Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I will give you a brief outline of our jurisdiction and the matters around languages and use of language.
The Northern Territory is a large land mass on the Australian continent, with about 18% of the land mass, but only 1% of the Australian population lives in the Northern Territory. However, 30% of those people are aboriginal people, and the aboriginal interpreter service estimates that 60% of aboriginal people in the Northern Territory speak an aboriginal language at home or in their community on a daily basis.
The aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory are very diverse. There are estimated to be well over 100 different languages and dialects spoken every day in the Northern Territory that are aboriginal languages, in communities right across the Northern Territory.
In the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory we have had aboriginal members since the assembly's inception in 1974. We've always had at least one aboriginal member. At the moment, in our 13th assembly, we have six members with aboriginal heritage, and some of those members speak an aboriginal language as their first language.
One of the facts around representation in the Northern Territory in our assembly is the lack of continuity and cohesion with regard to the languages spoken as first languages by members from assembly to assembly. For example, in our 12th assembly, from 2012 to 2016, we had a number of members who spoke as their first language different aboriginal languages from those of members in our 13th assembly, the existing assembly. In the last assembly we had a speaker of Laragiya as her first language. She also spoke another language called Warlpiri. Another member spoke Warlpiri as her first language. That diversity of language led to some interesting conflict, which I will get onto in a little bit, about what happened with regard to our standing orders being changed and the use of aboriginal languages or languages other than English in our assembly.
Our situation here is probably similar in some ways to that in many parts of Canada, in terms of our having large land masses with small populations, particularly when you get to the Northern Territory. As I have said, the diversity of language is a huge challenge for us in our Parliament when it comes to trying to accommodate language or doing outreach work or communicating how Parliament works to people who use only their traditional language or do not speak English as well as we would hope they would if they are to understand what's going on in our Parliament.
In the past, we have made some efforts around communicating in some aboriginal languages what goes on in our Parliament through our committee system, but not for a number of years. The last time the assembly did outreach work through its committee system in aboriginal languages was 2011, when the assembly spent some considerable time and money on prioritizing 17 aboriginal languages and providing interpreters and outreach about how governance and the assembly works to communities in a concerted effort during that year, 2011.
In the existing assembly, the 13th assembly, we have a member who has made it clear in the assembly that English is not his first language. He speaks a language called Yolngu Matha, which is a language from the East Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory. He communicates in Parliament in English, but he does so in a slow and sometimes stilted fashion, and he admits quite openly that he finds it sometimes quite challenging to communicate in English in the Northern Territory Assembly.
As a consequence of that, in 2017, he sought to amend our standing orders to have an interpreter on the floor with him, so that he could communicate in his own language and the interpreter would translate it for him into English.
The assembly didn't agree with the proposal, and his proposed standing order was not even referred to the standing orders committee at the time. It was amended in debate, and the matter didn't go any further. However, the standing orders committee did consider the use of standing order 23A.
Standing order 23A was introduced into our assembly in 2016 as a consequence of a debate that had occurred late in 2015 where a member was interjecting in the Warlpiri language. A debate was happening about an education matter. A member was constantly interjecting. A point of order was raised, and when the point of order was raised, the member switched to the Warlpiri language, and another member who also spoke the Warlpiri language accused that member of speaking in unparliamentary terms and saying offensive words in the Warlpiri language.
This brought the Speaker into a difficult situation because of course she does not speak the Warlpiri language, and a whole question arose about whether the words were offensive or not.
The Speaker then made a ruling and said, “No matter what the words were, in debate you shouldn't be interjecting. Therefore, the interjection itself was out of order, so please don't interject.” This became quite a hot political issue, with the member who had interjected saying that her first language had been suppressed and that she should have the right to speak in her first language.
In the legislative assembly we had always had a procedure where a member could speak in their language at any time with the leave of the assembly, and the leave of the assembly had never been denied.
The problem, of course, with that was that if a member spoke in their language, there was no interpretation, no translation of that, and the member would be relied upon to then either say those same words again in English or to provide a written translation for incorporation into the Hansard. That was the process that had been available for members for 40 years before this controversy occurred in late 2015 and early 2016.
Then the member for Stuart at the time, who was the member who had interjected in the Warlpiri language, moved a motion before the standing orders committee to include a new standing order that would allow a member as a right to speak in any language other than English, provided that after they spoke in that language they would provide an oral and/or a written translation of what they had said.
At the standing orders committee meetings the committee deliberated on that, and the report that was reported back to the assembly in April 2016 stated that a member could speak in any language other than English so long as they spoke in English first, and then spoke in the other language, so that moved around to the idea of when you would provide your translation. That became the standing order.
In 2017, the member for Nhulunbuy, who is the gentleman I was talking about previously and is a speaker of the Yolngu Matha language, moved an amendment for that to be switched back around, so that you could provide the translation after you spoke in your aboriginal language or whatever language you wanted to speak in. That was not agreed to. The assembly has, in its wisdom, decided to maintain a watching brief and has requested any member who wants to make a submission to the standing orders committee to do so at any time up until the end of 2018 on the matter of speaking in a language other than English.
There's quite a bit of politics around what occurred. Here in the Northern Territory, 2016 was an election year, and there was a lot of politics around the use of language and whether people were oppressing other people and suppressing the use of their language.
Things have calmed down a bit on that front; however, it's still a matter of some engagement for the member for Nhulunbuy, because he and his staff have said that he is being prevented from communicating fully and participating fully in the proceedings of the legislative assembly for as long as he does not have access to a translation service in the assembly. The assembly hasn't gone any further on that.
All of the Australian parliaments that we surveyed permit speaking in a language other than English by leave only; there's no interpreter or translation service available as a matter of right.
Of course, the situation is very different in New Zealand, and we understand from looking at Nunavut that it's very different there as well, where there are official languages. Australia doesn't actually have an official language in a constitution or a document such as that. The immigration department maintains that English is the language of Australia, but it's not in any official constitutional document or embedded in anything like that.
The difficulty, I think, that the members of the assembly have always said is that there's no homogeneity here, whereas when you go to New Zealand there are different dialects but there is one Maori language. If you're a Maori person, you can speak and understand, mainly, the different dialects of the Maori language, whereas in Australia, with the huge diversity of language groups, there's always a concern about how we would, for example, in the Northern Territory, provide services for the top 17 languages, which was what was being considered when we were doing some committee work.
That gives you a bit of an idea of where we sit here. We have a standing order. The standing order sticks out a bit as the only one we know of in the Australian context that provides rules around the speaking of language other than English. The Prime Minister of Australia a few years ago famously spoke to Canberra in the local aboriginal language, which is the Ngunnawal language. He spoke a few words in a speech there and was of course lauded for doing so because he was trying to be inclusive. Once again, though, perhaps it was more a gesture than anything that flowed on from it
I understand the Australian Parliament has a reference from a committee to look at how to do better with aboriginal languages, but it hasn't gone any further than being referred back for further consideration by a committee.
I think that's probably all I'll say for opening.