A Writer on how the story often gets told regardless.
THE world will be watching Brisbane, Queensland, for the upcoming G20 economic summit in the city. For a few weeks, if they’re savvy, international media (and social media) will be capturing stories straight from the heart of the Australian state named for Queen Victoria.
The last time this heightened media attention occurred was the focus on Russia’s gay and lesbian rights track record in the lead-up to February’s Sochi 2014 winter Olympics opening ceremony.
“Once the disenfranchised have a name, they can never remain a blind spot, even for an entire nation.”
At that time, equality advocates in Australia really had nothing to crow about.
When the same inquiring analysis cast its eye over Australia’s human rights standards at the Sydney summer Olympics in 2000, we were found wanting, and I don’t believe we’ve ever really recovered.
International press attention found the majority of Australians ignorant when it came to knowledge of Aboriginal culture and politics, and with Aboriginal athletes and performers taking centre stage at the world’s largest sports carnival, there really was no excuse for us to have so little idea about even the basics.
Fourteen years ago, I doubt most Australians could name the traditional Aboriginal nation in which they resided. I thought I did, until I realised I was living right at the junction of at least six of them.
I learned this not from my formal education, but from maps exhibited at Australia’s interpretive show for the world about the history of this land, once considered a ‘new’ world by European explorers, but in reality an island continent inhabited by the oldest established culture on earth.
These days, the names of Aboriginal nations are commonplace. The issue doesn’t stop there, of course, but once the disenfranchised have a name, they can never remain a blind spot, even for an entire nation.
In time, I believe an observable change in Aboriginal equality will stem from the year of the Sydney Olympics, because after the world witnessed the human face of our country, Australians had no more excuses for ignorance.
During the penultimate moments of the Olympic flame lighting, a technical glitch caused the rising movement of the cauldron structure to malfunction. It was supposed to rise around Kuku Yalanji and Birri Gubba woman of Far North Queensland, and international athlete, Cathy Freeman.
The four-minute pause allowed the world to take a longer-than-planned look at a living, breathing, self-defining Aboriginal Australian woman. Australians were in the box seat for the viewing – we probably needed to witness it more than anyone – and with the technical fault’s tinge of embarrassment, the reality of Cathy Freeman can never be extricated from the moment.
Australians should consider ourselves lucky we got off very lightly compared to other Olympic human rights controversies, and we should not point the finger so quickly at others. If we do, we’re forgetting the sting of the Olympic human rights flame as it shone the light on us.
It will be interesting to see if the cream of international political conservatism is allowed to learn anything while they’re staying in Turrbal country in the place known as Meanjin since long before it was renamed Brisbane by European settlers.
Early signs from the G20 are not promising, after billboards promoting action on climate change were banned by the Brisbane Airport Corporation, and Aboriginal offices have been forcibly closed by Brisbane City Council without adequate explanation.
We can only hope for a technical glitch to get the real story to the world.
THE first political piece I ever wrote was also the first scoop I ever got.
I was a resident of the Blue Mountains for thirty years, give or take my years at university and a six-year stint in the United Kingdom.
By the time Blue Mountains City Councillor Janet Mays stood for the NSW State elections in 2011, I was on the bandwagon of change for an area I loved deeply.
It was time for us to cease being a political football, an electorate that churned-out state and federal backbenchers who shored-up the numbers in parliament but stood for very little locally.
Janet burst onto the region’s political scene with a compassionate assertiveness that started to wake people up, the same way voters seem to have become aware of the two-party power shenanigans in the Victorian federal division of Indi, where Independent Cathy McGowan toppled the sitting member for the LNP, Sophie Mirabella, at the federal election in 2013.
She took a fifth of the primary vote from the major parties, and lost the seat in a State intent on nothing but ridding itself of the ALP, but Janet Mays used orange for her Independent campaign colours when Voice for Indi was just a whisper of frustration. It’s a fitting symbol of her link to the groundswell of Independent thinking rising across Australian electorates.
This feature was published in the October-November 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life.
The Long Walk to Independence
From cafés and cars to the footwork of politics, meet Janet Mays.
