Wednesday 26 June 2013

Miyanggan dhanang? Dhanggu nyuwayi Rob Oakeshott. Ngaya Dhanggati guuyarr. Ngaya manhatinun Ngunnawalda guthunda barriya. Ngaya Baluwa, Garrkung ngarran, nganhikurr nyinan barriya dhithiyndha ngun-ngun, barayn, ngundakang. Marrumbu.

This was the first time in the 112-year history of the Australian House of Representatives that a member of parliament had ever delivered a full speech in any one of the 250 known languages of our First People. My opening words translate as, “How are you all? My name is Rob Oakeshott. I speak in Dhanggati. I walk on Ngunnawal country. I listen to the Elders, those who live on this country yesterday, today, tomorrow. Thank you.”

The Australian Aboriginal languages were developed over at least 40,000 years. In just over 200 years, we have lost half of them. We now have 145 first languages still considered to be “alive,” but of those, 110 are “critically endangered.” 50,000 Aboriginal Australians still use their traditional language as their first language at home and in their community. English is also spoken by most of them. The ability to speak at least five languages was necessary prior to European settlement, so being multilingual is part of our First People’s history.

Traditional languages have been very rarely spoken in the Australian parliament. In recent times, Senator Trish Crossin used a first language in her farewell speech to the parliament after she lost her spot on the Labor Party’s Northern Territory Senate ticket to Julia Gillard’s “Captain’s Pick,” the Aboriginal Olympian, Nova Perris. But my effort on this day should not have been the first full speech to parliament in an Aboriginal language. During the life of the Commonwealth, there have been over 1,000 MPs. All have had at least one local first language in their electorate. A bipartisan agreement that every member of parliament delivers one speech a term in a local language would help enormously with the retention of traditional language. Wishful thinking, I know.

The words I spoke were not mine. They were written and approved by elders of the Dhungutti community, a northern region in the electorate of Lyne. My job was to deliver the community’s message to their parliament, and not butcher their words with my uncultured tongue.

When I first floated the idea of using the local language over lunch with Jo-Anne Kelly from Kempsey and Alison Page from Coffs Harbour, it was warmly received. It took some time to get approval from all the appropriate people in the community, but when it came, I was supported with enthusiasm. The Nambucca Language Centre, Amanda Lissarrague in particular, provided copies of the speech in language, in phonetic form, in English for cross-referencing, and in audio form to help me practice. I could not have received more professional support from community, whose desire for their language to be known was clear.

Languages such as Dhanggati are right on the edge of survival. When I expressed my nervousness about making this speech, a local Elder put it all in context. “Hey Rob,” she said, “don’t worry if you get it wrong — only three people will know.” We laughed, but it is sad that this is true. The Nambucca Language Centre failed in a funding application to further preserve and teach language while I was working with it.

During our generation’s watch, Australia has allowed traditional languages to die. This is not an argument of history. It is not black-arm band “this,” or political statement “that.” This is a statement of fact about public policy choices. It is a statement about our culture as Australians. With some much-needed funding from government, the genuine integration of first languages into school curriculum and community, we could be and should be a nation of many languages and through this have a much better connection to our past.

After making this speech, I received a very kind note of support from a Hansard transcriber, who indicated this was the best project she had ever worked on. I was very appreciative of this, as transcribing an Aboriginal language was not easy for Hansard.

Giving a speech in parliament can draw interjections from all sides. On this day, however, I received three minutes of respectful silence. Then it was back to normal.

“What did he just say?” asked one Labor MP.

“He said he’s a goose,” replied a Liberal.

“No, he said you’re a goose,” the Labor MP replied.

And so it continued.

Rob Oakeshott’s The Independent Member for Lyne is available at all good book-stores now.

(Ed’s note: You may also want to take a read of a piece Rob wrote for TBS in December 2013 – Political Relationships and the future of the Koala)

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