Interview with Federal Senator Malarndirri McCarthy
WORDS BY NOAH VAZ
I met Senator Malarndirri McCarthy in 2011 when she was a member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. She had come to my school to give a talk on leadership, and I remember distinctly thinking she’d be a solid Labor hack. This was at a time when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, and Australians were increasingly disillusioned by the Federal government — so much so that they even elected Tony Abbott in 2013.
I remember the most remarkable part of her address was her candid nature and her honesty. She recounted the story of crossing the floor and defying her party line on the issue of the diversion of the McArthur river — a spiritually sacred landmark for Indigenous Australians in the region; for her fellow Yanyuwa and Garrawa people. In a time when both major parties were committed to mindlessly toeing the party line, to the detriment of groups like asylum seekers, it was refreshing to hear about such principled defiance.
Seven years later she is one of two federal Senators for the Northern Territory. She was elected in the 2016 federal election, following the resignation of former Labor Senator Nova Perris.
This week, I spoke with her amidst a busy schedule of Senate Estimates and National Reconciliation Week.
On her background:
A Yanyuwa-Garrawa woman, McCarthy grew up travelling between Borroloola and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, before making the move to Sydney to board at St Scholastica’s College in Glebe. The move was dramatic, going from country Northern Territory to the metropolitan hub, but Malarndirri appreciated the chance to both share her own culture and learn from others.
Malarndirri’s passion for storytelling is clearly at the essence of her being, and almost every question I pose to her comes back to that answer. It’s likely what led her into a career in journalism with the ABC, before joining the Labor party and stepping up into the political arena in the Northern Territory, representing the people of Arnhem Land.
Malarndirri cites the word ‘Kujika’ as an important source of personal meaning. Kujika, which in Yanyuwa means ‘songline’, embodies both her people’s sense of storytelling, as well as their own personal journey.
“My Kujika is one that sees me travel across the territory and across Australia — and I feel that having done that from my childhood has prepared me for where I am now.”
On National Reconciliation Week:
For those less familiar with National Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June), it is book-ended by the anniversaries of two of the most important events in the fight for Indigenous recognition in Australia — the 1967 Referendum and the Mabo decision respectively. Malarndirri remembers the 1996 Mabo decision well, having been in the ABC newsroom in Sydney when it was handed down.
“At the time, it was quite a breath-taking decision, in that it overturned the doctrine of terra nullius… yet, as a Yanyuwa-Garrawa woman, living and growing up in the Gulf country, I knew that we had always been there… and the doctrine of terra nullius meant nothing to us”.
When asked how all Australians could be sincere during National Reconciliation Week, she responds a simple answer: “Well firstly find out what you don’t know. Ask what country you are standing on, and show an in interest in the people of that country”
Most of Malarndirri’s advice is premised on the notion of learning and accepting one’s lack of knowledge as a foundation from where you can grow. Asking about the necessity for non-Indigenous Australians to get more familiar with our First Nations people, she highlights, “I think it’s always important that whatever level of life you’re always open to learning; to the fact that you don’t know everything; and to the fact that there are many cultures around this globe that you don’t know about – and I would always encourage whatever level of life you’re at, to remain open in heart and mind.”
When I question what the Turnbull government could do better to share the sentiment of reconciliation, Malarndirri responds that they need to be more respectful in acknowledging an ‘indigenous voice’ to the Federal parliament — a proposal that the government rejected last year.
“There are calls for greater empowerment to the voice of First Nations people in decision-making, and in order to achieve that it does mean including First Nations people in the conversation.”
On life in Federal politics:
We are often told and lectured that journalists should show a sense of impartiality, so Malarndirri’s case always proved somewhat of an anomaly — a journalist turned politician, turned journalist… turned politician again.
“I stepped up from the media into politics because I wanted to represent the people of Arnhem land. They’re a different people again to the Yanyuwa, the Mara, Garrawa, and Gudanji people – and I knew I didn’t know about other First Nations’ families, and I thought it was important for me to always remain open to the fact that there are still other First Nations peoples who I need to learn about.”
On joining the Labor party, Malarndirri comments that the decision came from the history of land rights in the region. She grew up knowing that her people, the Yanyuwa, had fought against Liberal governments for nearly four decades to prove their traditional ownership over the land.
“There was a natural fit of me moving into the Labor party because my opponents had always been the conservatives, in fighting for country.”
Reflecting on what Labor policies it would take to make her cross the floor again, she responds swiftly with a politician’s response.
“Well I don’t think it’s a case of what it would take to cross the floor – what happened in 2007 was an incredible learning for myself as a Yanyuwa/Garrawa woman but also for the Australian Labor Party in its relationship with First Nations people.”
She points to the Federal First Nations Labor caucus as an example of such learning. The caucus is comprised of three Indigenous members of Parliament (Linda Burney, Patrick Dodson and herself), as well as 15-20 other members with strong Indigenous constituencies.
Beyond Indigenous issues, I ask Malarndirri if she could fix one problem in Australia, or if she had a single issue that she felt most passionate about, what would it be. She responds swiftly with ‘Housing’.
“We have so many homeless people across the country. We don’t have enough houses, and the houses that are available are either too high in cost, or if you’re going to rent them, out of reach for those who are in low-income situations.”
She justifies that you do not have be single-issue candidate to see that some in our society need more help than others. It’s this particular dedication to public service that fuels her tenure, and will continue to motivate her into the future.
“We have to be able to look after all the people of Australia, but in particular the vulnerable, the marginalised, and the disadvantaged.”
Noah Vaz is not affiliated with any political party. He has never campaigned for a party on federal, state or local level.