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Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
Matters relating to constitutional change

COULTHARD, Mr Damian, Chairperson, Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association

COULTHARD, Mr Vince, Chief Executive Officer, Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association

McKENZIE, Ms Vivianne, Vice Chairperson, Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association

SUMNER, Mr Ken, Chief Executive Officer, Moorundi Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service

SUMNER, Mr Steven, Chief Executive Officer, Moorundi Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service

Evidence from Mr V Couthard, Mr D Coulthard and Ms McKenzie was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee doesn't require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion. We might hear from ATLA first and then the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority.

Ms McKenzie : I'm a member for the Adnyamathanha group from the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. I'm here to represent my people. I'm in Adelaide at the moment, on teleconference. I'm with Damian and Vince, who are also from Adnyamathanha tribe, and we're here to seek recognition and acknowledgement of our people as First Nations people of this land we are standing on today.

Mr K Sumner : I'm here with regard to the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority. I'm happy to be the spokesperson, I guess, with regard to myself and Steve. I come from the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia, from the Murray River and lakes in Coorong to the Southern Ocean of South Australia. I come from—I've spent most of my life there—a little Aboriginal community called Raukkan, which was formerly a mission and became a government reserve in later years, until about 1972, when it was handed back to us.

As Aboriginal people, we have seen the demise and destruction of our social fabric of life. As we talk about this recognition stuff and constitutional reform, we support it, but it's got to be balanced. We support the reforms, particularly the ones set out in the Uluru Statement, because they are the only reforms with Indigenous backing. We don't support a minimalist or purely symbolic constitutional amendment. Constitutional recognition must be substantive and practical. We support reforms that will empower our people to take responsibility in our affairs.

A First Nations voice should be designed in collaboration with Indigenous people so that it complements and supports regional and local empowerment. Reforms must be, for us, about unifying the country. At the moment, we don't have that unification. We don't have equality or equity. Any form of change has to be about empowering people and unifying us as a nation. I am not sure what else to say here, except that we do support change but it must be about empowering people.

CHAIR: Do you regard the voice as a body that would empower Indigenous people?

Mr K Sumner : Sorry?

CHAIR: Do you regard the proposed voice that came from Uluru as a body that would empower Indigenous people?

Mr K Sumner : Yes. It needs to be an Indigenous voice that speaks into the hallways of parliament.

CHAIR: What do you hope the voice will achieve? What is the problem it is trying to solve, as it were?

Ms McKenzie : I agree with what Mr Sumner is saying there. What needs to be done is the empowerment of the First Nations people in this country. The ownership and respect of who we are and of our culture and our World Heritage rights should be given to the First Nations people of this country because we are very diverse group of people. At colonisation, when it happened, there were nations of people living on an island. That recognition that we are the first people of this country needs to be given to the Aboriginal people. We are the First Nations people. It is sad to say that we are the only country in the world at this very moment that does not recognise the First Nations people of this country. That recognition of the diversity of Aboriginal people, of our culture, of our languages and mother tongues of this land that Aboriginal people still practice and speak should be first and foremost.

You mentioned Ayers Rock. My mother comes from Ayers Rock and she is a part of the Stolen Generation. My dad is from the Flinders Rangers. He is an Adnyamathanha person. That is the diversity I am talking about. We should not be painted with the one brush. We should be seen as a nation of Aboriginal people who speak different languages. That is what I'm saying. We should be recognised for that.

CHAIR: Would you like to comment about what issues you see the voice addressing? What do you hope it will achieve?

Mr K Sumner : I agree with Vivianne. We believe that substantive constitutional reform is a crucial part of the structural reforms that are needed to galvanise and enable responsibility and self-determination for Indigenous peoples. Yes, we are a diverse group of people. The voice has to be heard from grassroots people. How that is done is critical. What was your question again?

CHAIR: The question was: what do you hope the voice will achieve? What is the problem it is designed to solve?

