The highlight of the annual Garma cultural festival at Gulkula in north east Arnhem Land is the traditional dancing competition.

It carries a $10,000 prize, and attracts dancers from as far as Maningrida to the west, Numbulwar to the south and Groote Eylandt to the east, as well as clan groups from around Yirrkala, the largest Aboriginal town in the region.

Not dancing with these stars, however, were Aboriginal leaders from around the Northern Territory, who Crikey understands met separately from the festival at a two day “Leaders Forum” on 3-4 August.

It is understood the meeting was chaired by long time former chairman of the Northern Land Council, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, and attended by a Who’s Who of Aboriginal leadership from both the current Northern and Central land councils, as well as old hands such as former Labor pollie, John Ah Kit; “father of reconciliation” Patrick Dodson; and former senior federal public servant and current boss of National Indigenous Television, Pat Turner.

From all accounts it was a fiery meeting, and particularly targeted ALP MPs who attended the second day of the Leaders Forum, including federal Territory pollies Warren Snowdon and Senator Trish Crossin, Indigenous affairs spokesthing Jenny Macklin, and local Territory ministers Delia Lawrie and Marion Scrymgour.

Mal Brough was on the dance card at Gulkula, but claimed “other commitments” to explain his last minute pull out—an absence that was greeted, so we are told, by the epithet of the “coward from Caboolture”.

Predictably Brough and his boss John Howard copped their share of criticism at the media conference that announced a delegation from Garma was heading to Canberra in a last ditch effort to call the “national intervention” off for a bit, and do a bit of old-fashioned consultation. A pretty futile gesture.

Also singled out for attacks by Territory Aboriginal leaders was Noel Pearson, whose comments in an op ed piece in The Weekend Australian are said to have been referred to defo lawyers.

So it was a surprise when word filtered out—judiciously leaked by Brough’s office—of a secret meeting held between Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Mal Brough and Noel Pearson on Sunday 12 August.

The irony? It was held at one of Galarrwuy’s Gumatj clan outstations. Sources in Canberra have been predicting for weeks now that the next stage of Brough’s juggernaut will be an attack on outstations, thus fulfilling the current ambassador to Italy’s objective of abolishing such “cultural museums”.

Rumours have been circulating amongst the close knit communities of north east Arnhem Land about “deals” having been done to either swing or neutralise the former NLC boss.

Brough’s office has refused to say who was at the meeting, though Yunupingu’s lawyer, Sean Bowdon, and Pearson’s long-time video chronicler, Lew Griffiths, are said to have been within spitting distance of the outstation summit.

Whatever. It has provoked an unprecedented attack on Galarrwuy by his countrymen, who put out a media release on 16 August saying he had “no inherent authority to speak for the other Yolngu clans”:

Galarrwuy Yunupingu is just one senior man from just one clan – the Gupa Gumatj clan.

… We have not asked him to represent us or negotiate on our behalf, and he has no right to do so. If Mr Brough wants to speak to the Yolngu ‘leadership’ of this area he must speak to the leaders or representatives that the clans chose and give authority to. It is not for Minister Brough to choose who our leaders or representative are.

When Minister Brough is on Gupa Gumatj land he can speak with Mr Yunupingu together with the leaders of other clans with an interests in those areas of land, but only about their specific interests and opinions – not the interests or view of all Yolngu. When Mr Brough is on our land he will speak with our leadership.

Harsh words, but not surprising from the religiously proud descendants of the clansmen who presented the two bark petitions to the Commonwealth parliament in the 1960s—seminal episodes in the struggle for land rights.

Galarrwuy’s father, Mungurrawuy, was one of the painters of the petitions, and James Yunupingu, as he was then known to the outside world, was a young interpreter to that generation of leaders—something that appears prominently in his CV.

On Wednesday the town council of Yirrkala asked one of Brough’s “survey teams” to leave—and come back with answers and a personal meeting with Brough and Howard. Brough attacked them as being “heavy users of tranquilising Kava” and being in a “fog of substance abuse”.

This infuriated the people of Yirrkala even more, demanding, again in a media release, that Brough apologise for such “bizarre, dishonest and defamatory”.

In what must be a first for the Howard government, Brough apologised late Friday.