Indigenous Australians have a right to speak our first language

Bess Price, a minister in the Northern Territory government.

Bess Price, a minister in the Northern Territory government. Photo: Glenn Campbell

At the tabling of the 2016 Closing the Gap report in Parliament earlier this month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull began his address by undertaking an Acknowledgement of Country in the local Ngunnawal language. This was a Prime Ministerial first.

While I disagree with assistant Health Minister and Indigenous MP Ken Wyatt's view that this speech was on par with the Redfern Address by former Prime Minister Keating, or the Apology to the Stolen Generations by former Prime Minister Rudd, I do appreciate Turnbull's gesture and effort. Even if said gesture happened immediately before the tabling of a report which showed; just like it has in previous years; that the government remains mainly stagnant when it comes to closing the gap between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Australians.

It's therefore remarkable that while a "White Australian Leader" can receive superlatives for reciting an Indigenous language in parliament, a female Aboriginal politician can be reprimanded for reverting to her native tongue during a debate in the Northern Territory Parliament.

This is precisely what happened last week when member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly Bess Price spoke in Warlpiri in session. Price was informed by the speaker Kezia Purick that "should a member use a language other than English without the leave of the assembly it will be ruled disorderly and the member will be required to withdraw the words".


The Country Liberal Party (CLP) member has since written to Ms Purick seeking clarification on the standing orders and their ruling that English is indeed the official language of the Chamber, and expressing concern that being limited to English diminishes her ability to best express herself and her electorate.

Price is everything conservative Australians like to view as a "successful Aborigine". She's culturally savvy, university educated, a businesswoman and an elected politician by a convincing margin. Yet the fact that despite all of this she can be ruled disorderly the minute she does something a bit "too native" goes to show even the most successful can fall victim to racism.

If the Northern Territory Government seeks to be representative by engaging Aboriginal people not just as parliamentary representatives, but as voters and lobbyists, it needs to recognise that of the Aboriginal population in the Territory (30 per cent of the total population) a significant proportion of the community don't speak English as a first language. English, therefore, might not be the best way to engage Aboriginal Territorians nor represent them in the chamber. Having interpretation services available is not an unreasonable request.

Admittedly, I find it interesting that it's Price who has taken this stand against colonisation in the chamber. While a continual advocate for the rights of women and children, Price has, on occasion, tended to support top-down approaches to Indigenous rights rather than decolonisation agendas. She has, for example, previously spoken against bilingual education in schools for Aboriginal children.

In 2014, the Department of Community Services; a part of Price's cabinet; cut water to the Whitegate town camp, trying to move traditional owners who have native title over the area to another location. Yet on this occasion, I support her stand. At the previous Northern Territory election, much was made of the fact that disgruntled Aboriginal voters in "bush seats" elected the CLP. If the CLP is going to seek to represent Aboriginal people better than the Labor Party (ALP sitting members actually made the complaint to the speaker) then changes should be made so they become more inclusive. Unless they do, they cannot count on Aboriginal seats returning them this year.

Finally, the myth that the "official language" of Australia was reflected in Ms Purick's response to Minister Price. Australia does not, in fact, have an official language. Women on the street telling Aboriginal mothers calling out to their children in Pitjantjatjara that "it's AS-TRAYA, we speak English" and the all too often racist interjections on the public transport system don't change this fact.

Warlpiri and other Aboriginal languages are, however, languages connected with this very land. They contain unique contexts related to the landscapes, culture and people. Engaging with them would uncover knowledges accumulated over millennia. That English is automatically considered primary and superior to these languages is mere coloniser arrogance.

It is my hope that in the years to come, the amount of Indigenous representation in all levels of government from across the political spectrum grows to at least population parity levels. This input is sorely needed, particularly to ensure that Indigenous people do not continue to be the victims of bad policy. Yet for this to happen, governments need to become environments which welcome and support Indigenous experiences. Referring to these experiences as "disorderly" just reinforces the stereotype that Indigenous peoples have no place in civilised governance. If we truly are to close any gaps, these views cannot continue.