Noel Pearson: Indigenous tongues deserve recognition as official languages

Noel Pearson: Indigenous tongues deserve recognition as official languages

In December last year, Northern Territory MP Bess Price was chided by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly for an interjection in her mother tongue, Warlpiri, one of the great ancient languages of that territory. The Speaker, Country Liberal Party MP Kezia Purick, stated “the language of the assembly is English”.

Price followed with a letter asking permission to freely use her language in political debates in the Northern Territory parliament. Purick stuck to her guns. “The official language of Australia is English,” she said in an ABC interview, “and so by nature the official language of every parliament of Australia is English”. Purick advised that parliamen­­­tary standing orders require politicians to speak in English unless granted leave.

All this came to light little more than a week after Malcolm Turnbull began his Closing the Gap report to parliament with a preface in another of Australia’s great ancient languages, Ngunnawal, the language of the land on which the Australian parliament sits in Canberra. Ken Wyatt’s attempt to equate Turnbull’s address with that of Paul Keating’s Redfern speech was unnecessary hyperbole, but the symbolism of an Australian Prime Minister using this important annual occasion of the parliament to speak one of the many ancient languages of the nation was gracious and correct.

The great pity was neither all of the Prime Minister’s Liberal National MPs nor Bill Shorten’s Labor MPs had the decency to be present. I do not know of any federal seat that does not have indigenous citizens who are the subject of this annual report, and even if there are, surely the gravity of the subject requires the atten­dance of all parliamentarians. It is held on a sitting day. All represen­tatives are in the house.

I am dismayed by Purick’s ruling. I do not actually know but can believe Price is hurt by the position taken. I understand and empathise with this hurt. There is something basically wrong if a language predating the existence of that territory and its parliament has no place in its deliberations. If the standing orders of that parliament prohibit it, then they should be changed specifically to permit it. As to the issue of understanding, the parliament should make translators available in the case of prepared speeches, or the MP speaking in a traditional language should be required to provide an English translation of what they have said.

In my view the Prime Minister demonstrated the correct and just position on whether indigenous languages should be spoken in Australia’s parliaments. It is only right Australians speak Australian languages. Elected Australian leaders should be able to speak Australian languages as a matter of right, as long as there is an immediate translation of what is said in English.

English is the language of Eng­land, and the de facto common language of Australia. All citizens of Australia have a right to be fluent in English. But other languages have been used on this continent for thousands of years. Australians also should learn, speak and write the languages that have told the stories of this continent since time immemorial, just as they learn the language and stories of England.

A quick search of the word English in the Northern Territory parliament standing orders of December 1 last year reveals only one instance. Standing Order 119 requires every petition be written in English or accompanied by a translation. There is nothing to back Purick’s proposition that “the language of the assembly is English”. While there are several orders on disorderly conduct, there are none specifically relating to the use of languages other than English constituting disorderly conduct. No wonder Price sought clarification.

At the national level, the federal parliament website explains that “although there is no specific rule set down by standing order, the house follows the practice of requiring members’ speeches to be in English”, because most of the politicians are English speakers. It is more of a cultural norm than a hard and fast rule.

In 2003 a meeting of the two houses in the House of Representatives chamber was addressed by the president of China in Chinese. Members and senators used headphones to hear the simultaneous translation into English. If arran­g­ing interpreters is possible for foreign dignitaries, it should be possible for indigenous Australian languages.

In earlier times, when MPs were more classically educated, Latin phrases were spoken in Australian parliaments, and occasionally still are. These instances were not and are not ruled disorderly.

What about the claim that “the official language of Australia is English”?

Australia has no official language. There is nothing in our Constitution or law that declares an official language for Australia, though English is generally regarded as the de facto national language.

In 2012, the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of indigenous Australians, of which I was a member, proposed the following clause 127A:

(1) The national language of the Commonwealth of Australia is English.

(2) The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage.

I was the principal advocate of this proposal.

This clause has largely disappeared from the national discourse about constitutional recognition. Some experts felt it would be too oppressive to declare English Australia’s national language. It may yield unintended legal consequences. I am perplexed by this response.

Why shouldn’t English be Australia’s national language? All citizens should speak it and if they can’t, they must learn it. English is essential to our national life.

At the same time, the indigenous Australian languages should be recognised as Australian languages. Australians should have the right to speak Australian languages. It need not be one or the other. The correct position should value both English and indigenous languages.

Many nations recognise indigenous and regional minority languages. In the UK, Irish, Ulster Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Welsh and Cornish are recognised native regional languages. Sami language rights are constitutionally and legislatively recognised in the Scandinavian countries. Hawaiian is recognised as an official language in Hawaii and Native American languages are recognised on the US mainland. South Africa, Mexico and India all constitutionally recognise indigenous and regional languages. Even The Netherlands officially recognises the Frisian minority regional language.

Closer to home, the Maori Language Act recognises Maori as an official language of New Zealand. The act sets up the Maori Language Commission to promote and revitalise the Maori language. New Zealand pursues dual place-naming. It promotes Maori culture as New Zealand culture. The rugby team performs the haka with pride. It is not booed when they do so; it is cheered. New Zealand now even carries a Maori name: Aotearoa. What makes the New Zealand national anthem so moving is that it has one verse in Maori and the other in English.

Recognising indigenous Australian languages as official languages of our federal system is a reform we must face. We should discuss further whether this should occur in the Constitution as the expert panel proposed, or in legislation.

Like New Zealand, Australia could enact an Australian Languages Act, declaring English and indigenous Australian languages as official languages of the commonwealth, and setting out fair rules for people to apply for leave to speak other foreign languages in public institutions.

Provided provision is made for translation, at the level of principle, no leave should be required to speak Australian languages in Australia.

Price is right to stand up on this issue. She is a genuine Australian conservative. She is conservative in the political sense, in that she is a member of the Country Liberal Party. But, more impor­tant, she is conservative in the philosophical sense in that she is a great respecter and upholder of tradition, including her people’s traditions.

I am absolutely sure she is respectful of the traditions of the parliament of which she is a member. Her white Australian husband is a fluent speaker of her ancient language. I can think of no better example of a couple upholding the twin heritages of Australia.

READ: The Australian


Scroll to Top