CEO Update - Garma - 'talk to us with tongues of fire'

Mental Health Australia CEO Frank Quinlan is currently on leave and has invited colleagues to provide a guest blog each week.

This week’s guest blog comes from Josh Fear, our Acting Deputy CEO at Mental Health Australia.

Garma - ‘talk to us with tongues of fire’

I’ve just returned from East Arnhem Land, and the honour of accompanying our CEO Frank Quinlan, Senior Policy Officer Emma Coughlan, and fourteen representatives in a joint Carers Australia and Mental Health Australia delegation at this year’s Garma festival.

As many of you know Garma is a four day cultural festival held on the land of the Gumatj clan, part of the Yolngu people who inhabit the Gove Peninsula.

Now in its 19th year, this year’s Garma was marked by tragedy, with the recent death of Dr G Yunupingu, a Yolngu man from Elcho Island whose voice was a gift to the world.

It was also significant because the Government was expected to respond to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the culmination of many months of consultation and deliberation by the Referendum Council on the question of how best to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution.

I can’t, in my limited space here, do justice to the festival itself, the rich cultural immersion it provides through dance, song, storytelling and art, nor (just as importantly) the many chance encounters I had in that remote place.

I do want to give a first-hand account of the public dialogue between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Garlarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj clan, and, on that day, the leader of all Australia’s first peoples. It was Garlarrwuy who gave to Referendum Council process the sacred Yolŋu word ‘Makarrata’: a coming together after a struggle.

At the opening ceremony which included an ancient fire dance, Garlarrwuy gave the Prime Minister the word for ‘tongue of fire’. He told the Prime Minister:

The fire is now our future and I have given the fire to you so you can talk to us with tongues of fire. Because we have come here for serious business, Prime Minister – very serious business.  

Expectations were very high, both among those in the crowd and across the nation.

The next day was the Prime Minister’s chance to respond to the aspirations set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. He did not commit immediately to achieving constitutional recognition or to a Makarrata Commission, however he was very confident of gaining bipartisan support for those measures. As he pointed out, there are some critical aspects of implementation that need to be considered in some detail:

What would the practical expression of the voice look like? What would the voice look like here for the Yolngu people? What would it look like for the people of Western Sydney, who are the largest population of Aboriginal peoples in Australia?

Is our highest aspiration to have Indigenous people outside the Parliament, providing advice to the Parliament? Or is it to have as many Indigenous voices, elected, within our Parliament?

What impact would the voice have on issues like child protection and justice, where the legislation and responsibility largely rest with state and territory governments?

These are important questions that require careful consideration. But the answers are not beyond us.

The highest hurdle, of course, is to gain popular support of the Australian people for constitutional change at a referendum. That will require all the skill and courage our political leaders can muster.

When asked whether he trusted the Prime Minster to take his ‘tongue of fire’ to Canberra, Garlarrwuy paused for a long moment. Sitting in a wheelchair after a recent kidney transplant, he finally said yes. ‘I will come to Canberra when I can walk again.’

Moving beyond the politics, attending Garma opened my eyes in many ways. I thought I understood the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but I was just scratching the surface. I saw glimpses of a culture indescribably ancient and complex; a culture I can learn more about, even delight in, but never fully understand.

I encourage anyone who can to make time to visit the 20th Garma festival next year. 

Josh Fear
Acting Deputy CEO
Mental Health Australia

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