Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

A very simple lesson
We should listen to the traditional owners and stop climbing Uluru


At home I have a photograph that I took on a trip to the Northern Territory last year. In the foreground is a sign:

We, the Anangu traditional owners, have this to say. Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge. Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted. This is our home. As custodians, we are responsible for your safety and behaviour. Too many people do not listen to our message. Too many people have died or been hurt causing great sadness. We worry about you and we worry about your family. Please don’t climb. We invite you to walk around the base and discover a deeper understanding of this place.

In the background of the photo is a trail of people dotted along a worn grey path leading up the red rock of Uluru itself.

It’s very hard to miss the sign. The text is laid out clearly, with key messages in larger type. The same message is repeated in six languages.

The contrast amazed me. A deliberate decision was being made to disrespect the wishes of the people who care most about Uluru, the people who have acted as its custodians for thousands of years and continue to do so today.

Still, I was comforted by what a guide told me: that the plan was to close the climb at some point in the future. The 2010 management plan backs that up: “For visitor safety, cultural, and environmental reasons the Director and the Board will work towards closure of the climb.”

Today, Environment Minister Greg Hunt poured cold water on that prospect, his spokesman telling Fairfax there are “no plans to change current arrangements”.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. When the 2010  report was released, Hunt, then in opposition, sought to score political points, blaming Kevin Rudd and Peter Garrett, and saying “Big Brother is coming to Uluru to slam the gate closed on an Australian tourism icon, the climb.”

There are arguments to be had about the potential impact on tourism, which is itself crucial to the livelihoods of many Indigenous people in the area – except that the same management report included the results of a three-year research project, which found that 98% of visitors would come regardless of their ability to climb. It’s also important to note that 36 people have died on the climb – hence the reference to “safety reasons” in the management plan.

Really, the discussion should begin and end with the desires of the traditional owners. There is no reason Uluru should be treated differently to any other spiritual space. I’m not religious, but when I enter a historic church I obey whatever rules its custodians have laid down for visitors. If there are areas I am told are off-limits, I stay out. 

Beyond the specific arguments the stunningly sad aspect of the fact climbing Uluru is still allowed is that it repeats an entrenched pattern of Australian public life: as a nation, we’re just not that interested in what Indigenous people want.

Australians are, in the main, not interested in revisiting the date of Australia Day, for much the same reasons. Sticking with the status quo is more comfortable than acknowledging that we’ve been ignoring the voices of Indigenous people for so long.

Last year, when the Adam Goodes booing controversy broke out, it seemed many people were more interested in their own feelings than in listening to what Goodes himself – and others who had experiences of racism – had to say.

For a while there, even the process of proceeding towards constitutional recognition of Indigenous people looked set to ignore the views of those very people, before former prime minister Tony Abbott backtracked. It’s hard to imagine a more absurd example.

It’s not very complicated: on questions that relate to Indigenous experience, ask Indigenous people what they want, and what they feel. It’s a simple lesson, and we’ve had two hundred years to learn it.


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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