Indigenous Australia

Arnhem Land: A matter of national emergency

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Memorial service for land rights pioneer, Mr Wunungmurra, in Yirrkala (Image via abc.net.au)

On a recent visit to Arnhem Land, Adam Jacoby was prompted by the inequality of opportunity and lack of self-determination of the Indigenous community to write about their plight and ask where the $millions of taxpayer's money is going as it's certainly not to the community.

LIKE MANY of you, I had heard stories of Arnhem Land and the Indigenous community. I had seen pictures and read articles. I had heard the rhetoric of the plight of our first people and accepted that the problems that have spanned decades are just too complex to remediate. And there is some truth to that notion but only some.

The struggle of the Indigenous people is indeed a struggle for land, respect and acknowledgement but it is deeper than that and their community leaders know it. I am confident of this as I have spoken directly with them about it. The real fight, the important fight, is the battle for self-determination, equality of opportunity and a base level of existence that does not continue to hold their proud, capable and kind hearted people down.

The things I have witnessed during my visit last month will stay with me forever.

There exists a frustrating dissonance: a land owned by the Indigenous people but controlled by outsiders who enslave them into poverty and inactivity, the call for development and training but a system architected in such a way that it is impossible to deliver it and community leadership both wise and forgiving but largely ignored by the only people able to help enact their will in their own land.

Make no mistake, the leaders of the Indigenous community are not those you see reporting to government. They do not have budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars and have business cards with government logos. The real leaders are revered tribesmen and women who, above all else, place the continuity, welfare and development of their beautiful and proud culture above personal benefit. White people are visitors in their land but still control it with ruthless indifference. 

What I have seen offends me. Foremost it offends me as a humanitarian but as a taxpayer and a long standing businessman I am equally shocked and enraged.

The people of Yirrkala, a gorgeous coastal town at the very north-east tip of Arnhem Land live, on average, 9.6 people to a house. The houses they live in cost approximately $700 per week to rent and they are not allowed to own the property they live in. Think about that for a moment. The people who own the land and have done so for thousands of years, in a protected region of the country are not allowed to own their property. One elder I spent considerable time with has paid rent for 50 years on the same house that sits on his own tribe’s land.  


Unemployment is at 98 per cent in Yirrkala but not because the people are unable or unwilling to work, in fact they are desperate to. They have grand but achievable plans to build training centres, businesses and community capability. But it is hard to work when the town consists of one small supermarket and an art gallery for the tourists who occasionally stop by for a few hours during a cruise. I heard first-hand from a government funded body, supposedly there to build community business outcomes, that it will take 7-10 years to get a permit to start a business because of the back log of paperwork at another well-funded government agency. Seven to ten years to get a permit from an outsider — to build a business in their own community to help their own people.

These are traditional owners, elders, leaders, being held back by white people with control of taxpayer money specifically earmarked to help them. My money. Your money.    

I have asked hard questions about the accountabilities surrounding appointed bodies charged with building community businesses and enterprise in a town with neither businesses nor enterprise. The questions, not surprisingly, were met with both alarm and concern.

I want to know where the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are going. Because it is obvious that it is not going into the community. Why are the traditional owners receiving no financial benefit for the tens of millions of dollars provided by Rio Tinto each year and the hundreds of millions of dollars distributed by the federal government? Why do the royalties of the banana plantation operated by the government appointed body not go back to the traditional owners despite promises they would be? Why are artists being paid 20 per cent or less of the RRP of their artwork?*

I have witnessed many white people living in large houses on the beach front and family after family of Indigenous community members who have to ration food, clothing and electricity just to survive. Electricity costs $1600 a quarter here and petrol costs almost double the prices in Sydney and Melbourne at around $2 a litre.

This is an environment engineered to maintain the status quo.

If Arnhem Land is intended to be a sacred tribal land run by and for the Indigenous community, then why are elders not running or at least controlling the distribution of investment funds. Why does their vision of schools, tertiary and training programs remain unfulfilled?  Why are rates of suicide and diabetes at a significant multiple on the rest of the Australian population?

Don’t confuse these queries for naivety. I am well aware that these are complex problems and that many great leaders both Indigenous and white, have been trying to deliver a positive impact in this community for decades. There is no magic bullet, no single fix for the myriad of problems that exist but surely a first step is community control of community assets and resources.

There are three kinds of power co-existing in Arnhem Land:

  1. Positional Authority — government leaders, where power results from the office held
  2. Delegated Authority — government appointed and funded organisations
  3. Practical Authority — tribal elders and genuine community leaders

The reality is that the first two categories are temporary and are subject to the political mood of a constituency who does not understand, nor see what is happening up north. There is much work to do before these communities can thrive and be genuinely self-sufficient BUT if you chase the money trail, I suspect you will quickly understand why this moral stain on Australia is so deep and longstanding.

It is time that white Australia understood that the only way our great Indigenous community can rise up and meet its potential is to invest in its self-determination. Anything else is undemocratic, inhumane and immoral.

* EDITOR'S NOTE: In a previous version of this piece it seems we incorrectly reported that '.. the gallery is not staffed by a single Indigenous artist?' The author has received comments from members of the Yirkalla community to express that the Arts Centre does indeed employ Indigenous community members and so we have have removed this part of the sentence. Arts Centre staff have also told us that the percentage of the proceeds are in excess of 67 per cent of RRP and not 20% orless as reported. However, oher reports have been received since time of publication from other members of the community supporting the latter assertion. IA will continue to investigate this matter.

You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamajacoby.     

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