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Ochre-daubed and brightly garbed Yolngu clan groups dance with national leaders on the orange sands of Gulkula’s bunggul (ceremony) grounds, footballs arc overhead and cartloads of grinning children skylark in the dust. This is the typical late afternoon scene at the Garma Festival.
Australia’s most politically influential and largest annual Indigenous event, this year’s iteration drew 2500 people to east Arnhem Land. Those visitors joined 18 Yolngu clan groups from across the local region – significantly more, organisers said, than previous years going back to 2018.
Staying here means queuing at shower blocks before sunrise after emerging into clammy 30-plus degree morning heat from the provided tents. In return, balanda (white person in Yolngu Matha) visitors are exposed to an array of cultural experiences over their three or four-day stay at the Gulkula site.
In addition to the ceremonial dancing, the showcase included Yolngu visual art, cultural walks, tool crafting, astronomy, and the languages and song. This is what the Garma Festival does so reliably well – cultural vitality displayed with an abundance of goodwill, twinklings of spiritual poignancy, moments of multicultural unity.
This year, like last, this was the backdrop to substantial political staging that would be beamed to the country’s south courtesy of a media contingent numbering about 120, double that of last year.
Last year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese kick-started his campaign for the Voice at Garma, revealing details on the referendum.
What remained this year to offer the eager, sweat-beaded reporters after the prime minister had already ruled out using the event to unveil the date of the vote? Awaiting morning coffee from the long line at the festival’s sole overrun cafe, reporters began to speculate.
Their natter swirled around the effect of two interviews Albanese had given before the festival when he was judged to have faltered when probed about a national Indigenous treaty, and whether it would follow a successful Voice referendum result.
Surely, the PM planned to come out firm at Garma, to restate his government’s commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – that is, the three limbs of Voice, Treaty, Truth. There was also the recent urging from the No side, namely Nationals Party leader David Littleproud, to push the referendum back to next year.
That seemed unlikely after Malarndirri McCarthy, assistant minister of Indigenous Australians and Indigenous health, told this masthead a week ago that the government had already ruled out a delay.
Then there was Western Australia’s Indigenous heritage protection omnishambles and the “hysterical response”, according to Voice co-architect Marcia Langton, from conservative libertarian groups. A similar scare-campaign regarding the Victorian state government’s agreement with the Barengi Gadjin Land Council had also been mounted.
Surely, the PM had a red-hot dynamo go-pack in his Garma camp kit ready to put a pin in all of that?
Not unlike the cloud of fruit bats that fill the dusk skies above Nhulunbuy and Gulkula each evening, the media clan swirled forth from shaded retreats along the eaves of the festival’s Knowledge Centre when Albanese appeared on Friday to open the festival.
From that moment, Garma – in all its vibrancy – was in full flap. The peak of the festival came with the remembrance service on Saturday of late Gumatj clan leader and festival co-founder Yunupingu.
A stirring ceremonial opening from the Manggalili clan evoked the arrival of Guwak, an ancestral nightbird and guardian figure that binds Yolngu clans to one another, the universe and the afterlife.
Then followed Yothu Yindi Foundation chairperson Djawa Yunupingu, prominent Yes campaigner and Voice co-architect Noel Pearson, veteran actor and long-time Yolngu advocate Jack Thompson, Rirratjingu traditional owner Mayatili Marika, and others.
With the sun sweltering above the heads of the crowd spilling out into the wings of the full auditorium, each speaker spoke of the old man’s influence and standing for Yolngu.
They poetically and pointedly illustrated how his political legacy was woven into the current Voice referendum, the Uluru Statement form the Heart and, more broadly, constitutional amendment to recognise First Nations peoples in the Commonwealth’s founding document.
“This is not a federal election campaign between Liberal and Labor … this is about achieving a new Australia,” Pearson told the crowd. “Indigenous people can’t languish in an Australia that has a default setting of No.”
He urged Australians to “complete the constitution” by formally recognising its First Peoples and to enshrine their right to representation within the federal parliament.
Djawa memorialised his late brother and impressed the need to remedy unfinished business.
“You are in our constitutions already … You are here, and we don’t deny the reality of who you are,” he told the auditorium and the audiences beyond Gulkula.
It would have made old man Yunupingu proud to see Djawa’s first Garma address as Yothu Yindi Foundation chairperson was received with a sustained standing ovation.
Albanese restated his commitment to the Uluru Statement in full, called out the No campaign’s “confected outrage”, and insisted there would be no putting off the referendum.
“There will be no delaying or deferring of this referendum,” he said, lifting his voice. “We will not deny the urgency of this moment. We will not kick the can down the road.
“We will not abandon substance for symbolism, or retreat to platitudes at the expense of progress. … We can get this done together, and we can get this done now this year. Because if not us, who? And if not now, when?”
This was entirely what was expected, yet, it was agreed within the same circles that this was also the sturdiest delivery from the PM on the Voice and the aspirations of the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders since the Constitution Alteration – Voice Bill passed in June.
After the speeches, the festival crowd repaired to the camp kitchen to queue for some cold cuts and salads.
Albanese says he supports the full implementation of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the HeartCredit: Rhett Wyman
Conversation buzzed around blue water coolers and in clusters along the mess hall’s plastic garden furniture. It was clear they were energised, despite the sweltering heat. They talked in impassioned, urgent tones amid innumerable mentions of the need to rally, to do more within their own communities.
Back at the Knowledge Centre – headquarters for festival organisers and a makeshift media compound cum corporate dining room cum yoga and tai chi studio – the reporters scampered, trying to file reports as technology beneath them foundered.
Beyond its verandahs, groups of local clan leaders yarned among themselves in their melodious Yolngu Matha.
They watched the local children kicking up red dust and the balanda roaming between the clumps of stringybarks, with their tops swaying against the stiff easterly breeze picking up and blowing in from the gulf and the Arafura Sea.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.
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