Terry Mills & Galarrwuy Yunupingu. Garma 2012

Terry Mills was sworn in as the new Northern Territory Chief Minister last Wednesday and has hit the ground – or at least the airstrips – running.

Late last week he travelled to Nguiu – the small Bathurst Island township that won Country Liberal Party candidate Francis Xavier Maralampuwi his seat in the new NT Parliament, to Ramingining in central Arnhem land and the once troubled Aboriginal township of Wadeye in the NT’s north-west.

Each of these was a glad-handing, back-patting triumphant tour-of-victory-and-here-are-the-spoils-of-war complete with winning candidate and media and minder packs in dusty tow.

You can hear some of that party mood in Sara Everingham’s report for local ABC Radio here.

On Saturday Mills flew to Gove on the far north-east of the NT then drove a few kilometres on a gravel road to a shady camp at Gulkula to the annual Garma Festival, run by the Yothu Yindi Foundation.

This was a very different trip to his fly-in, fly-out trips to Nguiu, Ramingining and Wadeye. No triumph, no candidates, no caravan of media or minders in tow. This was a trip well outside of Mills’ comfort zone – the CLP didn’t put a dent in the firm 32-year Labor hold on the local seat of Nhulunbuy at the recent election.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu has been practising politics – in the NT and beyond – for more than 50 years and plays it harder, faster and sharper than anyone else here – black or white. So when Mills, the ninth Chief Minister since NT self government in 1974, came to town he was put to the test as only the Yolngu – the self-descriptor for the Aboriginal people of north-east Arnhem land – can.

After meeting – and apparently copping a grilling from – Yolngu leaders, Mills told the gathering at the Garrtjambal Centre: “I enjoyed the test before I arrived here. I hope I passed. Judging by what I heard I think I’ve managed to make it to this point.”

Mills later spoke at the Yujuwala Garma Key Forum, which this year ran with the theme “Australia’s Resource Boom: A stepping stone to an indigenous future.

Terry Mills at the Yutjuwala Forum

But Mills didn’t come to Garma to talk about jobs, rocks and holes in the ground.

Mills opened with a generic “we were elected to govern for all – black or white” speech that we’ll be hearing a lot more of over the next few months. He then turned to what he saw as two key polices for Aboriginal Territorians.

Unsurprisingly, Mills, principal at a private Christian school before entering politics, hit on education first.

“I always believed that the ultimate responsibility for a child is the family – is the parent, so when it comes to the education of that child it still remains the primary responsibility of the child [I’m sure he meant ‘family’ here].

“The last thing we need is for the education department to be served rather than to serve the interests of that family … I believe that decision-making must be made closer to the place where that decision has effect – and when it comes to schools I will provide real resourcing for families who are involved in schools who want to have a greater say over what goes on in their schools to apply for registration and be actively supported in having a say over what is taught, and who teaches and be worked with and alongside of and be assisted in that project … I believe essentially that the power is in the hands of people to make change – not systems and bureaucracies so much.”

There will be more than a few bureaucrats in the NT Education department who will be nervously looking for a parachute after those comments. The local weekly Sunday Territorian yesterday predicted that NT Education Department head Gary Barnes was for the chop.

Balupalu Yunupingu, Djuwalpi Marika, Terry Mills, NT Senator Nigel Scullion & DjawaYunupingu at Gulkula.

In the question and answer session following Mills’ speech he was asked about future support for the local school at Yirrkala, which provides resources for the many small homeland schools scattered across the region.

Mills has been given due credit as a supporter of bilingual education, a key issue – though not prominent in this election just passed – in the bush.

While the bureaucrats in Darwin might be unhappy with Mill’s plans for their futures, the locals at the Yirrkala School will take some heart from Mill’s comments:

In order for us to deliver a quality education at a school like Yirrkala, the respect for the language that is spoken before coming into the school is essential. In order for the early years to be established properly there needs to be the full respect for the language that is spoken at home and bought into the classroom … You don’t go from the known to the unknown without having proper resourcing around the home language in the classroom. I have offered – and I had a meeting with those who are associated with the school to say that “I’m open for business there, I understand the importance of language.”