Janet Mays knows her way across the Blue Mountains better than most. In November 2009, she led the Health, Equity & Access Lobby (‘HEAL’) on a walk covering the fifty kilometres between Katoomba and Nepean Hospitals. The ‘It’s a Bl**dy Long Way to Nepean Hospital’ walk was designed to throw light on declining hospital services at Katoomba, and HEAL ignited a movement which is taking more than footsteps in the region.
“We were frustrated at the way nothing was shifting. We’d gathered a lot of support around bringing primary health services back to Katoomba, but there was very little action,” Janet says. “No-one is demanding the government provide open heart surgery at Katoomba, but it’s not too much to expect basic surgery at your local hospital, like an appendectomy.”
In 2007, Janet experienced first hand a hospital system which was simply not functioning. “As someone who’d lived in the Mountains for a few years, I just assumed I could have my appendix removed locally,” she says. “At Nepean I had to wait twenty-seven hours for primary care on two occasions before they diagnosed the problem was simply appendicitis. It was so traumatising at some level, having to come home and then go back again, like Groundhog Day”.
“I knew intuitively that the removal of my appendix could have been done locally, if the will was there.”
Janet’s search for that will saw her take out a full-page letter in the local newspaper, gathering support from a number of groups and individuals concerned about similar issues. From this, HEAL was born.
“I also spent two years visiting council meetings. I listened to the debates and gained an understanding of how it all worked. This cemented a desire to eventually get onto the Blue Mountains City Council, in order to understand and represent the views of the community.”
In 2008, Janet was elected as an Independent Blue Mountains City Councillor. When asked about her first time in the chamber, she recalls: “It was like being let off a leash as a resident, but also very daunting. I knew I had it in me. I’d been involved in plenty of drama and music as I grew up. Part of being a politician is articulating a message in the same manner as a performer does”.
“It is hard as an independent to get support. You have to be very eloquent in prosecuting your case to the other councillors. When I am going to debate, I research the facts so that I gain an understanding of both sides of an issue.
“Ward One might be my patch,” Janet says, “but I am required to vote on issues across our entire region, so I need to get out there and familiarise myself with the issues. As a true independent I don’t believe I have any choice. I don’t have the luxury of party colleagues informing me of anything, so I need to listen to people up and down the Mountains”.
“I sometimes change my mind on issues when I do the research or consult an expert. Being an independent can get lonely sometimes, but it’s also very exciting.”
Born in Melbourne, Janet was raised and schooled in Canberra.
“It does heighten your political interest,” she says, “at least it did then. My Dad was in the public service, and so were friends’ parents. Politics were discussed around the dinner table every night. That was part of the Canberra culture.”
After running her own café for many years, Janet, “stumbled into a career in and around the automotive industry, spanning twenty-four years.”
Like many other Mountain residents, she and partner Jocelyn Street purchased a Mountains weekender which soon became their permanent home in 2003.
“After a very short time we both realised that Sydney is not that far away, so we said ‘bugger the commute’ and settled here. Commuting is tiring,” Janet adds. “We do it for economic reasons, but it can separate you from your community. I work four days a week in the city and I travel up and down every day, which allows me time for my council work.”
The death of her father a short time before the move seems to have been more of a defining moment than Janet is prepared to reveal. “It left me unsettled as a person,” she says of a period when she and Jocelyn also committed to their de-facto relationship. “We have very similar family backgrounds, with many siblings,” Janet outlines. “We’re both from stable homes, with parents who worked hard”.
“I came out in my late thirties,” Janet adds. “I’d been through a marriage, and I suppose the world had shifted since my strong Catholic upbringing. My parents’ reaction to my sexuality was to say ‘as long as you’re happy’.
“With the support of my partner, I have really come into my own as a human being, and I’ve been able to achieve a lot in many different ways.”
As a Blue Mountains City Councillor, Janet has championed Indigenous access by helping set up the First People’s Advisory Committee. “I am particularly proud of that,” she says. “Council now has a way to be advised by Indigenous people on matters directly relating to them.”