Mr K Sumner : The voice, like any voice, is a mechanism to be heard. Aboriginal people haven't been heard—not properly. So the voice is critical. It is not at this point in time critical to survival, but it is critical to our future as we grow and develop in this nation as a people that takes a hold of who we are and as recognition begins its journey. Recognition hasn't begun its journey yet—not properly.

CHAIR: How do you see it as actually beginning the journey? How do we do it?

Mr K Sumner : At this point in time, we don't really have a voice nationally. We don't have a voice that feeds into the spaces where it needs to go.

CHAIR: Some Indigenous people around the country have been saying to us that what they want are some local voices to deal with issues in communities with government, some regional voices and then perhaps a national voice. I might ask you first, Mr Sumner, and then I'll ask Ms McKenzie: is that something that you would hope—

Mr K Sumner : Absolutely.

Ms McKenzie : You took the words right out of my mouth. What's been happening is that for us as Aboriginal people there have only been a few voices going over to Canberra and the government has been made to believe that the voices were speaking for all Aboriginal people—but that is not right. They are not. Like I said at the beginning, we are a very diverse people. We come from different tribes or groups. Like I said, I am a descendant of a group from the desert in the Northern Territory and I am a descendant of the Adnyamathanha from the Flinders Ranges here in South Australia. The government has got to look at the fact that not only a few people can speak for Aboriginal people. It has to listen to the different groups. Many Aboriginal people are in different groups and we can't just send two or three people to these things. We need to have voices for all the people. I believe that in parliament and in local government we should be empowered to run our own affairs. That's what I'm looking at. It's about our sole independence. It's about our ownership. It's about that recognition of who we are—that we are the First Nations people.

The 1967 referendum was on a policy still used for the control of Aboriginal people. Before 1967 it was an assimilation policy and it is still used today. If you look up what the 1967 referendum has done, it's done nothing. There's been no empowerment of Aboriginal people. At the beginning we weren't even recognised in the Constitution. I was talking to my sisters about this last night. The Constitution that is recognised in this country was done by Westminster law. In 1836 South Australia, through the letters patent by King George, the rights of Aboriginal people in South Australia were recognised. Things were not to be taken; they had to be bought from them. Their rights were to be recognised, but that has not happened.

CHAIR: Can you tell me something about the structure of your organisation, Mr Sumner? What we can learn from it in terms of the design of the voice? How does the authority work? Who constitutes it, how are they chosen and what does it do?

Mr K Sumner : The Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority is an authority within just the Ngarrindjeri nation. It is a democratic decision-making body that people are elected to from the people. It has a board that's made up of different organisations and communities within its own country. We have several different organisations and communities within the Ngarrindjeri nation, and they are represented on this regional authority. So the voices of the people are represented at that regional level. We have a leader-to-leader arrangement with the state government, where we work and negotiate how we do our business. The people's voices from the grassroots are heard, through those different levels, by state and Commonwealth governments.

CHAIR: So the people are elected to the authority through elections, like an election to the House of Representatives where people would vote in a ballot? Or is it like an AGM of a football club?

Mr K Sumner : It's an AGM?

Mr S Sumner : Yes. We have an AGM every year. All the organisations have their AGMs where they elect their corporate bodies. The chairpersons then sit on the NRA, and then we have positions available for community members who come to the NRA AGM to be nominated for and elected on the board. We have a voice—like what Aunty Viv was saying, we built it from the ground up. We're not built of tall poppies; we actually have community members that are educated in both culture and Westminster society. They all sit at a table and they discuss what business is in our best interest.

CHAIR: Give me a sense of some of those constituent bodies. Give me a couple of examples.

Mr K Sumner : We have agreements. We have an agreement that we call the Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement, which means 'listen to Ngarrindjeri speak' agreement. We get those agreements up with local governments, state governments, and the Commonwealth government. Language is important. Language is power, and so what language we do have we use to empower our community. So we have these agreements in place that are legally binding, and we have a role and a responsibility to each other.

