Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Eugenia Flynn, Adele Cox and Tim Goodwin
After the initial flurry of opinion pieces immediately following Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit there has been a deafening silence. In fact, the only sound remaining is that of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the participants in the Options for the Future of Indigenous Australia stream struggling for breath. Quite disappointingly, the majority of the loudest voices did not even participate in the Indigenous Australia stream; and amid all the noise, the voices of young Indigenous Australians are struggling to be heard.
We know that the Indigenous population of Australia is a young population; in fact almost 65 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are under the age of 30. In preparation for the Summit events, the National Indigenous Youth Movement of Australia (‘NIYMA’) encouraged all of its members to apply to be part of both the 2020 Youth Summit and the Australia 2020 Summit, held over consecutive weekends in April 2008. NIYMA had spent some time gathering the opinions and ideas of other young Indigenous people. Our mandate was clear: not to represent the views of all young Indigenous people, but to ensure that a youth perspective contributed to the discussion, and that we continued to advocate as a voice of our young people.
Throughout 2007, NIYMA held a series of state and territory Indigenous Youth Engagement Strategy Workshops. The workshops brought together over 200 young Indigenous people and while not intended to fit the purpose of any particular summit (the 2020 Summits were not announced until January 2008), we took this opportunity to bring to the fore discussions in which young Indigenous people had already been engaged. It was through this preparation that we confirmed that our members and our fellow young Indigenous sisters and brothers are intelligent, relevant and filled with ideas to talk about and act upon. Make no mistake in thinking that we make this statement lightly or that this is rhetoric and spin. It has been our pleasure, through preparing for the Summit, to confirm that young Indigenous people possess the talent and skill to be the leaders that they already are in their families, communities, schools, workplaces and everyday lives. Our members and supporters asked us to put forward ideas demonstrating that young Indigenous people are not happy with the current state of affairs; that young Indigenous people have innovative and potentially effective ideas; and most importantly that young Indigenous people are committed to the cause and are committed to new ways of doing business and new ways of moving forward.
Therefore, to the Australia 2020 Summit, we took with us a new perspective, a commitment to new ways of working together, and open minds and hearts. We took to the Summit not just expectations but also hope for new conversations and new ways of doing business. We did not hope necessarily for new ideas, but for a new commitment from government on how to redefine Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples – a relationship that manifests itself in both the symbolic and the practical. We continue to feel that this redefining of the relationship is critical to Australia’s national identity; to our healing as Indigenous peoples; to moving forward as Indigenous peoples and therefore for Australia as a whole; and to the details and practicality of service delivery and the work ‘on the ground’.
The Summit itself was definitely an interesting experience. Of the 1000 participants, there was only a handful of young Indigenous people and the majority of these were in the Options for the Future of Indigenous Australia stream. As to whether the weekend was a success from the viewpoint of informing government, thereby creating change, no one can really say yet. A hasty judgment on this aspect can only be unfounded and naïve because only time will tell if the ideas put forward were worthwhile, or if they will be accepted by the Rudd Government and implemented to positive effect.
What we do know about the Australia 2020 Summit is that it was a success because it brought together a large number of Indigenous leaders from across Australia to continue discussions that had previously petered out due to the demise of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (‘ATSIC’). Despite major newspapers trying to create the illusion of fractured leadership, there was no real fighting between the 100 people in the room. There were of course robust discussions, disagreements, debate and differences of opinion – all things that should not be viewed in the negative. In actual fact, this should be viewed in the positive for it is out of a broad range of opinions and ideas, in direct opposition or otherwise, that the right answers and solutions can be found. It is in recognising, with respect, that we have differences that we will find real solutions to real issues. More importantly, this highlights the diversity that exists between groups of Indigenous people in Australia.
Respect for difference permeated the discussions. Among almost all of the 100 delegates, there was a real commitment to and consensus about creating positive change. There was a real recognition that we can have differences and that this will not impede the work that needs to be done. Indigenous people, like everyone else, can sit in different spots on the political spectrum – a point that was sorely missed in the ensuing media coverage.
In all of this there was also the push to ensure that we did not have to choose between national symbolic gestures and practical measures for improving Indigenous wellbeing. While some chose to buy in to this kind of ‘divide and conquer’ strategy set out by our oppressors, many others chose to rise above it and recognise that we can and must have both. We chose to push for the very best. We chose not to settle for one or the other because that would have meant we had given up the struggle for all of our rights; it would mean bargaining with governments over rights that should not and cannot be haggled over.
