Recently, for the first time this year, I found myself with my family on the salt water in my small dinghy. I was making numus for us, from the fish we’d caught over the side. We were floating on Tiwi Country on the border of Larrakia land.
On a “build up” day like this, there’s barely a whisper of wind. The sea’s surface lays like foil on a tray in the oven. Beneath lurk crocodiles, sharks and box jellyfish. The clouds give no relief from the heat of the sun, nor does the small canvas canopy on the boat. The humidity makes the air feel like hot soup.
Yet for all the uncomfortable heat, this is where I had longed to be as I travelled the country during the protracted and intense referendum campaign. Earlier that morning, my heart swelled with pride watching my 10-year-old daughter, Ruby, hauling in a bunch of golden snappers. She’s hardworking, a busy bee who grew so tall and lanky while I campaigned across the country. I watched the chagrin of her 12-year-old brother, Will, who for all his bravado before the trip had barely caught a fish.
Ruby shares my taste – a proper little Torres Strait Islander girl. She loves all things spicy and savoury and anything from the sea. She enjoys cooking, as I do. I asked her as I wrote this, “What was your favourite part of fishing the other day?” The first thing she said was, “When we made the numus.”
Numus is raw fish and onion sliced thinly with chopped birdseye chillies and a dash of soy sauce. In a container in the esky, it cooks in the acidity of the other two ingredients, lemon juice and vinegar. In that fishing spot we always catch the best fish for the dish, a white firm-fleshed fish called trevally. The numus is never better than when it is made fresh, icy cold, eaten amid the sweaty heat, salt air and with family.
When I was a boy, I loved going to that same fishing spot with my father. It’s a special place to me, because, in a dinghy at sea, fishing and hunting, my father treated me differently to how he did at home. On land, he was much harsher.
My dad was part of a generation of Torres Strait Islander men who left their island home for the mainland to work – the first who could freely do so without permission from a white “Protector” who could control every aspect of their lives. He was 17 when he left Waiben on Kaurareg Country, otherwise known as Thursday Island.
Those island men were famously hard-working. On May 8, 1968, a railway track-laying crew, largely made up of Torres Strait Islanders, broke a world record by laying the greatest length of track in a day. Talk about heat. They achieved that feat in the Pilbara, between Port Hedland and Mount Newman. Many of them settled in mainland towns to raise their own families, as did my dad, while still sending money to family on the islands.
I have strived to give my children the best things my dad gave me – love, protection and an example. I have consciously walked where he shone a light, rather than in his shadow. I have learnt from his mistakes and made my own, and I want my kids to learn from both of us, the good and the bad.
What I perceived as my father’s flaws were as much about his perception of the world as about anything else. He rarely told me he loved me, thinking that was necessary to harden me up. He wanted me to be a man among men, whereas I tell my kids I love them every day.
My father often told me I was stupid. He’d give me a kick up the arse if I failed to meet his expectations. Today I understand he was so harsh because he feared much worse for me out in the world. Out there, as Noel Pearson described in his Boyer Lectures last year, Indigenous Australians are “much unloved”.
My approach to fatherhood has been to try to instil confidence and self-belief in my children. I have tried this at every opportunity. Compared with my father’s generation, and my generation, I want the next generation to live with less fear.
Ultimately, we all should want to leave the next generation a little wiser, with a more peaceful, fairer world. This is the vision we fought for in the referendum campaign, but 2023 has left us wondering.
Because of the political opportunism of Peter Dutton’s Coalition, in 2023 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people felt like we were on trial, suspects of the crimes against us.
Here we were, following a history of genocide, dispossession, ignorance and exclusion, with the gap widening because of the policy failures and harmful acts of parliament, mostly under the Coalition, in a country we had civilised for tens of thousands of years, suddenly expected to answer for all these wrongs as if we were the perpetrators ourselves.
Indigenous advocates for justice, who had lived through the worst racism and prejudice, who had dedicated decades of their lives to bringing tangible, multi-partisan solutions to the point of possibility, were suddenly defending our people against allegations that we were the racists, that we were the grifters, that we were responsible for the failures. The Murdoch media in particular reported these allegations as if they were serious. The conflict was more popular than peace.
It has ever been thus. Women know this. Victims of domestic violence, murder and rape, victims of crimes committed by men, know that they will more likely be blamed than be helped. It is also the case for the civilians in Gaza, bombed in pursuit of Hamas. Violence only begets violence. Ignorance perpetuates our problems. There is no justification for rape, raiding a village and taking hostages, nor bombing hospitals, businesses, homes and schools.
If we did not take the lessons from the past in 2023, if we cannot practise what we preach, no one’s god and no one’s science can help us in 2024. How can we save the planet if we cannot save ourselves? How can we save ourselves if we do not save the planet?
Southerners rarely agree, but the Top End “build up” is the best time of year in Darwin. The heat and humidity may be depressing, like it was that day fishing; but there’s numus, there’s air-conditioning and, best of all, like when we arrived back at the ramp at high tide, there is the wonderful tropical rain.
Since the referendum, I have enjoyed the mornings with my house open while it is cool, drinking a coffee while my kids get ready for school. Afterwards I close up the house, shut the louvres, and turn on the air-con, waiting until there’s an afternoon deluge. There’s nothing better than sitting on the verandah reading a book as the heavens open, the lights flickering from the power of the storm. It has been nice to stay home and rest.
Now, however, it is time I start writing again. Many of the six million Australians who voted “Yes” want to know what to do next.
We may feel we are powerless to make the world what we want it to be in 2024 – a world where fossil fuels have been phased out for clean energy; where the rich and the grossly profitable pay their fair share of tax; where no one is homeless, and young Australians can own their home; where workers have strong enough rights to negotiate liveable wages and safe, comfortable, flexible hours of work; a world where disputes can be resolved without war.
Let us be courageous enough to have conversations at Christmas dinner tables. The campaign for peace and fairness continues.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Suspects of the crimes against us ".
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