GUEST Writers



by Russell Irving

It’s late Friday afternoon in Numbulwar and the steady stream of people passing the ranger base to the ancient ceremonial ground behind the sand dune is increasing.  The last night of a ceremony that’s been running for three months is about to begin and hundreds of family groups have been arriving from far flung communities across Arnhem Land to participate.

Established in 1952 when a small group of families walked off the Roper River mission to return to their ancestral lands, Numbulwar is an isolated but growing community of over 700 in south east Arnhem land on the Gulf of Carpentaria at the mouth of the Rose River.

It is renowned for being a culturally strong community.  This ceremony is particularly significant and is held every 7-10 years to revitalise and invigorate the understanding and practice of ‘right way marriage’ and relationships between skin groups.    Women have not been allowed to leave the community and men only at specific times and for specific reasons.

This has had a major impact on the work plans and activities of the Numbulwar Ranger group.  Supporting these cultural responsibilities with contemporary demands of remote land management work is one of the many challenges the group regularly balances.

Many conservative politicians and commentators would use this as an example to show why Indigenous Ranger jobs are not “real jobs”.  This is perfectly illustrated by the recent leaking to Crikey of a secret Federal Coalition Government plan to radically change this successful Indigenous Ranger program in order to “get participants into employment”.

This question of whether they are ‘real jobs’ can easily be put to rest.

The Numbulwar Ranger group was re-established in November 2015, having been forced into abeyance for the previous 3 years due to a lack of infrastructure funding to provide a ranger base and ranger coordinator accomodation.  The Northern Land Council (NLC) manages and employs the rangers (along with 16 other ranger groups) and receives Commonwealth working on country (WOC) program funding for wages and operational funding but nothing for the provision of essential infrastructure (unlike most other government funded regional service providers operating in remote communities).

An application to fill infrastructure gaps at Numbulwar and other places was lodged by the NLC in March 2015, assessed by Department Prime Minister and Cabinet in October 2015, recommended by them in November the same year and has been with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs ever since.

The community has been continuously agitating and lobbying for the re-establishment of their ranger group as it provided much sought after jobs in the community and helped them to look after their traditional lands.

In November last year the NLC managed to negotiate some temporary accommodation with the Commonwealth Government Engagement Officer and Numbulwar Homelands Association and convince a retired biodynamic dairy farmer from Margaret River in WA to accept the challenge of taking up the ranger coordinator position on a short term casual basis.  All four of the previously employed rangers immediately signed up again.  Another two part time positions and six seasonal casual positions were offered, equally for men and women.  In a community with precious few jobs there were another twelve real jobs created, the only depressing aspect being the twenty or so applicants who were turned away.

Eventually the local community would like to establish their own local corporation to employ the rangers and care for their country directly and are slowly building their governance, organisation capacity and resources to achieve this.  The NLC plays an important role in helping communities build their governance structures and organisation capacity to achieve these goals.

In the meantime the rangers work program and priorities are overseen by the senior Traditional Owners of the area to leverage their traditional knowledge about how to best care for country.  Central to this is the preservation of their language, traditional knowledge and cultural practices and a core part of the rangers work program is to assist with providing cross cultural education and capacity building within their communities.  This is no different to the work of social workers and community liaison officers employed by State and Local government authorities to support large ethnic communities throughout Australia.

Environmental works include patrolling hundreds of miles of shoreline along the western Gulf of Carpentaria monitoring marine debris for invasive pests and removing drift nets that entrap and kill marine turtles, fish and other animals.  This is fee for service work. No delivery – no pay.  Rangers  take Traditional Owners on country in the early dry season to conduct landscape scale ground and aerial burning operations to protect outstations and sacred sites, conserve biodiversity and earn carbon credits through the Arnhem Land Carbon Abatement project to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (the irony of traditional land management practices being re-applied to help stop global warming is not lost on anyone).  This work is conducted in an open market environment which pays on results.

A new vessel is being purchased to conduct fisheries surveillance and compliance patrols under a commercial contract arrangement with the NT Department of Fisheries.

