An example of disempowerment- Why dont you talk to us first?

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If you have been to an Aboriginal Community in the NT then you would know that in some places community announcements and other messages are broadcast over a loud speaker to anyone in earshot.  In NE Arnhem Land most of these messages are in the local language with splatterings of English often by a local land owner, Elder or senior Djuŋgaya (manager/administrator in the Indigenous domain).  Recently I heard one of these messages, and while I have not acquired the skill that Yolngu have of understanding these messages from a distance, I was able to pick up a very clear thread from this message.  The Elder speaking was quite irate about decisions that had been made by Government and organisations that had not been discussed with local leaders.  In fact he finished this speech by addressing the Balanda in the community directly in English, which is a rare occurance.  I want to share his message to them with you because this is an issue that deeply hurts and disempowers Indigenous people and their communities.  I poorly summarise his statement….

“Why don’t you Balanda explain to us what are your plans for us?  What is the Government’s plan for us or the Shire’s or whoever’s plan for us? What do you have in mind for our future?  Someone come and explain it to me? We don’t know? You don’t talk to us.  You just change things. Where is the consultation, where is the negotiation.  We have our own parliaments; our own system of law.  You should be talking to us first.”

His speech demonstrated that Indigenous people in some remote communities feel like all the decisions about their community are being made for them.  Not only do they want to know what is going on, they feel they have a right to know and a right to be part of the decision making process.  Yolŋu have been demanding this right since the Balanda first imposed on them. The jurisdiction that their own systems of law gives them over the use of land and governance of their own society, means that decisions made by the Balanda systems without consulting the appropriate person in their own system are seen as imposing, controlling or illegitimate.  These are not naive thoughts.  Yolngu struggle to understand how our political system really works,  but they are fully aware that their land owners, leaders and elders have no say in the constant changes that complicate their lives, and determine how their land is used, despite a system that is supposed to support them.  The last year has been particularly difficult with the coercive tactics of the intervention, removing the permit system, imposing police forces and compulsory income management all without preliminary consultation.  On top of this the NT government disbanded the local community councils, forming them into super shires and so severely limiting local control of the townships.  The statement summarised above implies an anger and perhaps a fear of the Government and the ‘Balanda’ system’s plans for them.  This is evidence of the lack of information people have about the mainstream Australian system, leaving a big question mark about how the power that Balanda exerts over them will be used.  Just as this Yolngu man suggests, Indigenous communities are dependent on non-Indigenous personnel to keep them informed of the plans of Government and other organisations.  The lack of real consultation also means that Indigenous people are excluded from the debates.  Take for example the debate about bilingual education.  This year at the word of the Minister Indigenous languages are all but banned from being taught and used for teaching in the class room.  On such issues the media presents us with rarely more than a couple of Indigenous people who may or may not represent informed local opinion.  Meanwhile a whole range of non-Indigenous experts get to comment on the issue.   In addition, those Indigenous people that do get to speak in the media must do so in English, a foreign language to them, as a result they sound simple minded and shallow when their experience and meaning is deep. That Indigenous people are excluded from decisions that effect them is a real experience they face regularly ( hear about this directly from an remote Indigenous voice).   We must create ways to consult throughly using the local and traditional systems that the people are using.  Consultation takes time.  But taking that time to listen and include the peoples system is part of the solution to Indigenous problems because it allows for learning, it encourages, demonstrates respect and empowers Indigenous Australians with the opportunity to speak.   In fact, time for good consultation reduces many future complications; but that is another story…

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  1. Petrice

    Yes this made me feel sad because its just so typical of a colonial attitude that still deeply affects Australia – the one that disempowers Aboriginal people who are still treated in many regards as second class citizens in their own country.

    It would be more helpful to gain a deeper understanding of the individual needs of Indigenous communities across Australia. Is it so hard to simply communicate? No but within the current system of government it is too hard to do something this simple. This must change and we need educated people who don’t just have a business degree or a degree in political science – we need spiritual people and more Indigenous persons in power to represent the needs of many unique and often disenfranchised Australians.
    There is a way forward, but its one baby step at a time.