In November 2016 I co-wrote an article for New Matilda exploring why it is important for those on the left to discuss population sustainability. Although the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, it was suggested that the debate is invalid unless it is inclusive of migrants or indigenous Australians. Which got me thinking …
The literature of what our indigenous communities think is currently very scarce. Thankfully, there has been a recent opportunity for me to discuss with an indigenous representative in Canberra to interview on this very topic.
Richie Allan and Violet Sheridan
Richie Allan is involved in cultural awareness training and cultural tours and is concerned about over-development around Canberra and the repercussions of ongoing growth. These are concerns shared by his community. Richie’s mother, Violet Sheridan (also a director of Traditional Owners), ran as a candidate for Sustainable Australia in the 2016 elections.
When I met with him, this is what Richie had to say about population sustainability.
Q: Richie, what can you tell me about your community and yourself, including the main issues that are important to your community and that you are passionate about?
‘My community, the Ngunnawal people, are very concerned about over-development on our sacred lands. For example, the Ginninderra Falls is a very important site to my people where important business and initiation ceremonies are held. We want our future generations to be able to experience this tradition in nature and not in outer suburban development.’
Richie explained that there are so many rich and varied sacred sites, places of significance, song lines and stories, just in the ACT alone.
How can you speak of ‘diversity’ when you don’t know whose country you are in?
‘So many of these are unknown and invisible to non-indigenous people. Why is it that people speak of diversity through growth and development when they don’t even know whose country they are on or even how to say “hello” in our native tongue? We can’t maintain our links to our cultural heritage with all these houses and development projects going up.’
Richie also shared that it is hard for Indigenous groups to have an impact because much of the federal funding for indigenous affairs is lost to bureaucracy with only a small proportion ending up with grassroots groups.
Why run for the Sustainable Australia Party?
Q: Can you tell me how Violet decided to run for Sustainable Australia [political party] and why does she connect strongly with a political party that has a strong focus on population issues?
‘The smaller size of Canberra has a more inherent sense of community and therefore [it] was easier for two people from different communities, campaigning for similar issues, to find each other. Smaller spaces have a greater sense of community that may be lost in larger centres such as Sydney or Melbourne.’
Richie met Martin Tye (the Sustainable Australia candidate in the previous ACT election) through social media, and since then the two have regularly met up. They connected by finding lots of common ground in regards to environmental and developmental concerns. Richie was invited to participate in the last ACT election, but he found he did not have time to run as a candidate. Violet shared Richie’s concerns and ran in the 2016 ACT election.
Australia’s population growth killing indigenous culture and heritage
Q: In regards to population growth in the ACT, why is this particular issue a concern for you as an indigenous activist?
‘Rapid population growth is killing indigenous culture and heritage in the ACT.’
Richie shared his frustration that the indigenous community is not consulted adequately about town planning and development processes. For example, while the planning authorities claim that they have indigenous consultants in the planning processes, they often select individuals who tell the government and developers what they want to hear. Richie strongly believes that the communities, whose lands are impacted, are not consulted at the grassroots level and that they do not hear about planning proposals until it is too late.
Queries skilled immigration when indigenous talent under-utilised
Q: What is your knowledge of Australia’s population policies more broadly and how do you and your community feel about these? Is this a concern that resonates with indigenous communities across Australia?
‘It does not make sense to have a large skilled migration program when there are enough skilled people already here.’
Richie believes that there is a very considerable under-utilisation of indigenous talent and skills, especially considering the high levels of unemployment among indigenous communities. Too often, non-indigenous people are employed in indigenous programs. Richie stresses that
‘it is not about stopping migration, just slowing it down so that everyone in the community benefits better.’
He made it clear that a generous humanitarian program is still essential, although cautioned that ‘refugees are struggling to afford to live in the city, as it is too expensive, but there are no jobs or livelihoods out in the bush.’
Indigenous culture conflicts with growth for growth’s sake policies
Q: How do you think national population policies might differ if indigenous communities were consulted and these consultations were successfully implemented?
Richie is pessimistic about more indigenous people being represented in government,
‘as it would not be considered by the main powers economically viable for treaties to be recognised and for the indigenous way of life to become mainstream.’
Richie does believe that although there is a diversity of opinions among indigenous peoples, that there would be less development and “growth for growth’s sake” if Indigenous people were more represented in parliament or policy-making decisions.
Ideology prevents the left from finding common ground with indigenous
Q: Many of the left believe in open-border policies while also being active in supporting Aboriginal people’s rights to their culture and land. Do you think these two aspirations can be balanced or reconciled?
‘People on the left can be stuck on their own agendas. It is only when people are able to put their own agendas aside and reach out to everyone that we can finally get things done. At the moment identity is more important to people than reaching out and finding common ground.’
As an example of this disconnect, Richie reflected that there was a lack of political presence during the Invasion Day protests in the ACT, even [among] the left-leaning politicians.
Richie also explored the idea that in modern Australian society there is personal identity but collective culture has been lost to greed and money.
Working collaboratively with indigenous community
Q: Do you have any advice on how groups advocating for sustainable population in Australia might work collaboratively with indigenous community activists?
‘Find a balance between the aims of the group and the objectives of the indigenous people you are working with. It is very important to bring elders into the conversation and work collaboratively so people don’t feel they are being used or being talked down to.’
Something’s going to have to give
Q: Any take-home words for environmentalists and left-leaning activists?
‘Population growth is killing people. My son and daughter-in-law have to live with me because they can’t afford their own home. At this rate of growth, it is impossible to plan properly. If we keep going at the rate we’re going, all the other issues, such as crime, will also jump. We can’t sustain this for much longer, something’s going to have to give.’
In interviewing Richie, I was personally taken by his insight into the relationship between his community with their local geographic area. What may have appeared to many of us as another group of trees, a gently undulating hill or another patch of cleared land for yet another Canberra suburb may very well be a place of deep cultural or spiritual significance. I was also touched by how many similar areas of opinion he and I shared, particularly concerns regarding town planning and economic growth at all-cost.
I would certainly not try to lay claim to the fact that Richie’s interview is totally indicative of what all indigenous people think in regards to population. Like the rest of us, I am very certain one would find a diversity of opinions depending on the individuals spoke to. However, his views have similarities to Nola Turner-Jensen, Wirandjuri Australian, director of CultuRecode, and member of Sustainable Population Australia. She says the following:
Time to bring the invisible people in
“To add the perspective of Aboriginal Australians in an article about the Australian population, captures the paradoxical situation of Indigenous people in this country. On the one hand, they are excluded from the policies and institutions who decide on such issues. They have been herded to the fringe of society and the economy, with a huge bank of knowledge on Ancient Australia, sitting invisible to most. On the other hand, the world is looking for sustainable solutions and we are starting to realise that constant progress, individualism and material accumulation is not creating a healthy future for Australia’s children or environments. For 50,000 years this country’s Ancient custodians lived everyday according to what was best for every single one of Australia’s living landscapes and people. As experts in creating local sustainable and harmonious societies, Indigenous people and their knowledge wait for the chance to contribute to looking after Australia again. This time in a shared custodianship. It is time to bring the invisible in, and share the spotlight together, before it is all too late. “
This also reflects with what can be found in the literature. For example, from the concluding comment of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (1994):
“Ecologically our land is on its knees: with help it can survive and resuscitate itself, but with any major increase in population this land will die, and we will die with it.”
I would certainly encourage further discussions and collaboration with indigenous communities on this very important issue.
Michael Bayliss is President of the Victoria and Tasmanian Branch of Sustainable Population Australia. He would like to thank Richie Allan from Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and Martin Tye from Sustainable Australia for making this article possible.