As a former educator [I know] you can’t effectively teach English unless you use the language that is brought into the classroom. If that means bilingual, for some, that’s what that means. That’s the way I approach it – I have a language background.

The other issue Mills raised was his relationship with what he rather clumsily calls “traditional people.

The second thing is … my cabinet will meet with traditional people. We will want to hear what traditional people have to say and we will listen to you so that we can understand and so that we are better informed and recognizing traditional authority because if we don’t do that we are not empowered or capable of making decisions that are necessary … that is why after four days I have made the decision to come here to back up things that were said by just being here to demonstrate that those words weren’t just spoken the other day but they are words that are meant … So we are all going to have to dig deep – we are all in this together and we are going to sort it out together.

For a few seconds I thought Terry Mills was channeling Ben Lee

Galarrwuy Yunupingu followed up on Mill’s offer to meet with senior traditional leaders in the near future. Mills responded that he would do so “Before Christmas. If you invite me and my colleagues to such a meeting I would accept.”

Terry Mills and Galarrwuy Yunipingu AM

That Mills will sit down with his senior ministers and the Yolngu leaders before Christmas – as the supermarket displays remind us just a few short weeks away – is no doubt a good thing.

Mills will need to manage the very many discreet Aboriginal issues carefully and how well he does this may quickly determine the future course and ultimate success of his government, which he can rightly claim was built on the “backs of the blacks.”

But he will also be wise to avoid the trap of believing that his newly-elected – and returned – Aboriginal parliamentarians will be able to accurately reflect the wishes of the very diverse cultural and political circumstances of their electorates.

Mills would be wiser to cast a much wider net.

The Yolngu have political structures and forums – the Yothu Yindi Foundation, the Garma Festival and strong local resource agencies – with which politicians and business can readily engage.

But these readily accessible Aboriginal-owned and controlled structures are not replicated uniformly across the NT.

One example – the Warlpiri people of the vast lands in the central deserts – will suffice for now.

Like the Yolngu, Warlpiri people see themselves as a distinct cultural, language and land-owning entity but – cleverly in my view – they have not created any single “peak” political or enterprise-based entity with which outside agencies – government or otherwise – can engage and say “We spoke to the united voice of the four Warlpiri language groups of the Warlpiri nation and we now know what they want.

I get the sense that the Warlpiri very much like it that way and prefer that those who want to engage with them do so at the micro – clan and family – level rather than the macro level through a single entity. Warlpiri unity is expressed in ways and means remote – physically and culturally – from the tarred streets and air-conditioned  offices of Alice Springs and Darwin.

And while Mills and the CLP used bush focus groups to identify the issues that really rankled in the bush – the Shires, the Intervention, bad roads and infrastructure etc – for mine focus groups won’t work to find out how Aboriginal people in the bush want to be governed.

Mills and his Ministers will have to learn how to listen not just to the most articulate and capable – like the Yolngu – but also to those with less visible but no less formidable power and influence.

How well Mills manages to do this may well be the standard against which his government is measured.

Last Saturday Galarrwuy Yunupingu and the other Yolngu leaders gave Mills the toughest test so far of his nascent premiership.

All indications are that he passed. Just.

But the Yolngu – and other Aboriginal people in the NT will each have their own tests for Mills and the CLP and will be watching closely to see if the early promises of his government are realised.


For more information on the Garma Festival see the Yothu Yindi Foundation website.

The Annual Garma Festival is Australia’s Leading Cultural Exchange event. It is held annually onsite at remote Gulkula, a traditional meeting ground in Arnhem land.

The Garma Festival is a nationally significant, intimate, spectacular celebration of cultural traditions and practices – dance, song, music, and art (including presentations, collaborations, sales) – and the annual venue for a major Key Forum on Indigenous issues.