Preliminary planning is underway to establish a small crocodile farm and feral buffalo meat supply company to supply the local community, similar to other ranger groups in Arnhem land (less the grand scale of development the Coalitions ‘Develop the North’ envisages and more a community led social enterprise supporting local aspirations and needs).

They have completed industry accredited workplace health and safety skills and certificate training (such as Coxswains grade 2 certificates, radio operators certificate and first aid certificate) to safely complete their work.

These are some examples of the rangers gaining the essential workplace skills and accreditations to undertaking the same work their national park, council reserve and small business operator colleagues do.

If these aren’t real jobs then the the ideologues and commentators will need to tell that to social workers, community liaison officers, National Park Rangers, local shire workers maintaining council reserves (and ANZAC memorial shrines) or private contractors fulfilling government contracts.  Or is it really more about whose development agenda is being fulfilled, whose memorials, historic events and celebrations are being honoured and maintained and whose land is being cared for?  Until they’re all of ours we remain a divided and dare I say racially divided country.

That night the distant sounds of clap sticks and singing continue through the night, ancient voices on ancient lands, biding their time, welcoming the dawn.

By mid-morning over 1200 people have gathering for the final enactment.  The women and children are painting their faces, two groups of children placed in the middle of the ceremony ground nervously waiting under the hot sun for what is about to unfold.  In due time the sound of clap sticks can be heard, the men emerge in full regalia performing a highly choreographed, elaborate rhythmic dance.  The women rise to join their respective groups and the whole seething mass move slowly through the community to the shoreline where a final ritualistic cleansing is enacted, a baptismal rebirth if you like marking the re-affirmation of what is eternally important.

As the Rangers emerge from the water I wonder how this strengthens and ready’s them to resume their delicate dance navigating between two worlds.  I’m reminded of the silent and undervalued role they play as leaders and educators in their communities, role models for how to progress in both worlds.  And of the importance of providing local, challenging, culturally relevant, real jobs to keep these leaders embedded within the fabric of their families and communities.  Not to repeat the failed social experiment the FIFO workers and their families have had to endure.

I also marvel at the retired dairy farmer’s transition to an accomplished ranger coordinator, proof that there is nothing that an open mind, mutual respect and willingness to listen, learn and work hard can’t overcome.    A real job managing a large workforce operating across an enormous region in a remote, complex, cross cultural setting.




By Dhurka Maheswaran

I remember my journey into Wadeye like a blur. I had just finished my final law exam in November and heard the never-ending voiced concerns of my colleagues about how difficult it was for law graduates to land a job.  I was in the process of completing my practising legal certificate course and was shocked and saddened to realise how mundane and administrative heavy work as a solicitor seemed. I was desperate not to have a job where I would be sitting behind a desk all day working on contracts bored out of my brains. I guess my days in law school, writing passionate essays about my stance on social justice issues made me forget that.  So when an exciting job opportunity opened up on their website to work as a Safe House as a coordinator in Wadeye, I could not resist applying, a job that sounded so adventurous and tied in with my interest in family law and Indigenous rights.  Little did I know how much of an adventure and how much I would learn. Nor did I realise how much Wadeye would affect me in such a way that it will always have such a special place in my heart.

Despite getting the job and having flights booked, I don’t think the reality of Wadeye set in until I was at the Murin airlines waiting room. It dawned on me that I would be getting into a smaller plane which made me realise how small Wadeye was. I remember being so shell shocked and a little frightened.  A lovely lady, Sue, who was also waiting with me must have noticed my nerves and kindly spoke to me. She worked with Housing and had been in Wadeye for ten years. It must have been her warm motherly tone or the way she reassured me that I would ‘fit right in’ (even though I was sceptical) that comforted me significantly. She introduced me to Bonifis, the most revered and respected leader in Wadeye. Wadeye was made up of 22 different clans that had all been brought in when the Catholic missions drove different tribes into it.  So convincing was he a leader that he had managed to gain the respect of several clan groups, particularly difficult considering the fact that there were constant rivalries between these clan groups that gave Wadeye the reputation of being one of the most volatile communities in the Northern Territory. I remember how gentle and soft spoken Bonifis seemed as he reached out his hand to greet me and also assured me that I would fit right into Wadeye. Sadly, I never got the opportunity to chat to Sue or Bonifis again, just because of how all-consuming my work at the Safe House would be.