CHAIR: If I'm an Indigenous person who's not Ngarrindjeri who's living on Ngarrindjeri land, do I have a right to vote in elections or not?

Mr S Sumner : They have in the past. We've had that in the past. Some of our organisations are made up of Indigenous people who are not Ngarrindjeri. They are elected to the boards and they sit on the boards as well. If there's a situation where an Indigenous person of non-Ngarrindjeri descent is elected to a position of chair, then there's no reason why they can't come on. But, remember, they're delivering the voice of the Ngarrindjeri people, not necessarily their own opinion.

I want to go back to a question you asked about what we expect from the voice. What power does the voice have? Who is the voice? Is the voice an elected body from the government? Is the voice an elected body from the community? We're developing all of our processes from the ground up, and we're allowing the governments—local government, state government, Commonwealth government—to come in and develop partnerships and relationships with us. We're interested in true partnerships and true relationships.

CHAIR: You have a model, Mr Sumner, that's the sort of model that we're looking at as to whether we could roll that out across the country, tailored particularly to place based consultation and engagement in the way that you've done it. We're just interested to hear from different Indigenous groups. I will put the same question to Ms McKenzie. Could you tell us something of the structure and constitution of ATLA?

Ms McKenzie : What happens with ATLA is each family group has got what you call the core bodies. We've got core bodies. My family organisation is known as Viliwarinha Yura association. What happens at the AGM is they elect their board and then they elect their representative to represent Viliwarinha Yura on ATLA. All the other core bodies, they do exactly the same like that. Then the chairperson from each core body has got to put in the nomination of the person and their proxy to the secretary of ATLA. It then goes to the ATLA AGM, the whole ATLA AGM, and those people are then are accepted onto those boards. We then elect a chairperson, a vice-chairperson, a secretary and then the normal directors.

We've also got to a chief executive officer, who works with the chair, and we've also got a company called Kramin, which oversees the running of this for the Adnyamathanha people and ATLA. They're in partnership with Wilpena Pound chalet. That's what we do. We've got that. And then we're the regional authority. Earlier this year, before the election, we had been in the process of speaking with the Labor government of South Australia about doing a treaty. But at this very moment, everybody knows that the government that's in now has put a hold on it. That treaty hasn't happened. The CEO, he's the guy that goes round and does dealings with the state government and with the Wilpena Pound chalet. Then he comes back and presents to the board each time that we have a directors meeting.

That's how everything is done. That's how we do it. And with mining companies, exactly the same thing happens. What happens with ATLA is they also do royalties. They've got what they call their range lease set-up, and people are paid their royalties out of that. We've got on our board—some of them sit on the floor of the community, the community that gets elected—a male and a female to represent the elders of the community. It's got be our moiety. If the female who is elected is from the south wing, you've got to have the balance of the male being from the opposite wing. So if the female is south wing, the male has got to be from the north wing. That's our moiety; we go through our moiety. That's how we do it.

The Adnyamathanha people still speak their language. Language is taught in schools. The children speak the language. We know our stories, and we do that. We're very, very strong, very territorial people. That's what we're looking for. We're looking for that ownership and the recognition of all Aboriginal people, and to respect who they are. Like the Ngarrindjeri talking there: we know in our culture that we just can't just walk into Ngarrindjeri communities unless we're invited. That's what we've got to be doing, and that's how the Adnyamathanha people look at it: that we've still got that respect; we still know about who we are—our moieties. We teach our children that. And the land is taught and culture is taught. It's still done today. That's what I am saying. That's what we do.

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms McKenzie. I will hand over to my co-chair, Senator Dodson.

Senator DODSON: I'm glad to be in your part of the world, on the country of the Kaurna people. It was very, very helpful, listening to you talk about the structures and the way you are managing your own affairs. Some of the questions I might ask might seem a bit silly, but we are charged with trying to find a way to help put a voice together. We're not the people who will decide that. There are further consultations to be done. We will make an interim report at the end of this month and a final report in November. And it looks like, from the million things we are hearing, there is a lot more work and consultation to take place to get these things right. So don't feel that this is the only chance that you're ever going to get to have a say about these things. And when you go away you may want to think about some other things you want to put in writing to us. Maybe I will start with you, Mr Sumner—Ken. Your authority, is that set up under a piece of law, whether state or Commonwealth law, or have you just incorporated under association acts or something?

