Garma Festival 2017 ends with hope, determination and questions

The 2017 Garma Festival has ended, leaving many wondering what Malcolm Turnbull and the government will do with the discussion, determination and debate that surrounded the four day festival in in northeast Arnhem Land. 

The Garma festival at Gulkula, the culturally significant Gumatj site on the Gove peninsula, is many things. It is a coming together of Yolngu and Balanda, bridging cultures and teaching the latter, many of whom have flown up from corporate and urban lives “down south” to immerse themselves in Indigenous culture. It is also an exploration of Indigenous affairs and a highly charged, high-level political forum, and this year thrashed out the issue of constitutional reform. 

Following the Statement from the Heart at Uluru earlier this year, it is clear how Indigenous Australia would like to move forward; towards a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament, followed by a Makarrata – a Yolngu word gifted by Gumatj leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu to describe making peace after a conflict – and a truth-telling process.

Both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten were in attendance at the festival, with Turnbull declaring the council's proposals were being "seriously considered" while Shorten gave his and Labor’s unequivocal support. Ideas about timelines and when serious action can be expected remain unclear. Shorten called for a parliamentary committee to devise a referendum question by the end of the year. One senior Yolngu who had breakfast with the PM suggested it might be decades away. Gumatj leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu gave the leaders a month.   

A concern for both the Indigenous representatives and the government was the lack of education and understanding by the Australian public, especially in the case of a referendum. Turnbull told the crowd about 40% of people who know nothing about an issue will likely vote no. The consensus was that Australians do need some form of education before a referendum, however there are big questions around what a new campaign for this one would look like and how it will be funded.

Vincent Forrester, Anangu traditional owner from Mutitjulu, suggested an “eminent persons committee” to take it forward, stating, “they’ve got to educate the rest of Australia. Our job is to educate our mob”. 

As far as many are concerned, the referendum council has delivered what was requested. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were finally – properly – asked what they wanted. They answered. The former deputy Liberal leader and Indigenous affairs minister Fred Cheney said,
“We’ve arrived at a united Aboriginal position which has put aside many of the things that have been requested in the past, and come up with a single key recommendation – a voice". 

There is no more patience for government delays. It’s now down to Canberra politics to get it over the line, and according to the delegates and attendees at Garma, they must. 

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