Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement

What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions.

I spent over five years working closely with Aboriginal languages revivalists who for many decades have been toiling away tirelessly in communities across the nation maintaining and reviving their languages – and I had the benefit of a good education on community languages as an unexpected bonus. I bring a particular perspective to it, as a former public servant who has had reasonably long and close experience with the role of government in supporting community efforts to save languages. I’ve seen the highs and lows and some of the successes and failures of government engagement with Aboriginal communities. Unusually this has been from a perspective provided by being only incidentally involved in the bloated government universe of ‘Indigenous Affairs’ and rather part of the support provided by the Australian Government for arts and culture.

The challenge for governments is translating inspiring speeches in Parliament into focused policy and action.

I don't particularly like talking about Indigenous languages because there are a host of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists who have plenty to say about them and know about them far better than I. However, because I am familiar with how government has intersected with Indigenous languages, I think I can add some useful comments about that aspect.

Long overdue – but better late than never
I was pleasantly surprised when the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address earlier this month, recognised the importance of Indigenous languages. I’d seen the annual report being provided to Parliament, outlining the failures (and some successes) of the Closing the Gap effort but after a while it’s easy to skim over the details. I’d been impressed that the Prime Minister made the effort to begin his address in the language of the Ngunnawal, local Aboriginal people of the Canberra region. However, apart from that, I hadn’t listened closely. This meant I’d missed the part of his comments about languages. When I saw a report on them in the media yesterday I was initially excited. This is long overdue. We’ve heard it before from Labor politicians such as Peter Garrett, who recognised how interrrelated languages were to other issues. His recognition culminated in the joint announcement with Jenny Macklin of Australia’s first National Indigenous Languages Policy in 2009 – but that’s the Labor Party, only half the story as far as major political parties are concerned.

What is especially important about this moment is that this is the first time I have heard a Liberal leader express such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position on supporting Indigenous languages, even if each party has its own emphasis on exactly how to support them.

Turnbull said ‘We recognise that prior to the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians spoke hundreds of languages and over 600 dialects. These words carried knowledge. Tragically, many of these languages have been lost and many are critically endangered.’

Tireless work over many decades
What is pleasing is that this moment would not have arrived if not for the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists. This has all happened in the background, without the sensational headlines about the failure of government to close the gap and the failings of Indigenous communities. This is surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work those involved have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. It’s like changing the direction of a giant oil tanker bearing down on jagged rocks – it takes forever, almost. Yet I get a sense they are succeeding against all the odds ­– and this Prime Ministerial recognition is the latest example.

Turnbull went on to promise ‘That is why today, we are announcing $20 million in additional funding over two years for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). This will enable the collection of critical cultural knowledge, and promote an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, traditions, languages and stories, past and present. It will keep safe this knowledge for all Australians by digitising and protecting it from being lost.’

Another 'new' approach?
In his speech, Turnbull was at pains to point out that he had listened closely to Aboriginal leaders. As a result his approach, yet another ‘new’ approach to Indigenous Affairs, would involve doing things with Aboriginal people, not to them. I don’t doubt that he is sincere in this. His point that we have to stop seeing the Closing the Gap challenge simply as a problem to be solved and also focus on the opportunities offered by the positive strengths of Aboriginal Australia marks an important shift from the prevailing deficit view, if only it can be translated into focused policy and action. Unfortunately the history of Indigenous Affairs is littered with the the carcasses of visionary approaches and bright new ideas, much sincerity without real effect.

In an important address that made the point of acknowledging that government had often missed the mark in its dealing with Indigenous communities, it is sad to see the same mistakes. Unfortunately it reinforced the tendency by government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities. Instead of identifying and recognising these and building support around them, it repeated the mistake of looking for big government solutions, through government departments or government institutions or high profile non-Indigenous organisations.

Speaking different languages
Some of the media coverage, even of a respected organisation like the ABC which has a history of supporting Indigenous languages through the marvellous ABC Open, simply reinforced this. Reporting on Turnbull’s speech which outlined how important Indigenous languages and culture was and talked about ‘the hardship and injustice from policies past’, the report by the ABC cut to a separate issue – Indigenous literacy. It quoted the comments about languages of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, a non-Indigenous organisations working in this area. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation does some good work on an important issue that government has had little success with but it is not the main point here. It is a major government priority and it is part of the Closing the Gap framework so it needed to be covered. Yet, once again, the issue of Indigenous languages, so eloquently raised by the Pime Minister, becomes subsumed by it. It’s another example of how government and communities so often end up talking past each other – speaking different languages in many more ways than one.