Mr S Sumner : It was under an association act, I'm pretty sure.

Mr K Sumner : Under association—yes.

Senator DODSON: So it was a state association act of some kind?

Mr K Sumner : State association.

Senator DODSON: I asked that question because, as you know from the Uluru statement and from the referendum council, people have had national bodies set up and then they got rid of them. So they're looking for permanency or some security, and this idea of entrenching this voice in the Constitution through a referendum has arisen. But it sounds also like sometimes people think of that as one voice rather than many voices. The respect for your own country, your own people, your own place—I'm not sure whether that is entirely picked up by the things that have come out of Uluru, and maybe there is a need to look at it, making sure that there is respect for local nations within the national set-up, as well as having a national voice. Do you want to express a view about that?

Ms McKenzie : With Aboriginal people, what has happened is this. We all know about the stolen generations. That is what happened. Aboriginal people have been moved; we've been moved. But a lot of us know who we are, and we've got to look out for the brothers and sisters who haven't found who they are yet. So where do those people stand?

I honestly believe that Aboriginal people should be looked at, at this moment, by the government—the federal and state governments and the territory governments—and it should be thought that we should have our own voice. We should be representing our own selves. We should be having our own parliament. And I believe that, because who knows better about our people than ourselves? You can't have people telling us, 'We know what's best for you.' It's really, really hard—I know it's hard; I was there right back when the FCAATSI conferences were being held in Canberra, and the same things are being talked about today that were being talked about back then. I honestly believe that Aboriginal people should have their own voice. They should be empowered to be running their own affairs and be who they are in their own country.

Senator DODSON: If you were to have your own parliament, how would you see that interacting with the state and Commonwealth and local governments?

Ms McKenzie : Please don't take this wrong. We're in the 21st century now. We've got to stop allowing the government to keep us patted down. We've got voices. You're the voice in parliament—you and Linda Burney. I really look up to you two because you two stand there and speak for the Aboriginal people. We've got to empower young people to do that. We've got to come together as a group from all the states and territories and say, 'This is what we want.' You lot need to go out in the communities here in South Australia. You should be going to the APY lands, the far west, Port Lincoln, Port Augusta and Whyalla. It's so important to listen to what the people's needs are and what the people want. It's the people who speak and the representatives have got to listen to what the people are saying.

That's what we should be doing. We should be saying to the government: 'We want empowerment. We want to be ourselves.' We're a group of people knowing we can do what we can do. We know we can do it. Our forefathers did it and we're still here today, so let's do it for our future generations.

Senator DODSON: Mr Sumner, you said that, if there is to be constitutional reform, it has to be substantive and something that's going to benefit—and I presume you mean by that the First Nations people.

Mr K Sumner : There have to be guarantees. It's got to be constitutionally bound. I'm not sure about another tier of parliament. I certainly do know that there needs to be a voice. Just locally there is us, the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority. South Australia has another government. The previous government began a process of Aboriginal regional authorities. The current Premier doesn't want anything to do with Aboriginal regional authorities, so we have to begin another journey of developing a relationship, a way forward and a future. We do that every time that government changes hand. We know the frustration that's there. We've got to go through another different process now. There's nothing guaranteed for us. So it's developing a mechanism that's enshrined, that's constitutional and that guarantees that we have the ability to be empowered and have a future like any other Australian.

Senator DODSON: My previous question was: if there's going to be a referendum, should the question also deal with making sure that at the regional level—say, at the level of Ngarrindjeri—there is recognition for that permanency, whether it is a regional authority or however you want to construct it, as well as a voice at the national level?

