Ted Egan wants rethink for First Australians


Among the local people with a chance of getting the ear of government, I would have thought Ted Egan would be one.
Not so much for his former position as Administrator of the Northern Territory, but for his more than 50 year engagement with life in the NT at so many levels – as a hands on administrator, especially in remote comunities, as an Aboriginal affairs policy researcher, a member of the first National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, a historian, a singer-songwriter and story-teller of national stature, and perhaps above all, as a friend of many Aboriginal people – the First Australians, as he calls them.
So why, in seeking to make a contribution on Indigenous affairs now, after the dismal failures of the last three decades, did he not go straight to the top?
Why write a book, as he has done with Due Inheritance, launched in Alice Springs by historian Dick Kimber on Monday?
With his core ideas Mr Egan did indeed try to go straight to the top, at the time of the Centenary of Federation.
Met with resounding silence he went on to write the book, to put his thoughts “on the record”, to get them debated. And if they’re rejected, he will ask his critics for their alternative proposals.
Because more of the same is intolerable.
Coming from someone with such close personal relations with many First Australians, the picture he paints of their present-day malaise is strikingly bleak.
Their culture is in “total jeopardy”, he says.
His view is very much influenced by his contact with Yolgnu people – “so vital 50 years ago”.
“Now, apart from football, nothing important happens in their lives.”
He accepts that art too can be added to the positives, although he’s concerned about the impact on livelihoods of the economic downturn.
And some First Australians have unique advantages, he says.
“The Warlpiri, for example, are the undisputed owners of Warlpiri land and they have the good will of the nation to help them develop it.”
So why, he asks, “are they all in Alice Springs” – drinking and with their children running amok?
Similarly, the traditional owners of the Daly River-Port Keats land trust should “all be millionaires”, argues Mr Egan – running a thriving cattle station with a herd of 80,000 head.
Instead, all their kids are in Darwin – “marauding the suburbs” – and their elders feel powerless as it is government who pays the money that allows their kids to do this.
He proposes answers to these dilemmas that come down to two key points.
The first, he would argue, is the most important: maintenance and revival of language and culture.
A clip that he screened at the launch was very moving in this regard: it featured talented linguist, Ngaanyatjarra woman Lizzie Ellis, speaking in support of Mr Egan’s proposals.
Ms Ellis needs two hands to count the First Australian languages she speaks, is equally at ease in English and also speaks “a little bit of French”.
At the end of the clip she delightfully joins with Mr Egan and his wife Nerys Evans to sing the Australian national anthem ... in Luritja (in a translation by MLA Alison Anderson).
The second key point is around the end of passive welfare and the achievement of economic independence – not through interminable compensation payments, although Mr Egan does propose an initial one-off payment, to be known as the Inheritance.
This would not be paid to individuals but would operate as a kind of futures fund, controlled by an elected body of First Australians (with full accountability, of course).
Mr Egan builds a detailed strategy around these core principles.
His book is for those who want to think in practical, yet compassionate, terms about the way forward for the First Australians.

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