When I landed into Wadeye, I remember seeing crowds of little children running naked around the airport which was really a small demountable with a runway. I remember the red sand which was endless and everywhere and the tropical musky smell that filled the air.  I truly believe that everyone that comes into Wadeye or any Aboriginal community for that matter will have their own spiritual journey as this challenging experience starts to question your own personal morals and values.  I remember for example, seeing how thin the children seemed and feeling so much pity.  With time, when I was given the wonderful experience to go out with some of our local workers and their families out to their ‘country, I saw these same children run across the mangrove mud that I huffed and puffed across (to the point that the children at points had to push and pull me across) and I was truly amazed at how fit and resilient they seemed. The local families were excellent with their fishing and while I was bitten head to toe with all sorts of bites, their beautiful skin just shone against the excruciating sun. It was also very obvious to see how much at peace families seemed in their ‘country’, a paradise from the hell Wadeye seemed. I understood why school attendance rates were always so low after bush holidays with the reluctance of families to head back to Wadeye, where problems regarding little money, little food (which was always in abundance on country) and the hugely detrimental effect of technology. Vicious disputes began with nasty texts or Facebook posts that at times grew to being community violence.  I was beginning to see more and more often in Wadeye, mothers absorbed behind their phones into the world of Facebook or other social media sites, while their toddler children begged for attention.

However, I also saw a lot of love between families despite having so little and it was probably one of the things that touched me the most.  Tying back to my own Sri Lankan background, in which I grew up with a very close knit extended family to the point where my cousins felt like my siblings, I saw the same emulated in family groups.  I grew up calling my mother’s eldest sister ‘Periamma’ which in Tamil translates to ‘Big Mother’ and mother’s youngest sister ‘Cinnamma’ which translates to ‘Little Mother’.  It was interesting to see how the same concept applied with the culture of Wadeye and children grew up saying the same thing- ‘Big Mum’ and ‘Little Mum’ for their mother’s sisters respective of whether they were older and younger to her. There would be a look of confusion if you termed either an ‘Aunty’ since that suggested a distant relation. Most families all lived with their brothers and sisters, their partners and their children, so all their children grew up very close together.

Sharing is also a very integral part of Aboriginal culture and taught at a very young age.  If I’d give a pack of sweets to one child, I was rest assured, that it would be shared by all children of the family and that child would willingly give to his siblings and cousins and other neighbouring children that asked.  One child of a family I knew particularly well as they were regular visitors of the Safe House, would always be hungry and was the thinnest of her siblings and cousins, but would always insist that her cousins and everyone else in the family ate before her. She would make everyone else’s cereal before finally resigning and eating her own.  That level of compassion and kindness for a child so hungry and so young touched me in such a profound way. She was only four. However, that level of compassion and kindness is not new. It is common place in Wadeye for local families to help each other out and even families they did not know. So often I’d see families go house to house and ask for sugar for the night or meat and it would be given.  It was very touching to see, especially when you know that every family is struggling to the level of poverty to make ends meet.

As I formed meaningful friendships with many of the local women who worked at the Safe House and their families, I began to learn so much about culture, which I could see had similarities to my own.  The women talked about how when girls began to menstruate, they were traditionally taken to sacred sites and would have to reside in a hut for a week and at the end of the week was traditionally bathed in a sacred fertile river.  A similar custom happens among Sri Lankan Tamil communities and I myself had an age-attainment ceremony and part of the custom involved having to stay at home for a whole week and at the end of the week having a special bathing ceremony where I had to bathe with milk.  I believe the ceremony, as embarrassing as it seemed for me as a young girl at the time with everyone knowing I had my period, was essential in gaining that cultural understanding of entering ‘womanhood’.  Sadly, this traditional practice for young Aboriginal girls had been phased out with the introduction of the Catholic mission ‘Port Keats’. I believe there is a desperate need for young girls in Wadeye to feel culturally empowered in this way and the neglect of such traditional customs regarding womanhood are a critical factor in the demise of female empowerment of young girls in Wadeye.