I would feel more confident if the first instinct in responding to the challenge of the perilous state of Indigenous languages was not to hand over money to a large institution but to look towards communities. I am a firm believer in the importance of the national cultural institutions and I’m sure AIATSIS will make good use of the funding, but the reality is it won’t be able to make anywhere near as good a use of it as communities would. I also note that while the media coverage has focused on languages, according to Turnbull it is for ‘the collection of critical cultural knowledge, and [will] promote an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, traditions, languages and stories, past and present.’ It’s good that the money is being provided. I don’t know if it’s new money or if it might have already been in the pipeline, as there have been efforts to find digitisation funding for AIATSIS for years.

Enhancing what works best
A funding boost of $20 million over two years would more than double what used to be the level of funding for languages in the only successful Australian Government program supporting the revival and maintenance of Indigenous languages. This is what used to be called the Indigenous Languages Support Program, now the Indigenous Languages and Arts Program, managed by the Ministry for the Arts in the Department of Communications and the Arts. There have been program amalgamations and funding changes so exactly how much is left now for languages is hard to tell but there is no question that such a sum would be a game changer.

Funding from this program has supported an immense range and level of activity at community level across Australia, from tiny remote communities to large concentrated urban populations. A network of community-based languages centres across the country have been operating for decades, like the arts centres that have been so successful at lifting the profile of Indigenous art. These have been supplemented by a wide range of languages projects.

This funding has been crucial to these community organisations. They have been able to use the government funding to attract a much broader range of support, effectively driving the government dollar further. As Peter Shergold, a former head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has commented, funding community organisations for services that government would otherwise have to provide is a great way to get things on the cheap. It makes cost-effectiveness a real concept for a change.

Giving with one hand and taking with the other
There have been no increases to support for Indigenous languages funding for decades, apart from the ill-fated National Cultural Policy, which allocated $9.5 million over four years for this. This was new funding to support the development by Indigenous communities of educational resources in digital format to help revive and save the threatened languages that are part of Australia’s core heritage. This small gesture was quickly cancelled by the incoming Coalition Government and disappeared after its first year.

It’s to be hoped that AIATSIS would immediately begin discussion with community-based organisations like First Languages Australia about how best to use the funds. AIATSIS have an important role to play in supporting work in the community area if a good balance can be achieved. First Languages Australia have a history of working closely with national cultural institutions on such things as their Indigenous languages collections strategy, so I expect that they will also continue their work with AIATSIS with whom they have a long history of co-operative activity, despite some differences over direction and emphasis. However, it’s likely the use of the funds has already been dictated by whatever source in government from which they originate. AIATSIS would also have its own plans and programs they intend to support, so the level of flexibility possibly may be circumscribed.

I hope this does not turn out to be a lost opportunity. In the current tight fiscal climate any extra funding is hard to find and so it needs to be applied as finely and effectively as possible. Sadly it may turn out to be unlikely on this occasion and it’s unlikely there will be other occasions any time soon.

See also

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research 
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very
important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

The long hard road of regional revival – putting arts and culture through its paces
‘I’ve always been interested in the broader effects of arts and culture – the ripples that spread out through a community and often change the future, sometimes subtly, sometimes in very drastic ways. You can see it really clearly in smaller communities, even though it happens in all communities, no matter what size. Unfortunately what’s often missing in all the analysis of economic and social problems in regional and remote communities is the importance of culture. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community. The long hard road of regional revival really puts arts and culture through its paces – but it delivers’, The long hard road of regional revival – putting arts and culture through its paces.

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts
‘Asked in the most recent Senate Additional Estimates hearings about cuts to Ministry for the Arts funding in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook review, the Department of Communications and the Arts replied that there were cuts of $9.6m over the forward estimates. This seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and underestimates, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage. Yet this is the real and permanent impact – a compound effect of creeping cuts’, Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister
‘I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old,’ Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

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