Ten Deserts Project Launch: Senator Patrick Dodson

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Old Parliament House, Canberra, 28 March 2018

I begin by acknowledging the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people and the great contributions they make to Canberra.

I want to acknowledge all the rangers that are here, the work that you do, not just the work on country but the education work you do, with people who do not necessarily come from your culture and your background. I want to acknowledge BHP and the BHP Billiton Foundation for their commitment in this space. It is not only a critical space because of the biodiversity and the richness of the culture and the beauty of the landscapes; this is really about how do we get transformative thinking into westernised institutional systems that govern and manage these lands. I’m not just talking specifically about land management but the whole public policy domains.

So how do you inculcate cultural imperatives into public sector policy and into land management programs into important factors like native title for instance, the rights of Indigenous peoples and First Nations peoples?

There’s always this disconnect between these two things and I am glad this project has got a five-year life because over that five-year period, the analysis and the reflection not only of what you identify and characterise and record, this is about global dynamics as well as national dynamics.

It’s about First Nations peoples and their relationship to the environment, the connectivity to land, as the essential ingredient of a human being’s essence. The Senate has recently conducted an Inquiry into the protection of the rock art of the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia. In that collection is an image of a human being, a human face, the first ever record of that happening, an ancient, ancient reflection upon the human being. There are descendants probably in this room from the people who created that. This is how ancient all this stuff is. As Australians we have to find not just an understanding about this but a capacity to be transformed by it. How do we allow ourselves to be transformed, that’s the fundamental dilemma for First Nations people in a dominant society? We can glean from this the information we want and extract from that information the learnings we wish to take for the purposes of the sustainability of the human race on this planet, but at the centre of this are the human beings who are providing that today.

Not only are they trying to survive and sustain their cultures in the face of the ineptitudes of some of our public policy systems, but also asking how do they survive where there isn’t real recognition at a political level of their unique status as the First Peoples of these lands. So, we have got to really get to a position where on the one hand we can celebrate and enjoy, and really we should, because this is a wonderful project but on the other hand let’s not lose sight of the fact that the First Nations people are still in need of proper recognition within our nation state. There’s going to come a time when we areactually going to move beyond the exotic and the exquisite and the interest and, what I often think of as, the platitudinous statements. We have to get to the real hard core of business and move the nation not only to be more supportive of the programs but to actually get to a different axiological position and allow the penetrations of these cultural imperatives to percolate through the public sector and into the policy programs where First Nations peoples are actually driving, managing and delivering the kinds of programs that are necessary.

In my part of the world, and those from Bidyadanga will know, and Kimberley Land Council know, we talk about Mabu Liyan. Mabu Liyan, who and why and how do I feel and do I feel good … do I feel good in a sense of my being, with all the things happening around me, do I feel good. Mabu Liyan. And if I don’t feel good because something is happening on my country, whether it is fracking, whether it is marine parks being contracted and fish species being exploited, whatever it is, or the poverty I see amongst my people, and the premature deaths that I see amongst my people, then my liyan isn’t good. So the connectivity of the country and who I am as a human being are integrated.

The other terms that we use is Mabu Buru, good country, which we are talking about on this project. Good country, keeping the country healthy, keeping it rich in its diversity, in its uniqueness, in what it is there to deliver, but also the songs, the stories, the paint and the dance and the ceremonial components and the protocols that govern kinship relationships. So keeping country healthy is not just about how do we preserve the species, it’s how do the people who live within those spaces remain well. And that’s a critical thing and that comes to the third concept that the Yawuru people use and that is Mabu ngarrungu, how are we as a collective?

As a community how do we feel? How do we experience the goodness of what it is we can contribute to the richness of our diversity? How do we do that? A project like this has all that potential to grow into that and beyond where it might be and inform governments, whether it is the government that one day I hope to be in or the current government. Actually inform people who run and manage public sector policy so it’s not just a project about rangers, this is about, as was said, the oldest living continuous culture and the people that hold that culture and whose relationship to land is absolutely unique. Absolutely unique.
The songs and the ceremonies that transcend across the land are unique. They are irreplaceable. In Broome this year we were very lucky we had the support of our relations further south, Karajarri people, Nyangumarta people , people from Roebourne, people from the Kimberley when one of our oldest ceremonies, which had not been practised in a long time, we were able to revive that and 16 young men were put through that law.

That reminds me today that this is the second positive thing I have seen this week since being in Canberra. The first thing was the Tangentyere women who came to the Parliament to talk about their struggle against domestic violence, their struggle to do something about the awfulness of domestic violence and the contributors to that, alcohol, drugs, poor housing, all of those things that mitigate against the goodness of connectivity to country. They were there letting us know about that struggle, and the support they need. Governments need to wake up to that fact as well. They need support for what they are doing. You come with this story today, which is the second “best” thing of a positive nature, of where breakthroughs are slowly, slowly happening. Fred Chaney would have seen this a thousand times over and felt elated and thought this was the beginning of the new world but unfortunately we constantly go back to the old world, but you’ve got to remain hopeful. Remain hopeful, that we are as Australians, getting beyond some of these harsh narratives that have stopped us from the absolute recognition of the First Nations of this country and accommodating them appropriately within our constitutional framework.

When we get to that then it no longer becomes a project, it becomes part of the nation’s psyche. We would hope this is something that is part of the nation’s psyche, not something like, “oh we have to do this because Aboriginal people like doing these things or like walking around the countryside”. No, this is integral to our nationhood as Australians and so what BHP Billiton Foundation and what you the rangers are doing is creating a foundation in a very important part of the nation, a very, very important part of the nation. And important, not here, but globally, because other First Nations are grappling with similar sorts of challenges and dilemmas with nation states and their relationships.

I am completely pleased to have got up early this morning and to be here. I want to say thank you for what you are doing and thank you to the Foundation and thank you to the rangers for travelling here and I wish you well today with the discussions that you have because you are at the cutting edge here. Do not underestimate how significant this is. You are at the cutting edge. If we can find pathways that not only links to the sustainability of our country but pathways that help in the sustainability of our peoples and the connectivity between those two things, then we’ll be doing something great.

Thank you very much.

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