Barbara McCarthy

Barbara is a Yanyuwa woman, she is pictured below speaking to her people outside the Northern Territory (NT) Parliament House. Barbara is also a member of the NT Government that approved the mine. Underneath her picture is the text from her speech to Parliament on the 16th October 2006.

Barbara McCarthy

Ms McCARTHY (Arnhem): Mr Acting Speaker, I rise tonight to speak on our government’s decision to allow the expansion of Xstrata’s McArthur River Mine. It is a decision that I have greeted with respect towards my colleagues for the many difficult and controversial aspects of the decision, not just for the mines minister, Chris Natt, but also the environment minister, Marion Scrymgour, and local member for Borroloola and Minister Assisting the Chief Minister on Indigenous Affairs, Elliot McAdam.

Tonight, I speak for the voices of my people, Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Mara and Kudanji peoples. I share with this House the spiritual aspect of the indigenous people’s protest against our government’s decision. The Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Mara and Kudanji peoples sit in the gallery here tonight. They sit here to support me in the struggles that I face, not only as the member for Arnhem, but also in my responsibilities as a traditional owner, recognised and accepted by my own people.

The indigenous people of the Gulf have travelled here from Borroloola to protest the expansion of this mine on the steps of Parliament House this week. They have done so with great dignity. It is important to me to share with the Parliament the meaning behind the distinguished and dignified protest. I could not in all good conscience not do so for our people have lived in the region for thousands and thousands of years and struggled for the strong recognition of land rights in the Gulf, rights that were hard won after 30 years and only handed back four months ago; rights that were fought for by people who have long since passed and who no longer walk this earth, but live through the hearts of their descendants.

My people travelled the 1000 kilometres to have their voices and their songs heard outside this Parliament, the place that we all know as the House of law. My people have brought with them the laws, songs that have been sung for thousands of years. These songs have been passed down, telling the Rainbow Serpent Kudanji the song lines of the McArthur River. The people of Groote Eylandt and Numbulwar in my electorate of Arnhem share the Kurkarduku, the Brolga song, with the Borroloola region.

Our peoples are connected through those song lines and have been for centuries. So important are these songs that the families from the Gulf have travelled here to the Parliament. For the first time in the history of our people, they sat outside and sang in a different land, in the land of the Larrakia, Mr Acting Speaker – not in the land of the Garrwa, or the Kudanji or Mara or Yanyuwa; they sing here, on the land of the Larrakia outside this Parliament, the law makers.

Tonight I am conveying their feelings to the parliament. Every day this week, my grandfather, Gordon Lanson, and my brother Harry Lanson, have sung the Kujika of the Rainbow Serpent and how it rests in the McArthur River where the diversion is to take place. They are worried the Rainbow Serpent will now be cut. Every day my brother, Phillip Timothy, has spoken strongly with my sisters, (inaudible) Timothy, Marlene (inaudible), (inaudible) Roberts, Flora Roberts, Sadie Miller and my mothers, (inaudible) Friday, Maisie and Miriam Charley, Cheryl Connolly and Chloe, my grandmothers Amie Friday, (inaudible) Miller, (inaudible) Norman, Hazel Shadforth and Una Harvey and my aunty Mavis Timothy have sung these songs. Every day they have sat outside of this parliament singing, hoping and praying that the spirituality of our people and the importance of that spirit and relationship to country would be respected here in this House of law.

We in this Assembly must reciprocate such genuine respect given to us by the indigenous people of the Gulf, by not just listening to their story but in understanding their concerns, for these songs are songs about the river and country surrounding the McArthur River Mine, one of the world’s largest lead and zinc deposits. This Kudanji sung this week expresses the deep concern the indigenous people of the Gulf region have, not only for the waters of the McArthur, but also the rivers that flow into it, the Carrington and the Crooked Rivers. The rivers that flow out to the sea of the Yanyula into The Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Their concerns expand far wider than the Gulf country – concerns about water and how water is life. The indigenous people who are here in this parliament are troubled by the water crises they see right across Australia. Australia is looking to the north to resolve a growing water crisis in our eastern and southern states, and yet my people are very worried at the potential risk to one of our greatest waterways here in the Northern Territory. They do not understand what they see as a contradiction here. The Murray/Darling has become so dried up the farmers are looking to the north for help. When the Prime Minister says to the whole of the country that we are facing a water crisis, reminding all Australians that we must look at our usage of water. A Prime Minister who, at the same time, urges our government to do something to our waterways, something to our waterways that is affecting the very heart of the people who sit in the galleries here today, and who have sat in the galleries here every day, wanting to remind us to stir our consciences and make us think that water is life.

