and I was incredibly, you know, honoured really to take on his seat in 2005 and to be mentored and guided by him for in my early years in political life.

KELLY: He described himself I think as “a barefoot ratbag”. He grew up in the Parap Camp in Darwin, so he didn’t have a privileged childhood. Do you think that was the sort of fire in his belly that really propelled him?

MCCARTHY: Always. Always. I think you know just the good old, that ratbag nature you know certainly very much kept his strength throughout all the things that he had to endure in life trying to succeed, trying to break through the ceilings of racism, prejudice, just to get to positions that, as he said, in his own speeches to the Territory Parliament, that he never thought he’d be standing in those positions. But he was so well respected in his role with the Northern Land Council and also with the Jawoyn Association around Katherine, Fran. He was someone that could really bring a very divided group together.

FRAN: I remember him well from the time of the Native Title, the Mabo Native Title debate in the Federal Parliament and through those years. He was one of those leaders that were there, was there, able to deal in the Parliament as well as deal in the camps. That was the- he clearly had that bridge, he was a powerful leader of the Northern Land Council at the time, and brought all of that authority to it. But he first came to national prominence I think, didn’t he, over the battle for Coronation Hill.

MCCARTHY: Yes, he certainly grew up in Alice Springs and then moved to Darwin and then became very involved around certainly the Kakadu area and then the Jawoyn area in terms of Nitmiluk and the return of the Katherine Gorge to the Jawoyn. So they were certainly his early days and there’s perhaps others who can speak more wisely on that in terms of working beside him, even Pat Dodson, Warren Snowdon, people who worked with him when they were in the Central Land Council. And they were days, if we remember too Fran, where the fight and the struggle for Aboriginal Land Rights was just incredible because it was just so resisted by government after government.

KELLY: But working, that battle for Coronation Hill, essentially, the Traditional Owners, the Jawoyn, worked to prevent mining in Kakadu National Park. He gained the support of then Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Do you think that Sacred Site would have been saved without John Ah Kit? And without Bob Hawke for that matter.

MCCARTHY: Look, I think it depends on who you speak to, Fran. I mean in any fight, and in any struggle, certainly for land rights, it takes more than one person and even Jak would say that.

KELLY: He did express a hope that he would become a role model for people, like you, who succeed him in the Parliament. He said: “I certainly hope that the quality of politicians that we develop and nurture makes for a better Northern Territory and a better country called Australia”.


KELLY: Do you think politicians like you are part of John Ah Kit’s legacy?

MCCARTHY: Well I certainly, well I certainly know for a fact that he greatly influenced my steps coming into Parliament and I would read those speeches, in fact, I do recall actually reading the speeches he made prior to coming into Parliament and it moved me greatly. So I would say yes, yes very much so, that he impacted a tremendous amount of young Australians at the time, black and white.

KELLY: And yet we still don’t have, in numbers, Indigenous Australians in our parliaments. You’re there in the Federal Parliament. You’ve been in the Territory Parliament. Why do you think that is, what needs to change and how important is it that that change, that very statistic?

MCCARTHY: Yeah that’s a really good question. I think there’s a couple of ways of answering that. One of course is whether political parties will open, you know, nominations for First Nations candidates to stand and to stand in winnable seats. I think that’s a bit of a no brainer. That would be one that would certainly see more First Nations people stand.

KELLY: You think there should be more efforts to recruit people, Indigenous Australians, to stand in those seats?

MCCARTHY: Absolutely. I mean there needs to be an encouragement, a willingness, a sincere willingness to enable First Nations people to stand. We’re certainly seeing more standing at local government levels, especially here in the Northern Territory. We have a great deal of First Nations people who stand as local government representatives on regional councils and municipalities and then the next step obviously is whether they want to stand for Territory Parliament or any state or Federal Parliament.

KELLY: Well John Ah Kit took that step. He leaves us as the Black Lives Matter movement takes off globally including here in Australia. Do you think he would have been heartened by that, would he have seen it as any kind of proof that Australia’s becoming more mindful of the plight of First Australians?

MCCARTHY: Look, I have no doubt that he would have seen all that was going on and known, as we all do I suppose when we see that, that there is a groundswell and a passion and a movement that’s far greater perhaps that we’ve seen anywhere, certainly in my lifetime and perhaps even in Jak’s when you think of the resistance that he had to endure along with those who battled beside him. You know, there were men and women here in the Territory who walked with Jak through all those experiences, and they would look at the Black Lives Matter movement and go, well is this the time where our country and our world is really ready for that change?

KELLY: Senator McCarthy thank you very much for joining us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you Fran.