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Lest we forget who paved the way

Rick Griffiths was a legend of land rights.

Rick Griffiths was a legend of land rights.

OPINION: 2013 is the 30th anniversary of land rights in NSW. This opinion piece by Cr ROY AH SEE is devoted to our warriors, our fighters and elders.

I often get asked what is the best part about my job as an elected Councillor for the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

When I was elected to the Board in 2007, I saw the region I’ve been elected to represent – Sydney/Newcastle – as a kind of a blank canvas. So I used to think that one of the best parts about my job was the freedom to plan your day, and the autonomy to do what you want.

That was until I realized – pretty early in the piece – that while I don’t have a ‘boss’ in the conventional sense of the word, I also have more bosses than anyone I know.

In fact, as a younger person in a leadership position, it turns out I’m accountable to several thousand people – the members of the land council system in the Sydney-Newcastle region.

That can bring with it great challenges, but as I’ve come to learn, it can also bring with it great rewards, and great lessons.

Being elected to a leadership position is a hard job, particularly at a younger age. It comes with responsibility, accountability and transparency. It can also be very lonely, and when I started out I really didn’t understand the personal sacrifices that you – and your family – have to make.

On a personal level, I’ve had to sit back and deflate my ego, and realize that it’s not about who I am, but what I do and the legacy that is left behind. I’ve had to accept that in the past, I’ve been selfish and self-centred. I’ve had to learn humility and I think growing up in this position has forced me to continue to honestly self-reflect.

It’s also forced me to look realistically at what we have achieved, and what one day we might achieve.

We’re into our 30th year of land rights in NSW. We have, in my view, the best land rights legislation in the world. Our land base is very modest – less than 0.1 percent of the total NSW land mass. I look forward to the day when land rights finally delivers back to Aboriginal people at least an equitable share of the state. But I also acknowledge that with very little, we’ve achieved an awful lot.

The land councils in my region have built great wealth. Sometimes, we differ in our views about how we should have gone about it, but no-one can deny the great strides forward that our members have made.

In my region, our land council members have built the largest sand mine in the southern hemisphere. We’ve got land councils with their own health and schooling facilities, we’ve seen members build keeping places and cultural facilities. We’ve built homes and jobs for our people, and we’re building future economies for our kids.

None of this has been easy, and none of it has been as quick as any of us would have liked. But 30 years in, we’re finally starting to hit our straps.

I think it’s important to remember that you don’t build an economy overnight, and nor do you build independence and self-determination in a heart beat.

It took Australia several hundred years to build the prosperity many of us enjoy today, but I hope land rights members stop and remember one thing: many of our people have been locked out of that prosperity, which is why we’ve worked so hard over the last 30 years to build our own.

Reflecting on that inevitably got me thinking about how we got here, which leads me to the best part about my job – the people you meet.

I recently went to pay my respects at the 70th birthday celebration of Ronnie Gordon, one of our great land rights battlers. Being in a room full of so many fighters gave me pause to stop and reflect on the people who have cleared the path for younger leaders like me to make a go of things.

Ronnie has spent 16 years in the land council system. What he’s done and what he’s seen could fill a set of encyclopedias. But it wasn’t just Ronnie in the room that got me thinking.

There were also people there like Jimmy Wright, a stalwart not just of land rights, but of Aboriginal politics generally. Jim is one of the great family men of Aboriginal land rights – he understands the importance of looking after his own mob. That’s his role as an Aboriginal man and leader. But that hasn’t blinded him to his broader responsibilities to fight for Aboriginal land rights outside his region.

And of course, there were people who weren’t in the room, who we all wished were – warriors like Kev Cavanagh and Michael Green. These guys have been around for 20 years and more, and they’re still here, and they’re still fighting.

There were also people we wished were there, who have passed on.

One of the greats has to be Rick Griffiths. Rick was the heart of the Mindaribba Land Council. His passing was an enormous blow not only to Mindaribba, but to the broader land rights fight.
Aunty Gwen Russell is another. You meet people in your life who are there for all the right reasons – Aunty Gwen was one of those people.

Uncle Bob Sampson from Koompahtoo – another great warrior for land rights.

And Jacko Smith. Sometimes, people get involved in land rights because of what they can get out of it. Jacko got involved in land rights because of what everyone else could get out of it. Like Rick and Aunty Gwen, he was a selfless man.

Looking around our network, there’s obviously too many to name. There’s so many fighters for our rights – Freddie Malone from Gandangarra, Trevor Patten from Mindaribba, the Ingram’s from Metro. The list goes on and on… and on.

Being around so many inspiring people has a way of grounding you.

It also forces you to face a few truths, and one is that this job has never been about me. It’s about ‘us’.

It’s about Aboriginal people – in the face of so many obstacles and so much disadvantage – forging our own destiny.

Now, more than ever, I understand that land rights is our best hope of doing that.

All of this, of course, has made me think about what we’re fighting for. That part is pretty simple.

We’re fighting for our future, and we’re fighting for a future for our children, and their children. It’s a very Aboriginal thing to do, to fight for family.

I’m proud to walk among the men and women of the land rights system who do, and I like to think that I’m a little humbler and a little smarter the further I walk.

And that brings me to the greatest lesson I’ve learnt over the last few years in a leadership position – you can be as sharp as a tack and cunning as a fox, but you can’t really be wiser than your years.

The fact is, there’s no shortcut to life experience, and that’s why this column is devoted to our old people – the elders who have inspired me and many others. The people who have led the land rights fight for the past few decades.

Here’s to many more.

* Roy Ah See is the Councillor for the Sydney-Newcastle region. He was born and raised on Nanima Reserve in Wellington, NSW on the banks of the Macquarie River. He now lives in the Central Coast of NSW and is a member of the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council.

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