How is it that our brothers and sisters in the southern states are struggling so deeply with the waters. I think of the Wilton and the Roper in my seat of Arnhem, and I wonder about the Daly and the Katherine and the Elizabeth, about all our rivers. It is a worry that all indigenous people have for country, for land.

I cannot stress enough to this House of the spiritual and cultural significance of why the Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Mara and Gurandji peoples have travelled here asking us – pleading with us – to listen to them. As a Yanyuwa woman, I believe strongly in those same things. I say to my countrymen of all the four clans: I support you, I understand and I respect your right to be heard. I stand with you in your concerns about the development of the traditional lands of our people.

I would be failing in my duty to not only my people but also to the people of Arnhem Land whose culture is strong and whose song lines mix with the Yanyuwa, the Garrwa, the Mara and the Gurandji, and who would say to me: ‘How can you represent us if you cannot represent you own people?’ That is why I speak here tonight, so my colleagues will understand and see the struggles, not only from an economic point of view but from a social, environmental, spiritual and cultural points of view. Understand that it has been a long journey for these old people. What they ask is your respect – they have shown you every single day. The traditional owners feel as though they have been left on the sidelines. I ask all the members of this House: what have you done this week to talk to them, sit with them, to ask them what troubles them? Are they so insignificant? Can you not ask them why they have travelled so far?

They do not want the river diverted, and I stand here in this House and relay this message to my colleagues. The water crisis is such that it disturbs greatly the indigenous people of the Gulf region. While I acknowledge the difficulty as a government in making the decisions, of the Mines minister, the Environment Minister, and the local member, I respect the difficulties of your decision and I ask you to respect the difficulty of mine.

Though the traditional owners do not want the river move and they worry for the river, they have always said that they are not against mining. There is a great tradition in the Labor Party to look after the battlers. My people here today are the battlers. Let them be heard and listened to. I also ask that Xstrata Zinc’s Chief Executive Officer, Santiago Zaldumbide, meet with the traditional owners. I ask that the Commonwealth Environment minister, Senator Campbell, meet with them and listen to the traditional owners and their representatives, and to allow time for the negotiation. Listen to the traditional owners; they do not want the river moved.

My people are a strong people who have great pride and resilience. They sit here in the gallery to remind the members in this Assembly of what is really important. They bring their message that water is life, through their songs and displayed in the T-shirts that they wear. As the wheels of government chug along and issues are debated across the floor of this House, the indigenous people of the Gulf region now know that you now know how important water is. That no amount of money, can ever compensate for the lack of it.


2 responses to “Barbara McCarthy

  1. What can be a more binding contract than the traditional songs that bind people to place? Who should be given higher consideration concerning the fate of a place or the life of a river? Those whose people have been bound to it for generations or those who’s interest is not in the river but in what they can scrape from the earth once the river is out of the way?!
    What respect does this company show Territorians when it disregards our environment? What obligation do they have to the health of the river or it’s people? Who will hold them accountable for this? Our government appears like a weakling child trying to befriend the school bully.

    Good on you Barbara McCarthy for at least stating your position and for supporting the only people who have acted honorably in this whole disgraceful situation.

  2. Barbara was in an invidious position. As a new Members of Parliament for the Australian Labor Party, would she accept the party position or speak up for country?

    Remember, McArthur River is not Barbara’s electorate, its Elliot McAdam’s, and where was he when his constituents needed him?

    I would encourage everyone who supports her stance to give her some encouragement. If we are to win the fight for McArthur and others like it,then we need strong members of parliament.

    email her electorate office at

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