In saying that, Catholicism has really been embraced by Wadeye and most if not all women can be seen wearing rosary beads with pictures of Jesus and Mary plastered along the doors, walls and windows of houses.  There is a real fear of black magic spirits and most, if not all of the locals in Wadeye truly believe in the healing power of prayer to ward off evil spirits.  Hair that is cut and teeth are kept and discarded privately.  In my time in Wadeye, I remember being told to beware of the ‘kidney fat man’ which was an evil spirit that once possessed an individual would consume all their kidney fat and they would then die. As absurd as these stories may seem, one thing I did learn from prayer was the power of faith. I often wondered why the community embraced God in such a way, especially when I felt in their shoes, I would think God would have failed me, due to how sad, traumatic and dire their situation in Wadeye seemed and the constant cycles of violence and pain.  In all the time I was in Wadeye, the only church services in Wadeye were funerals, no weddings and hardly any baptisims. Most of the deaths involved young people that had got into car accidents and left this world too soon. One death had been of a preschool teacher who had gone to the clinic on numerous occasions and complained of headaches only to be given paracetamol and turned away. She’d collapsed and seized one day and a scan revealed several brain tumours. By this time, it was too late to pursue treatment and she died soon after.  For the most part, Aboriginal people in Wadeye are frightened of doctors and nurses and will only go to the clinic when they desperately need help, so for that lady to be treated like a hypochondriac angered me. I’d also sat in with clients who felt too frightened to go to the clinic on their own and wanted me to be with them and I was truly disgusted by the coldness in how they were dealt with.  I remember one particular paediatrician who had flown in and briskly informed the child I had on my lap that he would be having an injection. The poor little boy cried and cried, before she realised that he’d already had a vaccination and she’d said the wrong thing. In doing so, traumatised this little boy’s future experiences in dealing with doctors. With my mum being a GP, she’d tell me her own stories of how she would ask the child how preschool was and that they were very brave and big to be going to school. The child would be so excited and distracted in explaining their story, they didn’t even feel the injection go in!

When I left Wadeye just a little under a month ago, I was exhausted. The house I resided in was right next to the Safe House which meant I never really got to switch off and would hear the constant calls of ‘Dhurka’ from the women and children even when I timed off from work. However, I truly loved my job and felt I poured my heart

and soul into it and it was a job I felt nourished my soul. I had established meaningful friendships with many of the local families and had really got the hang of my job. As full on as the job was, it was definitely not a job where I would be confined to an office desk and I was always running around and loved it. However, I also knew that staying in Wadeye any longer would take its toll and I would burn out.  It was realistically never a job I could consider long-term as I believe the constant struggle to work within your limited means (be it resources and the remoteness of the location) and I believe the sense of optimism, hope and happiness I had on the job would not last forever based on my assessment of others who had been in the community longer. I wanted to preserve those positive feelings of Wadeye that I still had.

In saying that, my farewell from Wadeye by the locals was a poignant reminder of how close I was to some of the families. One particular family who I knew since I began in Wadeye and who regularly visited the Safe House, were at the airport on the blistering hot afternoon I left. As I got onto the plane, the family shouted and waved furiously as did I. As the plane started to go down the runway, they paralleled it along the fence line and ran and ran until it flew off. I cried all the way back to Sydney and then some. It made me realise that even thought I had little or no impact with the complex issues that affected families and Aboriginal communities as a whole, at least I had shown my love and passion for Wadeye in the little work I did and I guess that was significant enough.


