Should MPs be able to speak indigenous languages in Parliament, or is official business English only?

Making news this week is the member for Stuart, Bess Price. She got into a bit of trouble before Christmas, not just for interjecting during Parliament, but for interjecting in her first language, Warlpiri. Catalysed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent and well-received use of Ngunawal in the federal House of Representatives, Price is understandably perceiving a double standard: our Prime Minister is praised for symbolically using a largely dormant Aboriginal language that is not of his own heritage, but Price is disciplined and restricted from spontaneously using her first language, Warlpiri, spoken by a few thousand people, and about half of her constituents. (For background info on the Warlpiri language, check out an old blog post of mine, inspired by ABC News starting to broadcast radio news in Warlpiri).

The Northern Territory has a large Aboriginal population; 28% (more than 50,000 people) of its population is indigenous, compared to 2.4% nationally. Correspondingly, Aboriginal people make up a greater proportion of the NT’s parliamentarians. Aboriginal people have won seats at every territory election since the Parliament’s inception in 1974, among them John Ah Kit, Marion Scrymgour, Alison Anderson and NITV’s Malarndirri McCarthy.

It’s an interesting debate, with practical and ideological components.

If you narrow the discussion to look at only the practicalities, you’ll do what NT Speaker Kezia Purick did in her response to Price. You’ll point out the rules, say that Parliament is always in English, that there are proper channels to go through if you want to use a LOTE (language other than English), etc. And you’ll throw in the old chestnut, as Purick did, about there being so many “languages and dialects” (note that the old “dialects” shtick can be used to diminish Aboriginal languages when they are just that: real languages) and how can we possibly accommodate them all?

Oh, and don’t forget to roll out the myth that English is the official language of Australia. The Speaker did, but she got it wrong. Australia has no official language.

Let’s not go crazy with the logistics debate, though. We’re talking about one language here: Warlpiri. The Aboriginal Interpreter Service’s head office is about four blocks from Parliament House. It would not be hard, or expensive, to bring one or two of their qualified interpreters down for parliamentary sittings. (And what’s that you say, more employment for Aboriginal people? More status, training, inclusion? How horrible!). But instead, the gut reaction of most Australians is to do a bit of a freak out when there’s a whisper of threat to the English monopoly, and look for ways to relegate Aboriginal languages back to the too-hard basket.

Practical and regulatory issues do matter, but they’re surmountable. And they’re not the only relevant points.

Let’s look at the languages we’re dealing with here. On the one hand you have Warlpiri — a traditional language of the Northern Territory, spoken widely in some electorates and the first language of an NT-born-and-bred MP. On the other hand, there’s English, spoken in two-thirds of NT households (the lowest proportion in the country), which only arrived in the NT about a century before  Parliament started. One is an original language of the territory, still used daily, and the other is a recent import, but much more widely used. Is it not a little striking that in Parliament, the older, perhaps more legitimate, NT language is subjugated entirely by English? Price makes a fair point in arguing that, on face value, this goes against recognised movements under reconciliation and “Closing the Gap”. Furthermore, reasons for including Warlpiri in official dealings go beyond mere symbolism, as Price explained:

“I feel that I cannot effectively represent my electorate without using my first language, Warlpiri. Over 75% of the population of my electorate is Aboriginal, most of who speak a traditional language.”

It’s also a personal issue for many Aboriginal people across the country who are acutely aware and aggrieved about the disastrous loss and endangerment of Aboriginal languages. Personal and family stories of language discrimination are, sadly, plentiful. Do we need to rub salt into those wounds or give Aboriginal people more reason to feel like Europeans are taking their language and heritage from them?

Looking at the broader picture of language diversity, we know that the planet’s languages are disappearing at a rate never before seen. The Northern Territory itself has been identified as a global hotspot for language endangerment. Price’s resolve to maintain the use of her language is commendable, particularly when you appreciate the barriers put in front of anyone attempting to dismantle the English hegemony in Australia:

“I am determined to be tenacious in relation to the use of my language. I am seeking permission to use my first language to make statements or answer questions should I see fit, with an appropriate English interpretation following.”

Maybe in Parliament last December, Price did demonstrate “continued disorder” as she “ignored the Speaker’s request not to continue interjecting … and did so in language other than English”, as the Speaker said. But this issue is larger than one parliamentary sitting.

You never know, in a hundred years’ time, we may not be able to hear Warlpiri spoken anymore, apart from a few elderly stalwarts, as is the case for the many Aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory. If that becomes reality, then the thousands of descendants of Warlpiri speakers may look back at how NT Parliament banned one of their own from using their language. Will they care about the technicalities? Or will they just have another reason to be upset at how the ignorance of kardiya (non-indigenous people) contributed to their discrimination and loss of their language?

The final irony is, all too often arguments are made against programs that support indigenous languages saying things like: “But these languages don’t have a function outside the community”, “How does speaking an Aboriginal language help with employment?” “Aboriginal people will be marginalised forever if they don’t speak English”. We have here, with Bess Price, an opportunity to bring an Aboriginal language into a new domain but the roadblocks are being put up.

Back to the camp you go, Warlpiri language. See you next century … if you last that long.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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