Speech delivered by Andrea Mason, Co-ordinator NPY Women’s Council, at the 2014 Women of Ambition breakfast, an annual event hosted by EY (Ernst and Young). The function was held in the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra on the 14th August 2014.


I acknowledge the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal and pay my respect to their elders past and present.

I would like to thank Ernst and Young, especially Catherine Friday (a partner of the company) for extending me this invitation to travel to Canberra for this event.  My home for the past six years has been Alice Springs, the capital of Central Australia. It is a beautiful part of Australia and if you haven’t visited this region before or if it has been a long time since your last visit, please don’t be a stranger.

This morning I would like to introduce Michelle Young, a colleague from NPY Women’s Council. Michelle is the Manager of Tjanpi Desert Weavers, NPY Women’s Council’s inspiring social enterprise.

My speech this morning is divided into three parts: the beginning, the power of one and the power of us

Part 1: The Beginning

At sometime just after the beginning of the 20th century a small family was forming on the western side of the great western desert region in Western Australia in lands between where Warburton and Jameson communities are situated today on the Ngaanyatjarra Lands.  From accounts I have heard the husband was a kind man and he loved his two wives.

But like the biblical account of Abram and Sarai and her handmaiden Haggai, the older wife became jealous of the younger wife and on a day when the husband was out hunting, the first wife took the opportunity to cast the younger wife out of the camp.

She was told to head further west to where her family were camped and asked to never return. Before leaving the camp the second wife, pregnant with her first child, was given a fire stick so that she could survive and then she headed out of the camp.  That second wife was my grandmother and she very carefully used her knowledge and skills to walk over 600km through arid desert lands to the remote frontier town of Laverton.

In and around Laverton she settled, eventually having more children. As each of these children grew, the long arm of the White Australia policy eventually reached them, including my father, who in due time was placed in Mount Margaret Mission, where among other things, he learned to read and write to grade 3 standard as was the policy at that time.

Unfortunately I never met my grandmother. Some who knew her described her as a very caring and compassionate person and clearly she was someone who could take care of herself and others.

Then in 1979 my parents took their family on a similar journey – not one that was forced but one they chose: to relocate from Kalgoorlie to Adelaide so that their children could have a stronger chance of completing high school and, through this, have a greater chance to go to university and start careers to give back to their family and community.

In Adelaide my siblings and I thrived. Three of us did complete a degree or two and my mother also completed a university program. My mum was raised on a mission near the WA town of Norseman and so she, like my dad, was a mission kid. She was a quiet and reserved woman and incredibly determined. She taught herself how to sew and became a very capable seamstress, she taught herself to play the piano and she put herself through university in spite of still having her five children at home and no computer in sight.

As a young person my mum held an ambition to take on whatever was beyond school, to make a contribution, but due to circumstances of her living as a ward of the State on a mission, she had limited choices.

For most of her working career she worked with vulnerable Aboriginal people on the margins of society. She worked as a child protection worker, assisted homeless Aboriginal people through her position as a senior worker in Centrelink and, for a time, she was the Chairperson of the Aboriginal Women’s Shelter in Adelaide: Nunga Mi:Minar.

Like her mother-in-law who she never met, mum rose above her life circumstances to make a life for herself and her family.

In my family, sport and music have opened up doors to opportunities that may have otherwise remained unopened. I played netball at an elite level which opened the door to me attending the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra in 1984 and 1985. I was among the Institute’s first group of Indigenous scholarship holders alongside Marcia Ella and Sammy Mills who is family to Patrick Mills.

I also experienced during my high school years in Adelaide, racism and bullying and also the intervention of a compassionate and just high school Principal.

Years later I met the sister of the teenage boy who was the chief harasser. I enquired after him, knowing she was not aware of our history.

She said: “Oh its terrible Andrea, he’s living with a woman who is much older than him. She’s very bossy and domineering.” I quickly took this in and maybe I smiled.

In 2014 Australia is recognised as a wealthy, developed Western nation.  We look at nations like Bhutan, Indonesia and Namibia and the life of their citizens as very removed from our life. Except that this is not true as some of their values and norms are found in this land.

As we know, Australia prior to the occupation of the British was a land ruled by nations that lived accordingly to non-Western values and practices.  So let me provide some examples of non-Western values.  A system called customary law regulated relationships, there were rituals for life and death; ancient song lines bound nations across thousands of kilometres; the ownership of land was expressed in terms of the land being our life and therefore it could only be held by custodians for the next generation; and land boundaries between tribes were respected without the need for fences.

When I was a young person I was interested in understanding the diversity between Western customs and values and non-Western or Eastern customs and values. I was told that in Western society, the priority is who you are becoming, getting an education, getting a job and buying a house and family was more about the nuclear family.

In communities based on non-Western or traditional Eastern values and principles, the priority is who you are and your place in society, education is through concrete experiences, having everyday provisions is the norm and priority (rather than accumulating wealth), family is defined by the relationships in the extended family and life is expressed as a continuous connection to stories, land and principles through ancient songlines and these in turn have a relevance to today.

Importantly security was in the knowledge held by the group, especially senior members who are more expert teachers than elders. So to state it plainly, Australia was ruled by hundreds of councils, which means Indigenous Australia’s governance model is councilocracy rather than democracy (51% majority) or theocracy.

Certainly today these descriptions are more fluid, but in the 1900s when that small family was forming in WA, these differences were seen as irreconcilable.