By Dhurka Maheswaran

Like most girls, I too had dreams of what it would be like to be married. When I was younger, being in your twenties seemed a lot older than I feel now and so I always imagined I would marry in my early twenties, which of course did not happen. My expectations of marriage were also coupled with cultural values that flowed on from my Sri Lankan Tamil heritage.

For example, it was always preferred and so I envisioned – being with someone of Sri Lankan Tamil descent – since that would be a marriage approved of by my parents. Among Sri Lankan Tamil communities, I feel this notion is particularly stressed and while some may argue that there are racist sentiments to parents not wanting their children to marry outside the culture, I also believe a lot of it comes from a need to keep culture strong.

For anyone that knows the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the genocide of the Tamils marked in many ways a threat of eradication of culture and identity.  Many Sri Lankan Tamils migrated across the world during the civil war and I, like many Sri Lankan Tamils, no longer have relatives in Sri Lanka as  they are  now scattered across the UK, Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.  I believe this diasporic identity that Sri Lankan Tamils have all over the world is one of the bigger catalysts to keeping this cultural identity and presence strong.

This is the burden that most children of first generation migrant parents face and thus cross-cultural relationships and marriages to this day are still frowned upon.  Many parents maintain the mentality of the pre-war era of Sri Lanka where such ideas were unheard of. That is not to say it does not happen, as I have several relatives and friends that have courageously broken custom and married outside, but I have no doubt that they would have faced significant challenges, beginning with the disapproval of the parents and extended family.

However, the concept of ‘arranged marriages’ has changed significantly to complement the modern expectations of today. While the traditional definition and worldly expectations talk of young children of close knit families who are marked to marry, this rarely happens with second generation migrant youths today.

Some meet at university. I know where I studied, the medical faculty had huge proportions of individuals of Sri Lankan/Indian descent and it was not uncommon for relationships to bloom between med students, as these were relationships that would no doubt be blessed by parents.

That was not always the case though, as parents, often in the hopes of keeping cultural identity strong, wished their son/daughter to have met someone in the same specific location or spoke the same dialect that their family resided in. Then there were religious differences that were rarely reconciled. Most Sri Lankan/Indian migrant parents have a strong Hindu faith and the idea of their children marrying into another faith would be abominable. That was the case of one such uni story where one young woman of Hindu faith had fallen in love with a man of Muslim faith and both came from families that were so very strong in their faiths that such a difference could not be reconciled.

Other times, it is a certain aunty or family member that knows a family that has a daughter or son and will suggest that to the family that expresses concern over finding someone for their child. This is termed a ‘proposal’ and if both sides of the family are curious and willing to pursue further negotiations, the ‘dance’ begins.  Horoscope charts are compared by a Hindu priest called an ‘ayer’ who deems whether the two individuals will be compatible.

My parents aren’t particularly traditional when it comes to this, but rest assured, my grandfather still had a chart prepared from India following my birth, if that became a requirement.  These charts mark out the configuration of the planets at the exact time and date that you were born.  If the Hindu priest, by assessing the two charts against each other, declares that the relationship will not be a good one, then this will be highly regarded by the families and the proposal will not proceed.

If, however, the priest declares good compatibility with the charts, then the proposal is likely to continue. Traditionally, this would mean that both families would meet at one of the families’ houses and the girl would (so stereotypically) serve tea and the son and his family could assess her in the process. Today, this rarely happens, and parents, I guess in embracing the modern views of society today, often encourage the son and daughter to meet exclusively without family pressure on a date. From the first date, they will no doubt be grilled by both sides of the family about what they thought of the other.  If they are compatible, conservative families or families who believe their children are getting ‘too old’ would rush for an engagement.

Other families are more laid back and would allow the pair to date for at least a year before coming to that decision.  While arranged marriages are stigmatised and suggest a ‘forced marriage’ and ‘lack of choice’, I would argue that isn’t necessarily the case and a lot of choice is given to both the wife and husband before pursuing the marriage.  In many ways, it must be a relief to have the approval of both families out of the way so that the rest of the relationship can just be focused on assessing each other’s individual personality compatibility and chemistry.

