Speech by Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell, August 2019
Nhamirri bukmak. Ngarra yaku Duncan Maskell.
Ngarra University of Melbourne’wu Bunnguwa.
My name is Duncan Maskell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. I am very happy to be on the country of the Gumatj people.
I come with respect for the traditions of the Gumatj and wider Yolngu community, and your Elders, living and past.
I acknowledge the Dilak and its members gathered here for the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures, and I acknowledge also the richness of the culture here, with language at its heart, including the 13 different languages of the Yolngu people.
As Vice-Chancellor from the University of Melbourne, I bring with me a message of respect from a university which is more than 160 years old, founded in 1853.
And I recognise that that institutional history pales into insignificance compared with the thousands of years of history and culture of the people on this land, this country in Arnhem Land.
One of the key values at our university that we share in common with the great ancient cultures of this land is a tradition of respect for and nurturing of knowledge.
Like you, we value education as one of the most important things that a society can do for its people. We value education for the great good it can do in people’s lives, and we value the teaching of knowledge in wide and disparate fields.
Just one example: the group I lead from Melbourne at Garma 2019 includes members of the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity program, and may I acknowledge in the audience Mr Chris Oechsli who is President and CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies based in the USA. The Atlantic program is a great educational initiative shaping future leaders for Indigenous communities.
We cherish education, and nurture it for the good it can do in every community. We also challenge knowledge through our research and help to build our understanding of the people, places and things that we live with and through.
Few have put this better than a young Gumatj man speaking here at Garma last year, Michael Yunupingu. Michael is a student, and his words about education are powerful, so I would like to quote them now.
Education is the most powerful tool for breaking down barriers, and the only way we can adapt with the rest of Australia whilst maintaining our strong culture.
Education should be an on-going process, where we can all learn from each other in many different ways. In my short exposure to Garma so far, I have learned a great deal and have glimpsed how much more there is to learn from your culture.
Michael continued with words that I find very moving. He said:
We cannot change the past. But we can, altogether, Balanda and Yolngu, as one, have the opportunity to create a fair and better future. …. we can improve education, and have a future where we have our own Yolngu doctors, Yolngu lawyers, teachers, and most importantly, positive role models.’
What Michael Yunupingu says here – and what the Elders have been saying for years – is that education is crucial for the future. This is something I also passionately believe in.
For me, students are at the heart of everything a University does. Many clever people work in universities, teaching the leaders and contributors of the future, and doing important research.
But universities are not just about the academics – they are primarily there for students, and certainly not just for students from white communities, wealthy backgrounds, the sons and daughters of privileged people.
We exist for students of every community, in Australia and countries beyond. We are there for students with brilliant potential from every part of the country, including this country we are on today. I feel very strongly about this.
So we come to Garma as leaders and representatives of the University of Melbourne to help advance our work together with you, and to learn from you.
This work is the work of partnership with the Yothu Yindi Foundation, in the spirit of bala lilli.
I come as the leader of the University of Melbourne, to reinforce that this partnership is very important to the University, but also to me personally. I come to work with the leaders of the clans in this country.
Together, we can and we will advance and improve education for your young people, and for young people from other parts of Australia and from other lands.
All of these students, from every place, have so much they can learn from you, from us, and so importantly from each other.
The partnership I speak of means two-way knowledge – the traditional knowledge systems of the Balanda university, and the unbroken knowledge traditions of Indigenous people. This includes Yolngu Matha and other Aboriginal languages, as well as your culture, your time-honoured practices in living sustainably with the land, your know-how.
We will be a better university, and our students will receive a better education, if we work in partnership with you, honouring and celebrating and teaching Indigenous knowledge alongside our own knowledge traditions.
This is a commitment the University of Melbourne is ready to make, every day of the year.
We are ready to commit every day of the year with people, dollars and cents, and institutional resources.
One symbol of this strong commitment to partnership, and something exciting and new that I am announcing here today, is the setting up of the new Indigenous Knowledge Institute at the University of Melbourne.
This Institute will be dedicated to becoming a world centre and gathering place for Aboriginal knowledge in all its forms. It will respect and celebrate and, I hope, become a magnet for knowledge of other Indigenous, First Nations people from around the world.
Amongst the key aims of the new Institute will be to document, curate, preserve, and disseminate Indigenous knowledge in partnership with Indigenous communities.
We had the privilege of visiting the Mulka project yesterday, and I hope we can deepen that partnership and continue to work together to ensure the cultural heritage of the Yolngu people is returned to them.
This Institute will build on exciting work already happening involving University researchers and teachers and Indigenous communities across Australia. This includes work in language, arts and music, the life sciences, engineering and design, health, data infrastructure, and a number of two-way learning initiatives.
