When Australians talk about having the oldest surviving culture on Earth, Susan Moylan-Coombs wants you to really think about what that means. Indigenous Australians prospered on this continent for what we now estimate to be roughly 80,000 years before the colonial project arrived and, in her words, “took just over 230 years to fuck it up”.
Last year she delivered the keynote speech to the Australian Leadership Retreat (ALR) at the Australian Davos Connection Forum — an invitation-only event packed with CEOs, politicians, and media. She spoke of the coming climate catastrophe and the folly of attempting to solve it using the same logic that got us here in the first place. The speech was titled “Australia’s blind spot”.
“I’m trying to help them decolonise their thinking, but it’s like I’m speaking a foreign language. People hear it, but they don’t… get it,” she told Crikey while sitting on the banks of Manly Dam, a body of water shaped like a little reef shark in the centre of Warringah’s north. After her ALR speech, she decided she wanted to shift the conversation in Australian politics. Late last year, declared she would run as an independent in Warringah.
“I strongly believe that building the philosophies of Indigenous economics and science into the mainstream of the Australian conversation is absolutely key to moving us forward, and when you try to do that, the system wants to reinforce itself. It wants to ‘other’ you.”
Therein lies her challenge. While the other candidates talk about congestion and public transport, Moylan-Coombs is trying to fundamentally reset the Australian mindset. I suggest that might be difficult in a seat as conservative as Warringah.
“Actually, no. Of course there is a section of population who think that away and that’s understandable. But what’s been great to see is the young ones and the younger sets of parents, who were educated more about Indigenous history. They’re really wanting to understand and are actively saying ‘we need to ask First Nations people about this climate emergency’.”
Still, it is tough. Candidate forums with one- or two-minute time limits on answers favour a candidate with a party platform to work from, and limits the ability to advocate for a total re-think of, say, our approach to the environment.
“We’ve been here 80,000 years, we probably know a bit about protecting the environment and climate,” she says. “And we’re still surviving, despite an attempted genocide. So wouldn’t it be amazing if we did embrace Indigenous knowledge into a modern context, dovetail it with the modern science and work out a new way forward? Indigenous people all over the world have this approach — we’ve personified the Earth, it’s family. We are part of it and we belong to it. So why would we damage it?”
As she says this, she gestures towards the shore and for a moment we silently watch a statuesque black swan — its crimson beak glows like an ember at the end of a charred branch.
On the morning we meet, details are starting to emerge of Australia’s “watergate”. It’s hard to look at this elaborate shell game being played with Australia’s natural resources — the government paying well above the odds for water it can’t use, siphoned off from where it would naturally go, with the profits sent overseas — and not see her point.
She was born Susan Calma, then became Coombs after being taken from her biological family and adopted by the high-profile Coombs family when she was three. Her adoptive grandfather was “Nugget” Coombs, the first governor of the Reserve Bank. She has lived in the Northern Beaches area for the best part of 50 years. During this time she became the first Indigenous school captain in Australia, the first female Indigenous surf life saver, and embarked on a long career in broadcasting.
The fact that she walks in two worlds is a recurring theme of conversation. She makes no attempt to hide the trauma of forced removal, but talks with great affection of her adopted family and the values she inherited from them — HC Coombs is “Grandpa” and more than once, she explains a position with “because, you know, I’m a Coombs girl”.
Another theme is her disappointment with the limits of the conversation: in Warringah, in Australia, in politics. Whether it’s individual issues — say, the seismic testing going on off the Sydney coast “from Newcastle to Manly and no one’s talking about it” — or overarching assumptions. The press coverage has adopted the view that Warringah is a two-horse race between Tony Abbott and Zali Steggall and she worries that this belief is bleeding into the electorate.
“In the local press, it’s like I’m invisible.”
She’s not convinced by the “anyone but Tony Abbott” position.
“And then what?” she says. “It’s bad taste, the “dinosaur” stuff. I came out very early, and said ‘play the ball, not the man’. They’re playing the man.”
Incidentally, she doesn’t love their adoption of the word “tribe”.
In 1788, five days before the raising of the British flag at Sydney cover gave us the “bruise” of our national day, Captain Arthur Phillips met the men of the Kai’ymay region 12kms to the north; Manly Cove was so named because of how much Phillip admired their masculine qualities.
“So Manly, in the narrative of modern Australia, is really important,” she said. “Professor Dennis Foley is the elder for this area, and when he was traveling in the Kimberley, he met an old man who said ‘you need to heal your country, because that’s where our people first faced destruction. If you heal your country, it will travel out through the songlines and the storylines and the nation can heal.'”
This is what Susan Moylan-Coombs wants you to think about when we talk about the oldest surviving culture on Earth.
Charlie Lewis is reporting from our special Warringah bureau for the length of the election campaign. Follow his coverage here.