What does annoy me is how superficial arranged marriages can be, particularly for women. Too often, I have seen women who are so academically gifted and so successful in their careers, ultimately assessed by the son’s family on the basis of their appearance – too dark, not slim enough, too short.  This is so ridiculously ironic considering Sri Lankan/Indian parents push their children, both daughters and their sons, to do well academically and achieve academic and career based excellence, yet when it comes to marriage, it all ultimately comes to their daughter’s appearance.  For the son, there is no such expectation in appearance.  In fact, as long as he is educated, successful in his career and can provide economic stability, his appearance does not even play a factor.

I’ve had long chats with friends of Indian, Arabic, Afghani and Pakistani backgrounds that say the same thing- he might look like a toad, but due to his career success, arrogantly expects that his bride be an ‘Aishwarya Rai’.  Furthermore, the pressures still remain for young women to marry in their twenties, and that by thirty they would be reaching their ‘expiry’.  Young men on the other hand are given far more flexibility, well into their thirties, in order to allow them to advance in their careers before settling down.

I guess one of the wonderful things about arranged marriages is that. with it being approved by both families, it is very often a heartfelt extravagant celebration. I myself am guilty of “YouTubing”  Hindu weddings and immersing myself in the love, the beauty, the colour and the extravagance of the celebration. Whilst I don’t wholly embrace the notion of an arranged marriage, I don’t discount it either. I guess I’ll just leave it to fate.


Why do Indigenous leaders shift to the right?

By Russell Irving

It is hard not to be convinced by the former Australia’s former Prime Minister Abbot’s genuine concern for and commitment to addressing the entrenched disadvantage faced by our Indigenous population. Very few politicians have demonstrated such passion and commitment, returning every year for the past decade to live for a week in remote communities and signifying his intentions to reduce Indigenous disadvantage by appointing himself the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’.

Unfortunately there were no surprises that his approach would be consistent with his world view, with policies prioritising school truancy officers, law and order and punitive measures for incentivising behaviour change and mainstreaming employment opportunities.

What baffled many progressives including myself was the extent of the support he received from prominent Indigenous leaders across the country, especially as many came from working class, labour supporting roots well to the left of the political spectrum. Take Warren Mundine for example, a long time member of the Labour Party and former National President – now a fierce supporter of Abbotts Indigenous agenda.

Listening to him defend Tony Abbots leadership and his legacy on the Bolt Report recently had me again wondering what drives these personal life journeys from left, working class labour roots to right leaning, neoliberal, individualistic policy solutions? Is it the same influences that lead migrant refugees down similar paths, born from their personal journey to overcome their disadvantage and poverty through personal responsibility and hard work? Is it simply opportunistic behaviour seeking out new alliances for personal gain or an inability to empathise with others from similar backgrounds who might lack the personal skills and resources to reach the same level of success or experienced childhood abuse which has left physical and mental scars.

It is an important observation and concern given these leaders’ influence on the national debate and the lives of Indigenous people living in remote Australia.

An example is the Twiggy Forrest review of employment in remote Australia which identified jobs through mining and large scale agriculture to ‘develop’ northern Australia  and which failed to recognise the work Indigenous rangers do on their Traditional estates as legitimate employment. If the government pays for and recognises as legitimate jobs the work doctors, teachers and council workers do, then why not Indigenous rangers working doing the same work and receiving the same training as park rangers managing Crown land?

Northern Australia should be developed with the majority Indigenous population in mind as with large scale, foreign or multinational owned and managed, export oriented businesses. If this were the case, the Government would support local, small scale, community owned and managed social enterprises. For example small pastoral stations running a few thousand head or buffalo mustering businesses that provide a local meat supply and part time, seasonal employment for communities on

Neo-liberal attitudes driving market driven global economies are compounding the entrenched disadvantage of Indigenous communities by enforcing western colonial mono cultural solutions that ignore the cultural reality and complexity of remote Indigenous Australia. Western and Indigenous leaders disconnected to the needs of local communities are driving this agenda.