Mr K Sumner : Absolutely. Whether it's leadership or whether it's the voice, it's got to percolate upwards from strong grassroots foundations. That's the way we operate.

Senator DODSON: This is probably my final question. What would you want to be able to talk to the federal government, or even the state government, about? I know there are probably many things, but I need to ask you that question so that there's an idea of the things you want to talk to the government about. People say you're not being heard. What do you want to talk to them about?

Mr K Sumner : There's a whole list of things that I think we need to discuss. For an Aboriginal person growing up in the country, recognition isn't always there. It wasn't there for my father. It wasn't there for my grandparents or for people before them. What I mean by that, I think, is recognition of who they were as human beings. We have a history in this country that we need to fix. We've got a whole heap of history books that need to be rewritten. We have a whole lot of history that we need to tell the truth about, because for Aboriginal people it's difficult to move forward when this untold or untrue history is like shackles on your legs and you can't move, let alone run into the future. That's probably just one thing.

Senator DODSON: That's a big area. Have you thought about how this history could be told or how it could be conducted so that it can help? I think you said we've got to go together, it's got to go forward and there's got to be some unity. But do you have some ideas on how to—

Mr K Sumner : I don't have any secrets. I don't have any secret weapon that can deal with it. You remember when, in Sydney, they tried to do that in the university and tried to begin to teach the real history. The university almost got shot down. So that's one of our biggest challenges. It's about our leaders of this country taking, I think, the initiative and taking the step forward to redressing a whole range of stuff, because they're the voice. They're the ones who we follow. I think that's where it could begin.

Mr S Sumner : I think we've grown up with a system, especially in my time, where there's a process called majority rules, and we as Indigenous people aren't the majority in our own country, so why are they going to listen to us? We've gone through this process, whether it's through schooling, sport, education or employment, where we're still the minority. As far as they're concerned, when it comes down to the ballots and that, our vote doesn't really count for much. Our voices are heard to a level, and then they're shut down again. The media—whether it's Sunrise, Today Tonight or whatever it is—only report the stories that are going to, I guess, relate to the imagination of the majority. So our stories aren't really interesting to any of them. The truth of how this country was founded—so-called—under the King is never going to be an issue for the people of today, because all they worry about is where their next pay packet's coming from. We worry about our responsibility as sovereign owners of the country, with custodial rights to look after our land and waters and our people on it. That's what concerns us. At the end of the day, we talk really closely to our local leaders in our councils and all our regional leaders, and we make decisions that really impact on us, about what Aunty says there about looking at sovereign rights for all Indigenous people across Australia. The governments of the past were really quick to take those rights away, and now, when they come back, they want to talk about it coming in as one big pie and everyone being included in that mixture. Well, it doesn't work that way. We love and respect the Adnyamathanha people, as we do the Narungga and Kaurna people as well, but they're not us.

Ms McKenzie : That's right.

Mr S Sumner : So what's working for us and what happens and what's important in our country is not going to be what's important in their country.

Ms McKenzie : You asked a question about how we see that. First and foremost, I look at the Constitution and what's happened with the Constitution. Look at dual citizenship and what's happened. The Constitution will not stand for Aboriginal people, because we're not a party to The Constitution. There's been a dual citizenship debacle going on. When they talk of recognition in the Constitution for Aboriginal people—they've got a problem at the moment with section 44 of the Constitution because of dual citizenship.

Second is education. This country belonged to the Aboriginal people of this country. That should be taught. I was taught about European history. I know all about European history. They taught European history and their Australian history. It has to be taught. Aboriginal people have to be the ones that are there, because at this very moment we have to get our own voice. The government shows it with the debacle with dual citizenship in their Constitution. How can they sit and say, 'We recognise Aboriginal people, but we have a dual citizenship problem'? They can't say they're looking at us on a constitutional level, because it's not there. They've got problems at the moment. We, as Aboriginal people, should be going along and saying, 'This is what we want and we're going to do our own constitution.' I honestly believe that.

