In late August, Noel Pearson, renowned lawyer, academic, land rights activist and founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, stepped onto the stage of the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club to deliver the sixth annual Dungala Kaiela Oration. As he explained to the packed audience, he was dressed in a suit given to him by his late friend, Lew Griffiths, who filmed the entire proceedings of the native title claim to the traditional lands of the Yorta Yorta people.
The Dungala Kaiela Oration, the brainchild of Yorta Yorta Elder Paul Briggs, was taken up as an early initiative of the University of Melbourne’s Murrup Barak Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development. Mr Briggs is a member of the Indigenous Affairs Advisory Committee of the University of Melbourne Council who, in addition to his community leadership, is known throughout the wider regional area of central Victoria as a talented and gutsy former footballer and powerhouse behind the respected Rumbalara Football and Netball Club.
“The original vision for the Dungala Kaiela series of orations was for a five-year program,” says Ian Anderson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Engagement) at the University of Melbourne.
“But largely thanks to Paul Briggs’ inspiration, leadership and tenacity in bringing some of Australia’s most important and influential academics, corporate and business leaders, and economic experts to the Goulburn Valley, the orations have assumed an importance that denies the original imagined timeframe.”
Begun in 2009 with an inaugural oration by former premier of Western Australia and Federal Minister Carmen Lawrence, and world-renowned soprano and Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham, the orations have covered a rolling set of themes examining Indigenous culture, health and society, economic and regional development, and legal issues.
In Professor Anderson’s estimation, the ‘Defining Goulburn Murray’ series has achieved its stated aim of building knowledge within the greater Goulburn Valley and has been overwhelmingly successful in promoting both cultural and economic development in the region.
“I’d go as far as to say that through the agency of these orations, the financial health of the Goulburn Valley and the region’s capacity and potential for future economic prosperity has been enhanced and strengthened,” Professor Anderson says.
The first oration was followed in 2010 by a keynote address by Managing Director of Wesfarmers Richard Goyder, and in 2011 by prominent economist Saul Eslake. Westpac’s Chief Executive of Australian Financial Services Brian Hartzer presented the oration in 2012, and in 2013 it was National Chairman of KPMG and board member of Reconciliation Australia, Peter Nash.
“Each of the Dungala Kaiela orators has posed profoundly important arguments and perspectives,” says Professor Marcia Langton, the University of Melbourne’s Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies.
“The thesis Noel Pearson has developed this year, in drawing on the historical tradition of conservatism to mount an argument for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is characteristically clever, irresistibly seductive.”
On another level, Noel Pearson’s presentation drew its inspiration from the Yorta Yorta people and their strength and determination over time.
“There is no other tribe in Aboriginal Australia who has produced more important leaders than the Yorta Yorta.
“There have been many that might be a show, but historically, and truly, this particular tribe has contributed more important leaders in the history of the Aboriginal struggle in Australia than any other in the country.”
Expressing his concern of reawakening the pain inflicted by the failure of the Yorta Yorta native title land claim in the Federal and High Courts, Mr Pearson used this year’s Dungala Kaiela Oration to express his belief that the failure of the claim represents a failure at law. “I can’t stand here and ignore that injustice to the nation,” he said.
For Paul Briggs, holding the oration at the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club endowed the 2014 Oration with special significance. “Here we are in our sacred room, in our place, on our country, talking about issues of vital importance.
“The partnership between the University of Melbourne and the Indigenous community in the Goulburn Valley is now more than 10 years old, dating back to 2003 when we worked together on a campaign to close the gap in Indigenous health.
“Now here we are in 2014, still working in partnership, but the partnership has broadened and grown stronger with the passage of time.”
A recording of Noel Pearson’s 2014 Dungala Kaiela Oration can be viewed at: http://youtu.be/Z9a7dVtz6hc