These sentiments added to the hope that we took to the Australia 2020 Summit. Of course, this hope is not one that is all delusional optimism without any form of critical analysis. It is our opinion that the strongest voice of critique in all of this discussion is the voice of young Indigenous people – the same young Indigenous people who make up so much of our community but are not often invited to the discussion table. However, we do not ask that an invitation is made at the expense of our learned and experienced elders, but that it is in addition so that solutions can be forged together with the unique skills we can all bring. The voice of dissent, in this case, is made with love.
In saying that there was much consensus about not needing consensus, and that there was a wave of support for the stance that both the symbolic and practical are symbiotic, we do recognise that there were pitfalls in the debate. There were examples of old ways of doing business that were disappointing and worn and that young Indigenous people no longer feel are part of our future. As with the positive things about the Australia 2020 Summit there are disconcerting examples of attitudes that now, into the silence, we respond to with a critical lens.
As mentioned previously, one of the positives of the Australia 2020 Summit was the push for both the practical and the symbolic to be accepted as solutions. While this is commendable, it should be acknowledged that it took hard conversations and uncomfortable debates to get to a point where this decision could be reached. Even then, in the public debate that has followed, many still argue that discussions surrounding symbolic gestures were at the expense of practical steps and that the practical is all that matters. This is something that we did not accept at the Summit and something that we continue to speak out against. We would propose that now is the time to graciously work with the Rudd Government’s goodwill; timely after the apology. We believe that there is no dichotomy of symbolic and practical, but rather, that our human rights as people are to be fulfilled in both notions.
It is coupled with this push for both practical and symbolic measures to address Indigenous futures that we make mention of those who, at the Summit, felt that we should discuss practical measures only. While there were many nods around the room when delegates started to speak of a treaty or some other form of agreement, there were some who clearly felt that a treaty is not achievable nor desirable in the face of issues at the grass roots level. Without taking away from the push for practical measures, we felt that there should have been a push for the Government to commit to things that they are not already committed to. Government is already committed to such things as good educational and health outcomes for Indigenous communities, but they are not committed to notions of treaty, self-determination and sovereignty – all things that we feel should have been pushed more strongly at the Summit, in conjunction with some of the more ‘practical’ solutions. In saying all of this, we do recognise that although committed to targets such as greater engagement in education and improved health and life expectancy, the way these targets are to be achieved is still, justifiably, subject to much discussion.
It was not just the trap of dichotomy that some delegates fell into easily at the Australia 2020 Summit. There were other distractions from the more pressing issues that shifted people’s attention and gave credit to ‘divide and conquer’ techniques. It was a discussion of leadership that raised concerns and which requires critique. We feel that our presence at the Australia 2020 Summit, and the influx of ideas that we received from our members and supporters leading up to the Summit, points to a high level of commitment that exists amongst our peers to connect and discuss. As mentioned previously, it is with great pleasure that we confirmed that young Indigenous people wanted dearly to participate in the Australia 2020 Summit, however only some were afforded the opportunity to attend. Discussions with some of the more veteran leaders among us revealed that they too share our concern; that young Indigenous people need to be engaged in discussions about Indigenous affairs and that part of the problem is making it happen. Unlike mainstream Australia, Indigenous young people make up the majority of our population and it is not simply a case of continuing to nurture, support and get ready for our future generations; young Indigenous people are here and now.
On reflection after the Australia 2020 Summit, we acknowledge that the opportunity to have a handful of young Indigenous people among the discussions and conversations about the future of Indigenous Australia is a sign that steps are being taken to engage more effectively with Indigenous young people across the country. There is still a long way to go, but with a bit of optimism and good faith, we will see young Indigenous people at the forefront of discussions and conversations alongside our current mix of Indigenous leaders.
Eugenia Flynn, Adele Cox and Tim Goodwin are members of the executive of the National Indigenous Youth Movement of Australia (‘NIYMA’). NIYMA is a membership-based organisation run by and for young Indigenous people that envisages healthy, strong and free Indigenous communities. NIYMA believes that to achieve this, young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be at the forefront of the movement.
 See <http://www.australia2020.gov.au/> .
 See <http://www.australia2020.gov.au/topics/indigenous.cfm> .
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Population Characteristics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (2006).
 See <http://www.australia2020.gov.au/youth/index.cfm> .
 The Workshops were held in conjunction with Reconciliation Australia and were funded in part by the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Foundation, Telstra Foundation and Oxfam Australia.