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Essay

A symbolic life

GATJIL DJERRKURA LIVED the last decade of his life moving between two worlds – the world of Canberra politics and his distant homeland that looked out on the Arafura Sea. A senior elder of the Wangurri people of the East Arnhem land/Yirrkala Aboriginal community in Australia's far north, he was a natural leader who exuded an effortless presence and grace. For three turbulent years, between 1996 and 1999, he chaired the representative indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). For me, a Canberra-based historian who knew more of London and Berlin than Arnhem Land, the story of our meeting, his death and the subsequent public response, both here and abroad, reveals much about a deep cultural divide in this country.

I had only known Djerrkura for three months before his death on May 26, 2004, but every moment of the time we spent together has stayed with me. I remember our conversations, but most of all, I remember his spirit. He was a person who could make you believe anything was possible.

This is the story of Djerrkura's last major public appearance three weeks before he died, when he launched my book This Country: a Reconciled Republic? He came to Canberra arriving at the same time the Australian Government announced that ATSIC was to be abolished. His speech that night suddenly became much more than a book launch. Sadly, it was also his last speech.

DJERRKURA ALWAYS RECOGNISED the opportunity a republic presented for Aboriginal people. As chair of ATSIC, he went out of his way to explain the relevance of the republic to reconciliation and indigenous rights. Conventional wisdom in the 1990s held that these two movements should remain separate. But he strove constantly to connect them. He understood that symbolic reconciliation and practical reconciliation were not mutually exclusive. In United Nations' forums, as a delegate to the 1998 Constitutional Convention, as a leading member of Ausflag and as ATSIC chair, he consistently emphasised the need for an Australian republic to address indigenous demands for constitutional justice. Djerrkura wanted a republic, but his vision went beyond the desire for an Australian head of state. As he said in Canberra in 1999: "Before the kings and queens of England ruled this country, we, the indigenous peoples, had our own governments ... Our heads of state were all born in Australia! We did not need republican referendums ... For my people, there is a far more important question than asking: do we want a queen or a president as our head of state? We ask: 'Are we able to fully express our human rights?' ... Indigenous people have a vision of a future constitution in which we have a rightful place ... In the present constitution, we are invisible."

In 1998 and 1999, while the republican movement preferred to keep its ambitions "minimal", Djerrkura led the push for a new preamble to the Constitution that recognised "the original ownership and continuing custodianship of the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders". As Australia stumbled towards the republic referendum, the preamble was hijacked by a monarchist prime minister who seemed more interested in penning a personal ode to mateship and the Anzac spirit than negotiating with Aboriginal leaders. By the time of the referendum, in November 1999, Djerrkura's time as ATSIC chair was over and, for many reasons, any chance of Aboriginal concerns being addressed in the move to a republic had been lost, at least temporarily. As time passed, and I re-read Djerrkura's speeches, I was encouraged to look again at the history of the republic and reconciliation in the 1990s. I wanted to understand why they had become separate movements and why, if at all, they should be connected in the future. His words had given me a starting point. This was motivation enough to begin writing.

 

WHEN I FINISHED THIS COUNTRY In 2004, I knew there was only one person I could ask to launch the book. I was also certain he would be unable to do it. I had only a few hundred dollars to put towards his air fare. Travelling from Arnhem Land to Canberra to launch a book seemed too much to ask. Nevertheless, I rang his office at Miwatj Health in Nhulunbuy and left a message.

Before long, he was on the phone. "Now, Mark," he said, "about the book launch. That's no problem. I'd be happy to do it. And don't worry about the flight, I can pay my own way." He had already read the manuscript and seemed more enthusiastic about its prospects than I did. Flying one and a half hours from Gove to Cairns in a small plane, followed by a three-hour flight to Sydney, changing planes to fly the last half hour to Canberra, then returning the day after the launch on a 6am flight to Darwin was, in Djerrkura's words, "no problem". Over the following weeks, as news broke that ATSIC was to be abolished (something Djerrkura had long expected), he phoned several times to polish his speech. One evening, he called as he struggled to get the sentence about reconciliation right. We talked about it for a while before he asked excitedly, "What about this: 'If we want to break away from the colonial past, and begin anew, then we have to walk together – hand in hand and side by side – as a truly reconciled nation'?"

I can still hear him emphasising the words "hand in hand and side by side". "Perfect," I said, and it was.

 

THE LAUNCH WAS on the evening of May 14 at Manning Clark House. Djerrkura had arrived late the night before. That morning, I called him. "How are you?" I asked. "A bit tired, Mark," was his understated reply. We arranged to meet for lunch. As we hadn't met before, Djerrkura wanted to make sure I wouldn't miss him. "Don't worry," he said, "you'll recognise me. I'll be the only blackfella in the hotel." When I arrived he was standing tall with a broad beaming smile, his arm outstretched, a copy of the book in his hand. "Brother," he said as we shook hands. He'd forgotten the precise time of the launch and was worried it might be before 5pm. I asked why. "I've put my suit into the drycleaners," he said, "and it won't be back till 4. I haven't worn the thing since I was last in Canberra." He was relieved when I told him he had until 6pm.

