Garma 2019: Why traditional decision making must be at the heart of any engagement with First Australian communities

‘We ask you all as real people, to take a step back. As real people, to humble yourselves no matter how successful, respected or influential you are, or you think you are, in the Western World. Because out here, Western success doesn’t mean anything, and is not powerful, unless, we all use our strengths and successes and work together to make something great. That’s when it becomes meaningful,’ Michael Yunipingu.

Michael Yunipingu’s opening remarks at this year’s Garma Festival were an important and humbling note for the audience that had gathered from around Australia.

We all need to be working towards the common good.

In my role as a Consultant at SVA, I was lucky enough to attend this year’s Garma Festival. Garma is an annual gathering hosted by Yolŋu Traditional Owners of North East Arnhem Land. It brings together more than 2,500 people, including political and business leaders, for a celebration of traditional cultures and dialogue about issues affecting First Australians.

A focus of this year’s festival was voice – including a ‘First Nations Voice’ to Parliament, and more broadly, the need to hear from voices that aren’t heard widely enough. We heard powerful stories of the strength and leadership of First Australians people and communities, and the real outcomes being achieved by community-led initiatives.

It was a reminder of the imperative for Australian governments and all non-Indigenous people to think differently, and to engage differently – to empower, rather than diminish, First Australian voices and aspirations.

This message was reflected in comments by Yingiya Guyula, the MLA for Nhulunbuy. During the opening forum he explained how the knowledge of senior clan leaders was diminished by the Community Development Program, the Federal Government’s remote welfare program. Mr Guyula observed that leaders were often engaged in basic tasks – ‘like painting rocks’ – to meet the program’s participation requirements.


“Our clan leaders, men and women, are managers of their clans. They are like CEOs of corporations. They have the highest level of education within their clan, about country, kinship, lore,” he told the forum.

“They hold knowledge for a culture that is more than 60,000 years old. This is their PhD, and this is the knowledge that they pass on to the children and the community. This vision – of leaders painting rocks – does not add up in Yolŋu lore. These are our leaders, but their worth is not seen by balanda (non-Indigenous) systems.

“When governments engage with communities, it is the clans that must be engaged with. Our governance systems must be recognised, and traditional decision making must be at the heart of the engagement.”

The festival highlighted many ways that Traditional Owners in East Arnhem are leading and achieving their economic development aspirations. I can personally speak to two of these initiatives that SVA Consulting has been proud to support.

Securing Groote Eylandt’s future

On Groote Eylandt, where manganese mining is set to wind-down over the next 10 years, Anindilyakawa organisations have come together to develop a plan for the future economy, called the Future Groote Strategy. The plan supports the community’s long-term vision of protecting culture, becoming self-sufficient and creating pathways for youth to stand in both worlds.  

Working with the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC), SVA Consulting coordinated the planning process – bringing together a group of more than 20 Aboriginal Corporations operating on EylandtThe strategy then formed the basis of a recent local decision-making agreement between the ALand the Northern Territory Government.  

At Garma, ALC Chair, Tony Wurramarrba, explained that local decisionmaking is about taking back control.  

“Local decisionmaking is not new to us,” he says. 

“It is a government term, but we have been doing local decisionmaking for thousands of years.”  

You can read more about this project here.

Ambitious thinking

Back on the Gove Peninsula, the Gumatj clan have been proactively pursuing economic development opportunities – including a forestry business, a cattle station and abattoir, a commercial rocket launching facility and Australia’s first Indigenous-owned mine.

To the Garma audience, Gumatj Corporation Chair, Djawa Yunupingu, and CEO, Klaus Helms, spoke of how Gumatj have defied the doubters. They described the importance of negotiating partnerships with businesses and investors to create employment opportunities for Gumatj and Yolŋu.

Their focus on ambitious thinking and collaboration are reflected in the Master Plan for Gunyanara, a community which serves as the Gumatj’s clan’s administrative and residential base. Gumatj Traditional Owners at Gunyaŋara have entered a 99-year township lease, which gives them control over how they will use their land.

It’s the first township lease to be held by a community entity on behalf of Traditional Owners. In this context, SVA Consulting supported Ŋarrariyal Aboriginal Corporation – which holds and administers the lease – to develop the 20-year Master Plan, describing Traditional Owners’ priorities for Gunyaŋara and the role that all relevant stakeholders will play in achieving those priorities. The Master Plan is being used by the Ŋarrariyal Board to guide its decision-making, and to communicate the aspirations of Gumatj Traditional Owners to government and third parties.

From our work in East Arnhem and the stories we heard at Garma, we see amazing potential for economic development in the region, when led by Aboriginal people and communities.