Janet’s support of the creation of an Economic Development Working Party aims to broaden the employment base in the Blue Mountains Government Area. “Fifty-eight percent of working adults are forced to commute,” Janet outlines. “This working party aims to create new industries here, and broaden existing ones.”
And the local health system remains high on Janet’s agenda.
“Day one was a very hot day,” she recalls of the Bl**dy Long Way to Nepean walk. “We were very blessed with a large gathering of people at the start, and more joined us along the way for one or two legs. We ended the day at the Ori in Springwood … it was the best tasting beer,” she smiles.
“On day two the seven core walkers sped up considerably,” Jocelyn (walk support team leader) remembers. “There was an incredible energy on the day, not just from the walkers, but also passing motorists, who seemed to really love the fact that people were getting out there and doing something for the community.”
“Once we crossed the Nepean River our signs really told our story. There was a recognition from Penrith residents that Nepean is their hospital, and they were saying ‘good on you’ because our aim is to take the pressure off Nepean,” Janet says.
“We know HEAL raised an important issue that day,” Janet underlines, “because we brought Phil Koperberg (ALP State Member for Macquarie at the time) and Jillian Skinner (Opposition Health Spokeswoman) together at one moment to demand a shared response on Katoomba Hospital. It’s the first time that has ever happened. The more we do, even though it annoys the Sydney Western Area Health Service, we are representing community views”.
“It’s an ongoing process to bring further change,” Janet says. “Katoomba is blessed with a dedicated hospital staff, operating at their best in a system which does not value them. They are not permitted to deliver services as they are trained to, yet they remain dedicated. Our hospital staff deserve greater support from all levels of government”.
“The Blue Mountains have not been well served in recent years,” Janet adds, before revealing her intention to run as an independent candidate for the Blue Mountains at the March 2011 state election. “The Blue Mountains is a unique area with its own identity and a fragile environment under pressure from all sides,” Janet says. “How do we ensure our voice is heard?” she asks. “It is time for this community to have a member absolutely focussed on local interests, and not party interests”.
“It takes courage,” Janet adds. “Independents are not in opposition. Our role is to work collaboratively with the government of the day, to beat the drum and bang the table for our communities. That is the essence of what it is to be independent.”
Writing for Blue Mountains Life magazine brought plenty of insights into the region’s finest homes, yet whenever an early property’s history was explored, a constant theme arose – the indigenous heritage of the Hawkesbury and Penrith Valleys.
Ever since the area was earmarked for land grants and agriculture in the colony, European settlers and their descendants encountered the traditional owners of the lands adjacent to Deerubbin, the Darug name for the Hawkesbury River.
There’s also the matter of warfare between the settlers and the Darug, a subject rarely spoken or written of, yet an unavoidable part of the Hawkesbury’s history. This article was published in the Aug-Sep 2011 edition.
Custodians of country
Learning pathways at Muru Mittigar.
Researchers, community members and tourists are able to share a brilliant resource in Muru Mittigar. Meaning ‘pathway to friends’ in the Darug language, this cultural centre, adjacent to the Penrith Lakes, has reached out with a message of reconciliation and learning since its establishment in 1998.
The day I visit, Wayne Krause shows me through the newly renovated shop and the cultural centre itself, where a timeline, a map of Australia’s Aboriginal territories, and interpretive signage illustrate the journey of Australia’s Aboriginal people, with a focus on the place of the Darug Nation.
It becomes clear very quickly that this is not a museum in the European tradition – it comes to life only with the guides, who interpret Muru Mittigar’s displays for visitors.
“‘Art’ is European terminology,” Ngemba man Peter Williams explains, as he interprets a painting on Darug law. “This picture is telling the story in the old way, what you can and can’t do, where you can and can’t go, in relation to Darug Country”.
“The hands done in red are those of men who have done law. The hands in yellow are those of women who have done law. The black and white hands are those men and women who have not yet done law.”
Symbols of islands in the Hawkesbury-Nepean river, of land bridges, of nets for catching animals, of bush turkeys, quolls, possums and other food sources in the region are easier for me to interpret than the concentric circles – “They represent the law itself,” Peter says, also showing me the spirits figures in the work.
