Recognition at last

A path ahead? The time is right for healthy discussions around “belonging”, and how Aboriginal people can help non Aboriginal people find new, deep and interesting ways to connect to places they live in and to country. Photo: Hilary Burden

It is tragic how little Tasmanians know about their immediate past other than through endless re-writing of “The Black War”. We seem to be capable of only remembering what we did to Aboriginal people, not who they were before genocide, or how they lived their lives.

Northeast Aboriginal poet and historian Greg Lehman sees the Tasmanian condition as “living with sadness” and that to construe a life that doesn’t confront this is “living an unauthentic life”. “The challenge,” says Lehman, “is to create new ways of approaching the subject without going into a colonial foetal position”.

On October 20, under the British Empire gaze of Queen Victoria, the Upper House voted unanimously for historic Constitutional recognition for Tasmania’s First People, the last state in Australia to do so. According to those present there were both tears and applause. In briefings, at least two councillors opened up about their own Aboriginal heritage and how they wanted to learn more to connect.

Representatives of Tasmanian Aboriginal communities gather with Madeleine Ogilvie MP and Premier Will Hodgman outside Parliament House on an historic day for Constitutional recognition

Although Constitutional recognition remains unresolved in the nation’s parliament, in a Bill introduced by Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Premier Will Hodgman, Aboriginal people have finally been recognized in the preamble to the Tasmanian Constitution as “Tasmania’s First People and the traditional and original owners of Tasmanian lands and waters”.

Given its historic significance and the high emotion of some speeches, deputy chair of the Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Corporation Alliance (TRACA) Dr Patsy Cameron was shocked at how little attention the unanimous vote received outside parliament.

It is understandable how non-Aboriginal Tasmanians might not get the true significance of that day, especially when messages from descendants of the First People have long been conflicting. Long-standing Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell, apparently speaking for all Tasmanian Aboriginal people, had previously described the Hodgman Bill as a “politically out of touch gesture” that “does not create a single right or benefit for Aboriginals”.

In a meeting with the Legislative Council last week, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre CEO Heather Sculthorpe – who attended the briefing alone – argued the Bill would put relationships between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people “back to the 1960s”.

However, in a shift that the Premier’s re-setting of the relationship with Aboriginal people is designed to reflect, TRACA’s voice, representing diverse groups of Aboriginal people from around Tasmania, welcomed the occasion with open hearts.

TRACA chair Rodney Dillon says, “It shows a country is maturing and acknowledging things in the past. Only 40 or 50 years ago we were regarded as flora and fauna under the Aboriginal Relics Act. It’s only recently been believed there are other groups [outside the TAC]. It means we can now work on that relationship and what it means for our heritage and culture.”

Fiona Hamilton, spokesperson for the northeast’s melytinah tiakana warrana Aboriginal Corporation (mtwAC) says it was a cathartic moment for everyone. “Something in the political landscape of Tasmania has shifted. Councillors have accepted that our community could be divided just like theirs. They’ve allowed us that respect, that we, as human beings, have a diverse community.”

For Maxine Roughley, CEO of the Flinders Island Aboriginal Association Inc, the day was a step forward but there’s still a lot more work to be done. “Now they know there is another group out there – a group of Aboriginal organisations that have come together to be heard. Hopefully it’s made it easier for the government to consult with us.”

“Work to be done” must surely include addressing how TRACA’s voice that has enabled the momentus shift to occur is funded. It has never been clearer that the TAC does not speak for all Tasmanian Aboriginal people, yet, it is a multi-million dollar organization. Their 2015-16 end financial year report (made available to members only) is believed to show an income of over $13 million including more than $10 million in grants.

On December 3, as patron of Mannalargenna Day, Governor Kate Warner will travel to Cape Portland in the northeast to symbolically honour the 1830s promise made to Mannalargenna by George Augustus Robinson on behalf of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur to return Aboriginal people to their own districts from exile on Flinders Island. mtwAC will advertise and host the visit of the highest officer in the State on a budget of just under $8,000 after being unsuccessful in the latest round of community grants from the local Dorset Council.

“We understand the TAC uses over $2m a year to run their offices and we couldn’t even get a crumb off the table,” says mtwAC director Dr Cameron.

Aboriginal elders are happy to sit and have tea with anyone around the kitchen table. Just ask the Premier who in the past year has consulted widely with Aboriginal people in their communities. TRACA now hopes healthy discussions can be had around “belonging”; and how Aboriginal people can help non Aboriginal people find new, deep and interesting ways to connect to places they live in and to country.

All-comers are welcome at tebrakunna on Mannalargenna Day, December 3, 2016. Aunty Patsy says just bring a picnic lunch.

First published in TasWeekend, November 5, 2016 Copyright Hilary Burden