Last time I was at the Opera House – almost exactly a year ago – I was watching Sufjan Stevens perform an ethereal soundscape through blurry, tear-stained eyes, and walked out into the harbour with renewed perspectives. Homeground Talks inspired a similar change within me, albeit for a very different reason; one that boasted no 10-minute strobe-lit, reverberating, wall-of-sound guitar solos but one that incited cathartic epiphanies amongst its audience in its own way: intelligent and passionate, heated at times, but moderated with refinement by incredible chair Dr. Romaine Moreton.
Moreton has a knack for teasing out the interplay between the speakers’ ideas and posing questions that are sometimes penetrative, always educational. This was never more evident than in Homeground Talks, which – over two sessions – featured some of the Southern Hemisphere’s most recognised Indigenous activists, leaders, musicians, and creatives.
Session 1 was aptly themed “Unfinished Paperwork: Recognition and Sovereignty”, topical given the concurrence of the talk with the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which amended mentions of Aboriginal people in the Constitution. Michael Mansell, Secretary of the Aboriginal Provisional Government, delivered a speech that included a welcome crash course in the ongoing dialogue regarding sovereignty in Australia and a logical basis for a treaty between Aboriginal communities and the government as a conduit for tangible negotiation. He was a refreshing, amicable voice that delivered his argument with seasoned ease and reasoning – traits that were echoed in his fellow speaker and Maori activist Tame Iti, who urged us to listen to the stories of the panel.
Both men were engaging, but it was Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM who was the night’s absolute tour de force, enticing the crowd’s utmost attention with her sobering reminders of the continued need for change in this country. Quips like “they are not public servants, they are public serpents” drew uproarious laughter but it was her conviction in her personal identity that ultimately expressed her disdain for debates over treaties and constitutional recognition. “There is no need to talk about sovereignty,” she remarked, “I am sovereign.”
However, the night did not escape the inevitable drama that pervades all panel discussions, and Moreton deserves applause again for navigating the palpable tension in Session 2 between Amelia Telford, Indigenous climate change activist with Seed and the AYCC, and Marcia Langton, chair of multiple Aboriginal-owned mining companies. Their co-panellists’ discussions of music and agriculture in Indigenous cultures unfortunately fell by the wayside to centralise the question: should Aboriginal people, in their ownership of the land, be able to run mining operations that are environmentally damaging to the land? Telford’s impassioned defence of the environment was a highlight of the night as she explained that despite valuing autonomy, she felt mining was intrinsically opposed to the spiritual significance her community assigned to the land. Langton, meanwhile, scrolled on her phone, occasionally sending piercing stares into the crowd before accusing us of “portraying all Indigenous people as idiots who can’t think for themselves”.
Nevertheless, this minor controversy only enhanced the lively debate of the audience and sparked dynamic interaction between panellists that I expected to see at such a politically charged event as Homeground Talks. There were moments of lightness that punctuated an otherwise charged discussion and ultimately, I was left with a new appreciation and understanding of the modern Indigenous framework in Australia, and a new empathy for the struggles faced by Aboriginal communities in an apathetic society.