Peter and Wayne explain in turns how Darug culture fits into the whole of Australia’s Aboriginal landscape, often ribbing one another on points of learning and territory, yet it’s clear these men, despite being of different nations (Wayne is of the Kalara people of the Wiradjuri language group), are brothers.
“We’re all one,” Wayne says, “but there is a diversity of culture in New South Wales”.
I arrived with a basic understanding about who was a famous Darug warrior, and who was of a neighbouring nation, but both Peter and Wayne are quick to explain how warriors like Pemulwuy (featured in a near life-sized image at Muru Mittigar) are considered brothers of the many Aboriginal nations of Australia’s east coast.
“It’s not about skin colour,” Wayne says, “it’s about spirit. All the mobs have relations with others. Our dreaming coincides. Clan groups and skin groups travel, and you encounter the same stories, and the stories never stop.
“In this country, there are more sites – art sites and camp sites – than anywhere else in NSW. It’s been estimated that there are 27 sites per square kilometre.”
When I ask Wayne if it’s Muru Mittigar’s role to preserve these, he says: “It’s our job to ensure Aboriginal culture is practiced, not preserved. Aboriginal culture is alive. The challenge is now to make sure our Mother, our country, survives.”
“Muru was a necessity,” Peter adds, “to set up a permanent base for teaching. I needed to be taught Darug language, and now we have fluent speakers.”
“One of our dreams is to develop courses for people to learn about culture,” Wayne says, and Peter quickly adds: “It’s a slow process, bringing mobs together, teaching people to be one again. The law has been lost, and respect. The settlement turned everything topsy-turvy. The money system became greater than the law.”
“It’s time to come back, to take away the power struggle that money brings. It’s not ‘mine, mine, mine’, we are all custodians,” Wayne explains.
Looking over a map of Australia’s Aboriginal nations, Wayne and Peter demonstrate something about how Aboriginal interconnection works.
“If you know your clan, family, blood, animals (totems, or ‘meat’), your scarring and your teeth,” Wayne says, “you could travel across this country and the people will know where you fit into the system”.
“It’s not about which clan had which land,” Peter adds. “You can walk and sing your way through country”.
“Which you can’t do by flying across it in a plane,” Wayne is quick to point out.
When it comes time to ask about the wars between settlers and the Darug in the Hawkesbury, both men are clear that conflict was secondary to settlement.
“Many of the settlers were starving, and the indigenous people showed them how to survive, what to eat,” Wayne explains. “The wars happened when the indigenous peoples’ source of food was taken away. When Bennelong went to London, he saw what was coming and he knew there was no way it could be stopped, but by the time he came back, there was full-scale war.”
Looking again at Pemulwuy’s image, Peter explains how the warrior’s family scars are similar to his own: “But if you were at the same camp fire as him, you’d sit still and be respectful otherwise he’d be able to-” and he slaps a fist into himself.
Peter also notes how none of Pemulwuy’s teeth are missing, another symbol Aboriginal people look for to interpret another brother or sister’s place in the community.
I ask Peter and Wayne where they learnt about their country and their law, and they name the three uncles who, twenty years ago, ensured the next generation learned what they needed to.
“Learning breaks down barriers that don’t need to be there,” Wayne says. “It’s not about blame, it’s about teaching others to look after Mother Earth.”
“Muru encourages our people into higher education. Not just the training but employment too, in tourism, hospitality, woodwork and other industries. As an Aboriginal not-for-profit corporation, Muru Mittigar has a high amount of employees.”
“The Darug were pretty-much decimated,” Peter says. “There were diseases we had no resistance to, and we were blended into the community as a whole. We’re never going to know the full story until the law comes back, but people learn culture on many levels. and we teach what we know.”
The effects of the Hawkesbury’s settlement by Europeans is just one part of Muru Mittigar’s story – I leave with my preconceived ideas replaced by a growing understanding of the land that we share, and the feeling that the Darug nation is in very good hands.