We started 2019–20 with so much hope and promise as we prepared to celebrate the closure of the climb after decades of lobbying. We felt so excited in October about finally getting that recognition and feeling satisfied that the history and cultural significance of this place have been recognised at long last. Since October 2019 Uluru is no longer a playground.
Along with this victory came other successes, and many challenges too. The challenges showed that strong Aboriginal leadership has kept us safe and that we deserve to be listened to when we keep calling for a voice, treaty and truth-telling.
A few months after the Uluru climbing chain was dismantled, leaving just a pale scar on the rock, the COVID-19 crisis brought a closure of the NT borders and the declaration of biosecurity zones. The Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park is very quiet without tourists, but I want to reassure people that as soon as this virus has been defeated we will be waiting to welcome everyone back to our country. They will be able to explore more and more Aboriginal-run tours in the beautiful country around the national park, not just the park itself, and learn about it from us.
We are really concerned about tourists returning before it is safe. We did that because we don’t want to risk spreading the virus. Lives are more important than money. People who are more concerned with making a lot of money put all our lives at risk. When things are safe again we will open our businesses again, but not a minute earlier.
We cancelled the Central Land Council’s meeting in April 2020 in response to the virus threat and held three executive meetings through videoconferencing. It was really important that we didn’t travel to Alice Springs and risk the lives of people in our communities. We appreciate how the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress kept us informed about how to protect ourselves from the virus and consulted with our communities and clinics.
I believe the broadcast and social media messages a lot of us recorded helped to keep us safe until now. Some people didn’t have access to TV, computers and mobile phones to see the messages but those who did spread the word among their families.
The Aboriginals Benefit Account grant the CLC used to support people during the biosecurity lockdowns also proved very helpful. It didn’t just help people keep warm during the freezing winter nights, it also kept us sane, allowing people to get out bush more often for respite and recharging. Anangu enjoyed settling down in their own country instead of rushing in and out of town and dealing with a stream of outsiders. It was a chance to slow down in a healthy environment and think more clearly about what really matters in life.
A safe climate, liveable houses and safe drinking water are some of those things. In September 2019 I asked climate strikers around the nation to spare a thought for remote community residents who live at the frontline of global heating. We are already suffering through hotter, drier and longer summers in our overcrowded hotbox houses. Many of our communities are running out of water or have to drink water that contains unacceptable levels of uranium or other pollutants – sometimes both. Water rights are the new land rights and our council is ready to fight for them.
Working on country is another one of those precious things, and our rangers are experts at it. In November 2019 I joined some of them for the 9th World Ranger Congress in Nepal, where we compared experiences with colleagues from all over the globe. We learned about some rangers’ battles against poachers and that they have similar problems to us: a lack of funding for local people who want to look after their country, for example. Some reported that people from the cities were telling them how to look after their country, ignoring their traditional ways of managing it. They have to wait for outsiders to arrive before they can go ahead and do the work they want to do.
Here in Central Australia we need more ranger groups, more ranger positions and more Aboriginal rangers in leadership roles, not work-for the-dole schemes that punish and frustrate our people. The federal government’s scheme seems pretty far removed from our reality. I see people in our communities do paperwork, tick boxes and go home and watch TV. I don’t see Anangu out working, for example with housing construction crews. I see wages go to outsiders who take the money with them. The resources are not hitting the ground where they are needed. It’s time the government started to seriously work with us on our remote jobs proposal which would employ 5,000 people in real jobs and provide work experience for our young.
To our young people I say: step up and continue to get an education so that you are able to make the most of these opportunities, and get involved with the CLC. It’s no good just complaining or worrying about things. You need to be able to get out there and work for your people. Stand up and speak strongly in front of your people, listen to their needs and learn how to represent them well.
The next generation could learn a lot from former CLC director David Ross AM, who was awarded with membership of the general division of the Order of Australia in January. Mr Ross always put forward what land council members wanted and put his own views and interests last. We are really grateful for his contribution to the land council over more than four decades and will never forget it.
I reflected about young white police officers and their training after the shocking tragedy concerning a young man in Yuendumu in November 2019. The intervention [Northern Territory Emergency Response] dehumanised us in their eyes and brought in stricter, more depersonalised policing. I want experienced officers trained to develop relationships with our people and show compassion and empathy so they can defuse difficult situations. No police officers in our communities should carry guns.
What happened in Yuendumu and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown that truth-telling is more urgent than ever. Politicians should drop their resistance against the Uluru Statement and embrace it as a tool for reconciling our differences so we can move forward together in a humane way, without violence. I sincerely hope the coming year will bring some progress towards the aims of the statement, especially towards a constitutionally enshrined voice for our peoples to the parliament.