Part 2: The Power of One

So today we have Indigenous and non-Indigenous people living in communities all across this land. And Indigenous people are living by a range of Western and non-Western values and customs based on a wide spectrum, but with a common denominator of people identifying as Indigenous Australians. In my region of the NPY lands, Eastern or traditional Indigenous practices are well and truly alive, and I would say are the more dominant culture than Western culture.

In this region of 6000 people, my time is focussed on facilitating and co-ordinating work that leads to improved life outcomes in areas such as education, health and social, economic and community development.

If Australians need an example of leadership and governance to show how people of different identities can come together and achieve the right balance, we need look no further than to NPY Women’s Council: an organisation started by the women of the central desert region of WA, SA and the NT under the vision of ‘The Power of One’, or as the women say it “Only One Women’s Council”.

Over the past thirty three years, the organisation has stacked up an incredible list of achievements and respect from other leaders in the region.

While NPY Women’s Council has an enviable record of corporate governance including financial management, the women who comprise its membership and board are also strong in Aboriginal law and culture and in protecting the three most important things to continuing their presence: Manta – country, Walytja – family and Tjukurpa – law (I was reminded of this recently by Mrs Nyurapaya Burton, a former director of NPY Women’s Council).

In a generation where becoming famous ranges from being a secret desire to an obsession and fame is possible because of social media, the internet and smart-Phones, it would be easy for leaders such as the members and staff of NPY Women’s Council to have one eye on the task and the other on accolades.

However, if a choice is given to choose between significance and prominence, then I would always choose significance and I am sure so would the staff and members of NPY Women’s Council.

So how do I define significance? I see it as someone who has an ambition to leave a legacy, a greater life affirming legacy for the next generation, whether in their marriage, family, community and or in their professional contribution.

The ambition I am talking about is one that does not pressure relationships, but attracts leaders, because collaboration is accessed using a positive and transformative energy.

I am sure many of you here today are identifying with what I am saying and I am sure everyone in this room identifies with a life that is defined as significant.  So now I’m thinking that here today as Australians we have more in common than what keeps us apart.

Many of you here this morning would remember a movie that was shown in cinemas around the world in 1992 called The Power of One. This film was based on the 1989 novel of the same name by the late South African and Australian author Bryce Courtenay.

The hero of this film was Peekay, a young English boy.  As a boy growing up in South Africa he suffered as the only English boy in an all Afrikaans school.

While visiting his friend Doc in prison, Peekay meets Geel Piet who teaches him to box. As events unfold Geel creates an atmosphere of hope by calling Peekay the rain maker, drawing on an African myth that speaks of a man who brings peace to all the tribes of Africa.  Young Peekay grows into a man who overcomes the hatred of others and makes a stand to reach out to his nation to transform it though teaching young people how to read.

Part 3: The Power of Us

While the message of ‘the Power of One’ is inspiring, working at NPY Women’s Council has underlined and re-inspired for me the Power of Us. I am seeing this concept repeated in other relationships NPY Women’s Council is developing, such as a proposal called Empowered Communities, which the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is supporting.

The aim of the Empowered Communities concept is to increase Indigenous responsibility in our communities, to address issues and create opportunities for our communities and for government to deliver its accountability, by supporting and, where necessary, resourcing priorities set by Indigenous leaders.  This collaboration of Indigenous leaders from eight regions across Australia tells me of the Power of Us, of Indigenous leaders uniting for a common purpose and vision.

So what of the Power of Us for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians? I hope it is something of a synergy and by this I mean: one plus one equals three. And this ‘three’ won’t be like anything we’ve seen, this is the best of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia and our nation rejecting the worst elements of the two cultures, such as domestic and family violence, financial abuse,  child abuse and neglect.

This is an Australia where Indigenous people and culture are celebrated and our shared history is respected, and Indigenous Australians respectfully acknowledge  non-Indigenous people and various sectors that have and are making a contribution and where we as Australians can acknowledge that there is history in this country where we have sometimes got it right.

So let’s imagine if we could do this in this nation’s Parliament?

Image a minority party of NPY women with the balance of power working for all Australians through their current guiding principles:

respect each other and follow the law straight, kind hearted, peaceful and calm, conciliatory, united and strong.

Clearly today this scenario is a long way from happening.

What we have today are laws being enacted for Indigenous Australians by a majority of members of Parliament who live out Western values elected by a nation comprised of people who are on the whole living by Western values. So how do we find the balance when the wisdom from the East sits outside the Parliament?

I would think leaders such as NPY Women’s Council must necessarily have a role and concepts like Empowered Communities must be given support as one of a range of solutions with the potential to create a more just and fair society.

At a practical level I believe a galvanising bridge bringing the two cultures together is education and education based on concrete experiences and a connection beyond school to meaningful engagement including work. I believe education that includes a history of this nation and continent is a stronger basis to encourage all Australians to think, to consider, to reflect and to act with significance.

And in the long term it would also provide a basis for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to find common ground to create an Australia that is a stronger, empowered and more just nation.

I believe this would also help to close the gap and I’m not only talking about education,  health and the economy, but also respect, understanding and appreciation so that Indigenous Australians have the opportunity to access an economy above provisions, while continuing to strengthen their identity.

If you are thinking of what you can do to support NPY Women’s Council and other leaders working in similar ways I would say stay positive and stay optimistic, because positive effort is being made.

Secondly, I would encourage you to support the Indigenous economy, Indigenous education schemes, donate, fund and actively support Indigenous businesses and community development organisations and the projects they deliver such as NPY Women’s Council, as all of these initiatives and more are building a significant legacy for the next generation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Thank you.