Tracker Tilmouth on …

NT Aboriginal Constitutional Convention, Tennant Creek, 1993 (Central Lands Council archive)

Self Determination: The last thing [white people] want to do is have Aboriginal people escape. Escape through the fence and go into the paddock where you can dream the unthinkable dream. They were very worried for Aboriginal people, that democracy would break out, rather than guided democracy which we enjoy at the moment. The guided democracy is still in place. And so Aboriginal people do as they are told, when they are told, by whom they are told because they do not have any control over the finances. Anyone who says Aboriginal self-determination, I would say you really want to think about that statement before I hear it again. (p.264)

Negotiating: My main argument is that you cannot go to the table with a begging bowl. If you are going to exercise your rights, and your rights are enshrined in the ownership of land, your rights are also enshrined in the economic power that you bring to the table. You cannot negotiate from a point of, Please be kind to me, I am a coon. That goes nowhere. The only time you negotiate is when you say, Righto! If you don’t listen to me it’s going to cost you. And it is going to cost you a lot more than you thought. It is delaying your project, it is delaying your resource development, it is delaying everything. (p.351)

The Intervention: The minute you saw the Intervention in the Northern Territory you thought this is madness, absolute madness. It had taken so long to get people to start [working on] self-determination, and to understand what self-determination means, and then as soon as they nearly grasp it, [the government] takes it away from them…

Even under Australian government policies of self-determination, self-management was never really happening. It was words. When there is an invasion of land, where there is an invasion of policy, whether it is an invasion of money, you cannot [win]… The minute you rely on somebody else you are gone. You adopt their policies and politics…

So you have this argument that is coming, and it has not stopped coming, and it is that the next boom in the Northern Territory will be gas and oil, and they are going to say, Righto! What have you got to offer and how do we take it off you?

Diminished through the Intervention. Totally sat on our arse. Totally sat on our arse because the Intervention was the worse thing that ever happened. Did we get any arguments from Labor politicians about the Intervention in the Northern Territory? None. (pp. 374-6)

Paul Keating: The agenda [during the negotiations to develop the native title legislation in 1993] … had nothing to do with Aboriginal people and that was day one on native title. What does the government want? Not what do you want, not how do you want it, nothing like that, so [Michael] Mansell, Clarky [Geoff Clark], and those blokes and me were pushed out the door … We were thrown out … never invited to another meeting. It had nothing to do with what Keating could deliver to you. It was about what you could deliver to Keating. Keating saw them coming a mile away. He did them cold. And today the argument that is continuing is about property rights on native title and the delivering of native title was not a discussion for Aboriginal people, it was a discussion by the leaders to deliver the Aboriginal people on a plate to Keating…

So yes, the native title debate was an absolute sellout by Aboriginal people who should have had a lot more understanding of what were the rights of Aboriginal people going forward. We lost all the ground that Faith Bandler and those people gained for us. Lost all the ground that Charlie Perkins gained for us. Lost all of that. (pp. 246-8)

Property rights: This is the disconnect that land councils keep falling over, this question about what role has native title got in relation to the [NT] Land Rights Act? The answer is very simple, the Land Rights Act is the political process by legislation… Native title is a legal decision by the High Court of Australia which supersedes any political process … So there is no need to have the legal debate. It is a question of going down to the High Court and exercising your native title rights….

Native title property rights goes past the Land Rights Act, to where you actually own the land, not the Commonwealth. Whereas under the Land Rights Act the Commonwealth owns the land under a land trust. So there is an argument there that people are really, really scared of pursuing. (pp. 372-6)

Recognition: That is why the Dodsons are wrong about advocating for recognition in the Constitution. It is not our Constitution, it is their Constitution. If you want to be invited to a shit sandwich, off you go. It is not ours, it has nothing to do with us. So we have the stupidity of recognition. What do you recognise? You recognise we own it? If you want to recognise we own it all, give us a treaty. Give us our rights. Give us our property rights. Return the stolen land. Do those sort of things. Do not talk to us about recognising us because you can do that on a piece of paper, it is not going to mean anything. (p.407)


‘Kwementyaye’ Tilmouth (1954-2015) was an Arrente man, from the country around Alice Springs, and a leading figure in NT and Australian Indigenous politics. The extracts for this post are from the extensive interviews which make up Alexis Wright’s recent, innovative (and Stella Award-winning) biography of him. A review follows.