To make the Indigenous Knowledge Institute a reality, the University of Melbourne has set aside funds to establish and develop it over the next five years.
We will launch this initiative to preserve and restore Indigenous knowledge, and support the wider teaching and understanding of cultures which are the oldest on earth, and have too long been neglected, ignored, or forgotten in our universities and society.
While your culture has been here for tens of thousands of years, I have been in Australia for less than ten thousand hours and in East Arnhem land for less than ten thousand minutes! I am learning fast about this country’s history. And I have long known that dispossession and colonialism brought a terrible toll of suffering on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
I know that an important writer and university academic, Bill Stanner, spoke the truth when he said, back in 1968, that the Australian nation had a long-developed, bad habit of overlooking Aboriginal experience.
Stanner put it this way:
It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
Since the late 1960s, there have been tides of change in Australia, to recognise the wrongs done to Aboriginal people, and recognise Aboriginal people themselves.
But not enough has changed. And I want to make clear my view that universities are one of the guilty parties in being too slow in making change.
Australian universities need to do better to make national change happen. We need to do our considerable bit in leading this change. And that is why I am here at Garma.
Part of what we have to do is shake up the apathy in institutions up and down the country. Bruce Pascoe, a Victorian Kulin writer I greatly respect, nailed this issue last year when he said:
The reason for the national apathy to racial politics in this country stems …. from the national ignorance of Aboriginal culture and economy and that ignorance has to be laid in part at the feet of our learning institutions. A legion of professors and other academics at our universities decided it would be unnecessary for our golden youth to know what the explorers witnessed of Aboriginal excellence.
Now is the right time to speak out and act because a new moment of hope has arisen, with Minister Ken Wyatt’s commitment to work towards holding a referendum during the current sitting of the Parliament of Australia.
I am not in parliament, and the university is not the Government. But we can lend our voice to the call for recognition in Australia’s Constitution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
University of Melbourne Council member Mark Leibler was co-chair of the Referendum Council and the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.
Mark recently spoke of the importance of building bipartisan support around the model of recognition presented in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
My predecessor as Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis was also one of the first public leaders to welcome the ‘Uluru Statement From the Heart’ in 2017.
As the current Vice-Chancellor, today I want to say that the words of the Uluru Statement connect deeply with me too. Especially these words:
How could it be …. That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?
With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
I can see that this nation will be greatly strengthened by taking this ancient sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples to its heart.
The Uluru Statement says more as well, about education and culture and voice.
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
So in 2019, how do we work together to make sure this becomes reality?
Most importantly for us, I think we have to build our existing partnership between the University of Melbourne and the Yothu Yindi Foundation into something even stronger, even firmer, which can be a powerful beacon and example to the rest of Australia as it becomes more mature as a nation.
Today I want to emphasise the Garma 2019 theme of ‘Pathways to our future’. In fact pathways to our future are exactly what I am at Garma to explore.
For the University, we always do our best work in partnership with others: with students and former students, with businesses, with communities, with Government. And it is the one word, ‘our’ in ‘Pathways to our future’ that I want to end on today.
The relationship with the Yothu Yindi Foundation is one that gives both of us – the Yothu Yindi Foundation and the University of Melbourne – a shared future and purpose.
The Melbourne Indigenous Knowledge Institute is one way we honour the commitment to this relationship. Here in Arnhem Land where Yolngu Matha is strong, the Institute we’re establishing can do important work, for you, for us, for Australia.
In time, with other Yothu Yindi Foundation partners including PriceWaterhouse Coopers and PwC’s Indigenous consulting, we hope to bring to life the dream of a ‘bush university’, to practice, preserve and maintain Aboriginal knowledge systems, cultural traditions and practices here on Gumatj country in Arnhem Land.
Again, this is vitally important work, not just for you on this country, not just for us in Melbourne, but for Australia, and the world.
As Djawa said this morning, long before Europeans came, Macassan traders from the Malay-speaking islands to the north-west came here regularly in peaceful exchange with the people of Gumatj country. There are traces of the old trade language in Yolngu Matha and other Aboriginal languages.
Most Australians don’t know this. Australians don’t know their own story. We must change this.
The big goal we are working for is just this – a shared vision, between the University of Melbourne and the Gumatj and wider Yolngu community, honouring equally two knowledge traditions, the Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
We approach this goal by embracing the Yolngu spirit and concept of ‘bala lilli’ – to give and to take, listening and understanding, the meeting of freshwater and saltwater.
This is the intersection of knowledge systems, like the coastal mangroves here, where the waters combine and flow on together. Where the freshwater and saltwater meet, it bubbles up, creating something exciting, something new.
In partnership with you, we want to see this happen through education. We are in this, with you, for the long haul.
Thank you for welcoming me and my colleagues from Melbourne on to Gumatj country today.