Sitting opposite him as we ate our lunch, I felt the magnetism of a true leader – every word carefully weighed before it was released – yet his face betrayed a cheeky, almost childlike sense of humour that was infectious. He was a charmer. He would have made an ideal president of an Australian republic. He seemed pleased to be back in Canberra. He told me people stopped him in the street. They remembered him. His work for ATSIC and reconciliation was not forgotten. The invitation to launch the book gave him a chance to revisit his old haunts. In some ways, he missed being part of it. The suit was the one he'd often worn as ATSIC chair. Wearing it again reminded him of his former life. Canberra held memories of the constant promise and disappointments of power – a place to fly flags, wear name tags and try to get things done – the whitefellas' meeting place where he'd once lived and worked. And now, just down the road, at the same time as we were lunching, ATSIC commissioners were meeting to marshal their response to Prime Minister Howard's decision to abolish the organisation.

Djerrkura was saddened at how so much of what he had worked for had been steamrolled. He shook his head in disbelief when he talked of Howard's failure to apologise to Aboriginal people. "After everything in the 1990s, the deaths in custody, the stolen generations, after all we know now," he lamented, "he still couldn't find the generosity to say sorry." He recalled Howard's trip to Yirrkala in February 1998. As the chair of ATSIC, he had risked a lot to invite Howard to his country at a time when the divisive amendments to the land-rights legislation were still under consideration. He had hoped that by allowing the prime minister to view the traditional ceremonies of his people, with the elected leader of indigenous people as his guide, Howard might begin to understand the need for indigenous rights. The attempt failed. The prime minister returned to Canberra intent on getting the Wik legislation through the Senate, asserting the land rights of pastoralists over Aboriginal land rights and dismantling the indigenous rights agenda that he believed had failed. The truth, Djerrkura recalled with the slightest hint of bitterness, was that the so-called "rights agenda" had never been implemented in the first place.

When I returned to the hotel later that afternoon to take him to the launch, Djerrkura appeared in the foyer resplendent in his freshly dry-cleaned suit and tie. I admired his tie – bright mauve, yellow, red and white dotted trails – a contemporary indigenous design on a few centimetres of silk. "Where's your tie?" he asked. I explained I didn't like ties very much, and besides, his was so striking all other ties would fade by comparison.

As we drove down Canberra's wide boulevards in the taxi, the conversation turned to his health. I'd remarked how well he looked given the gruelling journey. He sighed before explaining, "Actually, Mark, I'm booked in for a heart operation in Adelaide in a few weeks' time. If I move quickly or climb stairs I can get a bit breathless and dizzy. I'm thinking of trying to bring the operation forward." As the taxi stopped outside Manning Clark House, I asked again how he was feeling. "At the moment I feel fine," he replied and we walked down the drive.

As we stepped inside, his first question reminded me that I'd assumed he was aware of the heritage of the house. "Excuse my ignorance, Mark, but who was Manning Clark?" he inquired. I explained and he listened attentively before summing Clark up – "whitefellas' storyteller". This was one of several encounters that night that reminded me of the difference between our cultures. The crowd was small as launch crowds often are. But the guest speaker was heartened to learn that The Age would publish an edited version of his speech and the Canberra Times would run the speech in full. His message would get out.

As he came to the lectern, there was no need to hush the crowd. He began in a way that no non-Aboriginal person would. He thanked my family for the invitation to launch the book – not my publisher, not Manning Clark House, but my "family". How refreshing it was to hear that word, so often employed by our politicians as little more than a saccharine sop to middle Australia, used with cultural integrity. As he read his speech, glasses poised delicately halfway down his nose, eyes glancing upwards, imperiously, everyone was aware that they were in the presence of a great Australian. They were also aware of the mystery that we all feel when – like sleepwalkers suddenly woken – we become aware that we live in an Aboriginal country.

Djerrkura read with gravitas, an impression helped by the fact that English was not his first language. (Later, someone asked him how many languages he spoke. "Oh, about 12," he replied). When he came to a key point he paused for what seemed like an eternity. He made every word count and when he finished there was an appreciative silence before the applause. Afterwards, when we'd successfully adopted the predictable "hold the book in front of you and smile" pose and the Canberra Times' photographer had departed, many in the audience approached him hoping for an audience. He was patient and listened carefully. Later, after dinner, a small core of family and friends gathered – like children around a campfire – to talk and listen to his stories. I could see he'd been in this situation before: the great Aboriginal leader from the far north surrounded by non-Aboriginal Australians in the distant south, all sitting at his feet. He recognised the need we had to learn about indigenous culture and he knew better than most that until this learning took place, reconciliation could not occur.