Alexi Wright, Tracker, Giramondo, Sydney, 2017




8 thoughts on “Tracker Tilmouth on …

  1. Fascinating stuff. Bill – though perhaps I shouldn’t say “stuff” about something so fundamental. I love the pride and the absolute, uncompromising recognition here of right to place (and here I’m not meaning physical place but position and standing). I take his point about “recognition” in the constitution. On the other hand, somewhere there has to be compromise because there are far too many disparate opinions on all sides. Not everyone can get what they want. I guess what I’m saying is that there has to be some bargaining and negotiation but we non-indigenous people must recognise and accept that indigenous people come to the table not with cap-in-hand but with the authority of people who have an inalienable right to be at the table and an inalienable right to real, meaningful justice. Does that make sense?


    • In some ways the compromise you suggest is like compromising with climate denialists – you can only give them even a little of what they demand by denying the facts (of impending climate catastrophe). The white establishment – and in this case both Paul Keating and John Howard – used every trick available to retain control of Crown land for miners and graziers after the Mabo judgement said that under Common Law all unalienated land remained with the original owners. TT is very critical of Black bureaucrats who compromised on this principle rather than put their sinecures at risk. I certainly agree with him that Recognition without property rights is just tokenism.

      As I will say in my review, it was a brilliant decision of Wright’s to build a comprehensive picture of TT’s life and thought using just his words and the words of people who knew him.


      • I’m not suggesting what the compromise should be, but just that in my experience, no-one gets anywhere by standing on their digs. You may have ALL the right on your side but unless you have REAL power and are prepared to exert it, you’ll get nowhere. And even if you do exert power, chances are that all you’ll do is alienate. So, I’m with Lisa. Her words are perfect: “Compromise is the art of the possible. It doesn’t always bring justice, but justice isn’t always gettable.”


  2. He certainly doesn’t mince words, and why should he, under the circumstances?
    And I agree with him about Recognition, such a mealy-mouthed word. In my view, and not just because of Indigenous issues, we should tear up the entire constitution and start again, and the new Constitution would include a treaty. The present model/muddle was more about protecting states’ rights than human rights, and is, as so many have already said, a horse-and-buggy constitution that is a constraint on all kinds of aspects of Australian life (as S44 showed, though I am pleased to have discovered that I have three citizenships, not just one).
    But I don’t imagine that it will ever happen. And this is where I part company with Tilmouth. Compromise is the art of the possible. It doesn’t always bring justice, but justice isn’t always gettable.


    • I would probably add a Bill of Rights to the constitution rather than tear it up – the politicians might forget to reinclude ‘Trade between states shall be free’. At a practical level I would like some taxing powers to be returned to the states to reduce the leverage the Commonwealth has over them to direct their spending.

      My personal opinion about Black-White relations in Australia is that Indigenous people need to tell the government who represents them, rather than allow the government to appoint leaders they are comfortable with as happens now. I think this was TT’s view too but his primary focus was that negotiations depend on both sides having economic power, and that economic independence was within reach for Indigenous bodies if only they would pursue it.


  3. Sue, Lisa I understand what you are saying about compromise, and yes I am not a great compromiser, cut off my nose etc., but Tracker Tilmouth believes Aboriginal leaders always compromise and that they have given away the farm.


  4. And sometimes it’s the other side who makes compromise impossible. Over the last decade the right, exemplified by Tony Abbott, who was still Prime Minister when TT was being interviewed for this book, has consistently moved its position to the right every time a compromise was offered on Aboriginal relations, on climate and on refugees.


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