Senator DODSON: My problem with the last question is that if the government and First Nation's leaders, whomever they are, agree that there will be a referendum to entrench an Indigenous voice in the Constitution and then sit down and negotiate the way in which that voice should be built or structured, its relationship to the local and regional levels and how it actually works with the parliament or works to make sure that its voice is heard in the parliament—what would you hope to get out of this?

Ms McKenzie : I'd like to get recognition of the Aboriginal people, that they are the rightful people of this country. In parliament, it should be—how can we be under that flag? It's hard. With the Constitution, like you're saying with recognition and a referendum—they did a referendum in 1967 and we're still at rock bottom. South Australia's minister for Aboriginal affairs has blocked treaties with Aboriginal people. We're still blocked out.

Senator DODSON: I think the idea out of the Uluru statement was that people wanted some way to get their voice heard by the federal government on issues that concerned them. Really, my question was: if that is achievable, what would you expect to get out of that? Would you expect the government to seriously listen to you? Would you expect them to pass laws that would be more in keeping with what you want? Would you expect them to have policies in health, housing and other things that will be of greater benefit? I'm asking that sort of question, really.

Ms McKenzie : I honestly believe that all of the things with housing, policy and all of this—the policies were brought in for Aboriginal people when they colonised this country. Eradication, assimilation, the stolen generation—all of those things were brought in. They should be listening to the Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people should be going to Canberra as one voice and saying to the government, 'This is what we want, not what you want to tell us that you want us to do.' We are people. We are the First Nations people. We are on the bottom of the list in this country. Every other person that comes into this country is looked after. Aboriginal people are still asylum seekers in their own country. We are asylum seekers in our own country seeking recognition from our government. Why should we tell the government what they want to do for us? We will tell them what we want; not what they want. We've been doing that from the day Captain Cook set foot on Bennelong Point.

Senator DODSON: I understand what you're saying, Ms McKenzie. Unless there's something further you wish to say—

Ms McKenzie : I haven't got anything else to say.

Mr K Sumner : There's a lady in Queensland that's credited with the saying:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

I think it's about that. I don't like the word 'help'. People have been trying to help us since day one. If your liberation is freed up with mine, then let's work together.

Mr S Sumner : We constantly talk about this voice and we're constantly talking about giving the government information or ideas to listen to us. We're sick of being listened to. We need to be involved in decision-making. We need to be empowered to take control of what's going on in our own countries around Australia and be empowered to make those decisions around custodianship, around looking after lands, waters and people, and around what's best for our own mobs. We need a voice in there that's actually going to impact decision-making, not give them something to digest and see if it fits within their agenda, then push it to the side for two, three, six or 12 years and then bring it up when it suits them. I came out of school and have been in a government working environment for 30-odd years. The government circle keeps revolving. It's a revolving door. They keep coming back to something they tried 10, 15 or 20 years ago because it's in their agenda. It's not our agenda.

We've been living our agenda for 40,000 years. When is someone going to listen to us and make a decision and allow us to impact that decision? We're sick of the voice mentality, where we're giving them information. How is it digested? Where does the importance of it fit within their business? Does it go through a spectrum of low importance to high importance? That's why I talked about majority versus minority. As long as we live in a society where the majority rules, we're going to be sitting at the bottom of the table waiting for scraps, and we're better than that.

Mr K Sumner : It is only when our people are empowered to take charge of our own lives and make decisions about our own communities that we will close the gap. We don't have that empowerment at the moment.

Mr S Sumner : Is recognition going to benefit us? We still don't know that. We still don't know what we're going to give up to be recognised in the Constitution. In my opinion, I think we've given up enough.

Senator DODSON: There's obviously a lot more discussion to be had about it. You should never agree to anything unless you understand it.

Mr S Sumner : Exactly. Equity and equality are totally different. Which one are we looking for?

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Sumner, Mr Sumner and Ms McKenzie. If you've been asked to provide any additional information, would you please forward it to the secretariat by 16 July. You will be sent a copy of the transcript and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.