Yuwayi. Jalanguju wardinyi-nyayirnirna kujakarna karrimi nyampurla mapirri yapa manu kardiya government-rla. Ngaliparlu mapirrirli government-rla yungurlipa ngurrjumani Northern Territory panukujuku.

I am very proud to be here today standing together, blackfellas and whitefellas, in government. All of us as one can make the Northern Territory a better place for everybody.

These are the first words — in her mother tongue, Warlpiri, with English translation — spoken by Bess Price in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in her maiden speech on October 23, 2012.

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In December last year Price was chastised by the Speaker of the Assembly for her use of Warlpiri language in the Parliament in the heat of interjections that was characterised as “continued disorder” — an issue of very real concern in any Parliament and squarely within the responsibility of the Speaker to shut down.

The last words Price has spoken in the Assembly were by way of a personal explanation the next day. This is from Hansard:

“Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to explain the use of my first language yesterday in the Chamber. I naturally defaulted to using my first language. Whilst I do not apologise for using my first language, I wish to interpret what I said and withdraw.

“[Editor’s note: Member speaking in Language]

“This says ‘Hear yourself; we always, every time, hear you talking’. It is interpreted as, ‘We always hear you talking all the time’. That is what I said, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I withdraw.”

Following this withdrawal, over the summer break — apparently spurred on by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s clumsy use of the Ngunnawal language while introducing his government’s miserable annual report card on progress towards Closing the Gap — Price wrote to Legislative Assembly Speaker Kezia Purick seeking “… clarification as to where in the standing orders it states the official language of the chamber can be English only”.

Price told Purick that she was “… very concerned that our Parliament may be seen as not providing mutual respect and parity to our Aboriginal members and our constituents”.

Purick responded — whether accurately or not is an open question — that the official language of the NT Parliament was English.

Purick’s response had Price — and a bevy of luvvies in tow — in an uproarious rush to howl her down. Gregory Dickson, a skilled linguist who should know better, dismissed the practicalities of providing a simultaneous translation of Warlpiri in a sentence in his piece at Crikey blog Fully (sic) late last week:

“Let’s not go crazy with the logistics debate though. We’re talking about one language here: Warlpiri. The Aboriginal Interpreters Service’s head office is about four blocks from Parliament House.”

Dickson claimed the “practical and regulatory issues” were “surmountable”.

I’m not so sure about that. In the real world, logistics and practicalities matter. A closer examination shows there are very real practical issues to do with the provision of an interpreter to those members of the NT Legislative Assembly who may, from time to time and at their own discretion, choose to use a language other than English. There are 25 members of the NT Legislative Assembly.

Two, Attorney-General Johan Wessel “John” Elferink and Willem Westra van Holthe, are of Dutch descent. I am unsure of their fluency in the Dutch language, but it would be safe to assume that they would have sufficient fluency to enable them to use it on occasion in the assembly.

Lia Finocchiaro and Lauren Moss (of Italian and Indian heritage respectively) may wish to do likewise from time to time.

I suspect that parliaments across the country have similar degrees of non-indigenous linguistic diversity among their members.

Indeed, as Price told the assembly during her maiden speech, she speaks five languages in addition to English. Member for Arafura, Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu, speaks at least the Tiwi language,  and member for Arnhem Larisa Lee is a fluent Kriol speaker. The member for Namatjira Alison Anderson — and this is a qualified estimate — likely speaks at least six central Australian languages as well as English.

Other non-Aboriginal members of Parliament may have varying degrees of fluency — as is not uncommon up here — in a local Aboriginal language.

My point is that it is not, as claimed by Dickson, just about the Warlpiri language.

Maybe Dickson has never spent a lazy hour or two in the NT Assembly. He should, because then he might appreciate the chaos that passes for parliamentary debate there and the challenges facing the Speaker, who is charged with calling the rabble to order as best she can.

Dickson should also know that for translation to be effective it has to be simultaneous. And simultaneous translation is expensive in terms of the human, financial and logistical resources to comply with international standards (yes, there are international standards for translation).

Compliance with those standards would soon exhaust the capacity of small services like the Darwin-based Aboriginal Interpreter Service and the NT government’s mainstream Interpreting and Translating Service. And all of those interpreters may well have better places to be — like the law courts assisting people charged with serious crimes — than cooling their heels in the wedding cake waiting for a member to deliver a spray.

My main concern about the reaction to Bess Price’s call to linguistic arms is that Dickson and others have fallen hook, line and sinker for the classic political beat-up known as “the orchestrated distraction”.

It runs like this: “Don’t look at how poorly my government is performing or the mediocrity with which I perform my duties … look at that bright and shiny thing over there!”

Dickson and others are right to claim that our parliaments are killing Aboriginal languages, but they aren’t doing it by denying their occasional use in parliament.

The linguistic killing fields are not in the NT parliamentary precinct but in the dozens of small territory townships where on every school day kids walk out of their houses where English is spoken as a third, fourth or fifth language and up the road to spend the day in a mono-lingual classroom.

In the next few weeks the CLP government in the NT will announce a massive schools infrastructure rollout — look for all of the untied federal education funding that was handed to the NT government to be poured into this next “bright and shiny thing”.

I will bet London to a brick it won’t have a cent for bilingual education in Aboriginal schools.

You see that bright and shiny thing over there?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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