May 2017

Q&A with Garigarra Mundine

To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, which gave Aboriginal people the right to be counted as citizens, and the 25th anniversary of the Mabo Native Title High Court decision, The Good Oil spoke to GARIGARRA MUNDINE about how those historic events impacted her family, her community, the nation and her own life as a young Indigenous woman.

Garigarra Mundine is a descendent of the Wiradjuri/Bundjulang/Kamilaroi and Gumbayngirr nations. A former student of St Scholastica’s College, Glebe, she is currently studying a Bachelor of International Relations at the Australian National University, while working part-time for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. She hopes to go on to work in the area of community development with Indigenous communities.

TGO: Tell us a bit about your background, your schooling and your university studies.

Garigarra: “I was born in Armidale NSW, but grew up in Dubbo until high school, when I moved to Sydney to attend St Scholastica’s College. It was a BIG change at first, going from a public school in the country to an all-girls private school in Sydney. It was hard at the beginning, but the teachers there were so good in trying to make me feel welcome and I quickly made friends and found the community really welcoming. I loved it.

“I’m studying international relations at ANU, majoring in human rights, which is interesting, but also in some ways confronting. I chose international relations because I thought you’ve got to learn these things if you want to make a difference. I want to work with Indigenous people wherever I can make a difference, at any level, particularly in community development.”

TGO: Not many uni students have a part-job in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. How did that come about?

Garigarra: “Well, I started as an intern at the end of 2015, just over the Christmas holidays, but then I was lucky enough to be offered a part-time contract. It’s given me lots of opportunity to work in different areas within the Department. I’ve loved it. I’m working in cultural policy now, which is obviously something I’m very passionate about. It’s such an important area because it affects so many people.”

TGO: When did you become aware of the 1967 Referendum and its implications for Australia’s First Peoples and for the nation at large?

Garigarra: “It’s funny – I feel like I’ve always known about it. But I do remember having to give a speech about it at St Scholastica’s as an assignment and in the course of doing that assignment, I learnt a lot more about it.

“Both of my parents were 10 years old when they became citizens of Australia for the first time. That was quite a shock to me. It’s hard for me to imagine the impact that had on my family and my people, to be accepted as human beings and have our experiences and our equality recognised. And then of course, there’s all the other important pieces of legislation that came through after that referendum. It led to a practical definition of Aboriginality, of our own self-identification.

“In my own life, it’s been drilled in to me from a young age that I stand on the shoulders of amazing Indigenous people who came before me, who tackled that injustice and who fought for those things. I’m the first generation with open access to education, without discrimination, and I’ve had the privilege to go on to work and study. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I wasn’t considered a citizen of this country.”

TGO: What about the Mabo Native Title decision? What impact has that had on you as a young Indigenous person?

Garigarra: “Mabo was a very powerful decision, recognising that this country did have Torres-Strait Islander and Aboriginal people living here thousands of years before the British arrived and that we did have a concept of land ownership, and that it was taken away from us through colonisation and our rights were abolished. Mabo was a recognition of our own personal connection to the land.

“I feel like Mabo was such an important bridge, connecting Indigenous Australians with non-Indigenous Australians. It created a new understanding, showing that we all have a connection to the land and we all have legal rights over that land. So, my life and all the work I hope to do in my life is carried out in this new understanding and I’m grateful for that.

“When I was in high school, my father was CEO of Native Title Services, so I was probably unknowingly, quite involved in a lot of action and discussion around it all. I got to see first-hand the legal and social implementation of the Mabo Case. And actually, at the moment, my cousins are working hard at creating their own Native Title case in Northern NSW.”

TGO: Your father is well-known Aboriginal leader and former ALP President, Warren Mundine, and your mother is Lynette Riley, a university lecturer who recently sang the Welcome to Country at the maiden speech of Linda Burney MP in the House of Representatives. Have you thought of taking up politics one day?

Garigarra: “When I was growing up I tried to distance myself from political issues because of who my parents were. I just wanted to be an Australian and do my own thing. But as I’ve got older, I’ve become more aware of Indigenous issues because of who we are and I do feel an obligation to work hard in every aspect of my life and make a successful career so that I can give back to Indigenous people. So yes, I guess my parents are passing it on to my generation. I was standing beside Mum when she did that Welcome to Country in Parliament and it was incredibly emotional. Even the politicians said to us later that they were moved by the whole experience.”

TGO: The campaign to achieve Recognition of Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution and to remove clauses that allow discrimination on the basis of race is well underway. What are your thoughts on that, and are you involved with that campaign?

Garigarra: “I’m not personally involved with the campaign, but working in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, I know of friends and colleagues who are involved in work in this area.

“I think Recognition is incredibly important. It can mean so much in regard to who we are as Indigenous Australians and to have that recognised in the Australian Constitution. But that shouldn’t be the end of it. State and Territory governments should also work with Indigenous people to formulate treaties. So, I think the Recognition in the Constitution is a really great beginning, but it can’t end there.

“It’s been such a long process to get from the 1967 Referendum to this next step. America and Canada have already created treaties, so we’re not going in blind. If Australia went down that road we would have plenty of overseas examples to look at and see what’s working well and what’s not.”

TGO: As a young Indigenous person are you hopeful of what the future can bring for Indigenous Australians and for the country as a whole?

Garigarra: “Oh yeah, I really am hopeful. I’ve been lucky enough to be selected as one of the ACT’s representatives for the National Indigenous Youth Parliament to be held in Canberra during Reconciliation Week in May. Young Indigenous leaders are coming from all around the country to share ideas and hopes for the future. It’s the next generation and it should be amazing.”

National Reconciliation Week begins on May 27

The Good Oil

‘The Good Oil’, the free, monthly e-journal of the Good Samaritan Sisters, publishes news, feature and opinion articles and reflective content which aims to nourish the spirit, stimulate thinking and encourage reflection and dialogue about contemporary issues from a Good Samaritan perspective.

If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.