I recall how Djerrkura took time to play with the children that evening. They were part of his field of vision. He explained that one of the things he disliked most about travelling was his separation from his family. "In the morning, when I wake up and look over my shoulder there is no one there," he told me. After he'd entranced my daughters, Siobhan and Claire, with tales of life at Yirrkala, they retired to a table and, on A3 paper, drew a large picture of their idea of what his country might look like – replete with palm trees swaying and whales frolicking in the sea. They presented this to Djerrkura and he promised to take it home to his family. He invited Siobhan and Claire to visit him in his country. "Make sure you come, girls, won't you?" Shortly before midnight, I drove him back to the hotel. As we parted he gave me a big bear hug before surprising me with a gift. "Here," he said, "this is for you, a memento". He gave me his tie.

THE DAYS PASSED after the launch and friends who were there contacted me and mentioned the deep impression Djerrkura had made on them. They felt fortunate, I suppose, fortunate because the gathering had been so small and they felt they'd had a chance to get to know him. Two weeks later, on May 27, I was driving to the National Library in Canberra and turned on the ABC radio for the news: "Tributes flowed in this morning from politicians and Aboriginal leaders after Gatjil Djerrkura, former chair of ATSIC, died from a heart attack yesterday at Nhulunbuy Hospital." I pulled the car over, willing the newsreader to repeat the words. It couldn't be true. My first reaction was anger. I shouted at the top of my voice – "No! Gatjil!" He was only 54. Immediately, our conversation in the taxi came flooding back. Only another few weeks and he would have made it. Yet another Aboriginal man died too young, a death that could have been averted.

In the following days, almost everyone present at the launch contacted me to express disbelief and sorrow. The journalist from the Canberra Times rang to say he might still have some of the speech on tape. Unfortunately, only snippets of a later interview had survived. Djerrkura had touched us all. He was a bridge builder, an indigenous leader without rancour who could inspire those around him. In retrospect, so much about his journey to Canberra now seems to be a journey of completion. Present in the audience at Manning Clark House that night were Uniting Church minister the Reverend Jim Downing and his wife, Shirley, and friends of Djerrkura's from Darwin. They represented the other major thread in Djerrkura's life – his Christian faith. They were in Canberra on entirely unrelated matters, happened to learn that Djerrkura was launching a book and dropped by. Djerrkura was thrilled. At the time it was a pleasant coincidence, now it is tempting to see it as more, as with other aspects of that evening. His visit coincided with the announcement of ATSIC's demise, an organisation he'd given his all for. He cared deeply about its fate and the fate of reconciliation. He flew thousands of kilometres from Yirrkala to Canberra to deliver a public address that condemned the Government and stubbornly continued the fight for justice for indigenous Australians. Two weeks later he was gone, his early death the fate of indigenous Australia writ large. The speech he'd worked so hard on now became his last testament, quoted in the international press as a biting attack on the parlous state of indigenous affairs in Australia. It was a wake-up call to us all, as was the timing of his death. He died on National Sorry Day.

As the newspaper reports poured in, the news seemed to make a greater impression overseas than here. The plight of indigenous people is one of the most significant lenses through which others see Australia – a lens we so often seem reluctant to look through ourselves. The Guardian, Le Monde, The New York Timesand several other overseas papers reported his death. The New York Times ran an opinion piece by Sylvia Lawson. In Australia, only Michael Gordon in The Age and Stuart Rintoul in The Australian filed obituaries worthy of his contribution. While indigenous leaders spoke highly of him, with the exception of Labor MP Warren Snowdon's tribute in Federal Parliament, there were few lengthy eulogies from non-Aboriginal leaders. If Djerrkura had won a race at the Olympic Games, Australians would have lauded him. But there are no gold medals in Aboriginal politics. In death as it is in life.

Djerrkura and I had talked about speaking together at various venues around the country. I would come up north to his country, and he would accompany me down south. Maybe it would never have happened. But I do know that Djerrkura travelled to Canberra to spread a message. And the words he spoke in Canberra that night remain its most eloquent expression: "As a senior elder of the Wangurri people in the East Arnhem Land/Yirrkala Aboriginal community, I live every day understanding the immediate and extremely urgent needs of Aboriginal people. But I also understand the importance of symbolism.

"Symbolism matters because it is a reference point for all Australians. The symbols of our nation embody our ideals. They speak to us and to other nations of our identity and beliefs. Symbols can also be a sign of change, a beacon of hope and a declaration of intent. When they reflect our aspirations, they are empowering. And there is no more fundamental symbolism, no more fundamental reference point, than the Australian Constitution.

"If we are to re-found Australia as a republic, and to write a new Constitution, how can we pretend that this act of national renewal can be completed without any reference to Aboriginal people? How can we justify the common assumption that the republic is a separate issue from reconciliation?

"A republic that does not make the first concrete gesture towards reconciliation is a republic that walks in the footsteps of the Crown. Is this the impoverished vision of a republic we want? My answer is 'No'. Our vision must be more substantial ... My dream is of Australia as a reconciled republic."

Gatjil Djerrkura's tie hangs on my bedroom wall, a reminder of so much left undone.


From Griffith Review Edition 9: Up North © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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