Healing Hearts, an interview with Dr Josie Douglas

Illustration by JESWRI

As a signatory to the 2017 Uluru Statement of the Heart, Dr Josie Douglas is deeply invested in its process and petition to the Australian people. In the latest edition of The Fatin Tapes*, Meri Fatin chats with Josie about her drive for social justice and the enormous potential offered by the Voice to Parliament for First Nations people.

Meri Fatin (00:00:00

Josie, it’s interesting timing talking to you in the middle of Reconciliation Week. It seems to mean different things to different people, even in terms of using the word “reconciliation.” What does it mean to you?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:00:42)

It (reconciliation) must start with settling the original grievance of Australia – that sovereignty wasn’t ceded. I want to focus on the Uluru Statement from the Heart and focus on that. Sequencing is very important. The Voice to Parliament is first and foremost, and then cascading from that is Treaty and Truth Telling. And that comes in under the establishment of the Makarrata Commission, which is a Yolngu word that means coming together after a conflict. I really do think that for substantial reconciliation for Australia as a modern nation, it needs to be led by the Commonwealth in settling the original grievance.

Meri Fatin (00:02:30)

On election night the Prime Minister stood up and started his victory speech by saying that he commits to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. What did it feel like to hear him say that?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:02:46)

It was pretty extraordinary. I think there were a lot of tears of joy shared around Australia by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. I think there’s real hope but it needs to be delivered.

I was involved in developing the Statement through my work at the Central Land Council. It was an exhilarating process given the state of Aboriginal affairs and the lack of progress in terms of constitutional reform. We had five Prime Ministers, both Coalition and Labor, committing to constitutional reform but who kept kicking that can down the road.

And so now we’ve got a newly elected government, the 47th Parliament, and I think that Aboriginal leadership around Australia is really hoping Labor will deliver on its commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in its entirety.

There were a lot of tears of joy shared around Australia by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. I think there's real hope but it needs to be delivered.

Meri Fatin (00:06:34)

A friend pointed out to me that the word reconciliation implies that at some point the relationship was one of equals and that they just need to sort things out. And that’s not the truth, which is what you’ve spoken about with sovereignty not being ceded.

Dr Josie Douglas (00:06:57)

Yes, and that’s what the voice to parliament is seeking to address. It’s actually in the statement – I tend to quote it – it’s the powerlessness of our people. Even though in this election we’ve had the highest number of Indigenous people voted into Parliament, we’re still only 3% of the population and so it’s very difficult to influence policies and laws that are being made about Indigenous people.

Of course, we have our peak organizations. But there’s something much more fundamental to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having a voice and being able to influence the laws and policies that are made by Parliament. Indigenous people are tired of each new government coming into power, coming up with a different policy setting and different legislation for Aboriginal affairs. It feels that we take one step forward, two steps backwards. So, the voice to Parliament is about ensuring that those decisions that impact Indigenous people’s lives are taken out of the realm of politics, out of political ideology, and into the realm of Indigenous people having a say over matters that impact our everyday lives. And that’s whether you’re in a remote community in Central Australia or you’re in a metropolitan urban area. I think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people really want to be able to provide advice to Parliament, not to government. And that distinction is important. Having a substantive amendment to the Constitution will compel Parliament to consult with us.

Darwin 1970s, post Cyclone Tracy
Josie Douglas and her sister Cass
Darwin 1970s, post Cyclone Tracy

Meri Fatin (00:10:38

You talk about it as a substantive change to the Constitution, and it’s interesting that Mr. Albanese has committed to the Uluru Statement of the Heart in full. Earlier iterations of what previous governments were willing to propose as a change to the Constitution were watered down versions of the full Uluru Statement. What do you think that interim period is going to be like for Indigenous people as that process begins of convincing people who don’t see a voice to Parliament as something that ought to happen?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:11:31)

I’m much more hopeful when it comes to the Australian people and where they’re at. I think finally government has stepped up to the plate and they’ve caught up to where society is at. What needs to happen between now and if we go to referendum in May 2023? I think it’s important to have an education campaign, so people really understand what the voice to Parliament is about, what the constitutional reform agenda is about, what it means and what it doesn’t mean. I think there’s also a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding within the Indigenous community over exactly what it means.

Meri Fatin (00:14:24)

What’s it been like dealing with the pandemic in Central Australia? How much agency have you had in being able to direct things the way they needed to be directed in your part of the world?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:14:38)

So I’m currently the General Manager for the Health Services Division at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, which is the largest Aboriginal community-controlled health provider in the Northern Territory and one of the largest in Australia. We cover the town of Alice Springs as well as five remote clinics. It has been challenging and difficult. We’ve had workforce issues, like there has been around Australia in terms of health professionals and staffing, but I think in terms of being community controlled, we’ve been able to respond quickly to people in need. It’s much more than just ensuring that people are getting their first, second, third, fourth vaccination. It’s the whole wraparound service ensuring that there’s food security, there’s energy security, that people aren’t missing out on benefits because they’re in isolation or they’re a close contact. So, it’s been about looking after the complete person and full complement of their needs as well as their needs in relation to the pandemic. It’s been a real feat and I think it comes back to Congress being able to respond in an agile and flexible way to the needs of community. And in responding to the pandemic as a primary comprehensive health service, we’re also mindful that there’s the health needs of our clients that we need to be managing including chronic disease and childhood immunizations. So, all that business of delivering comprehensive primary health care had to continue in our remote clinics and our town clinics. We had to make changes to how we were operating in early 2022 when there was the outbreak of COVID in Alice Springs. And that meant we had to pull staff back into one central clinic and focus our resources on responding to the pandemic.

Meri Fatin (00:19:27)

I read a news article from early 2022 where you were calling for the ability to put the communities into lockdown for a week. You were being overruled by the government. What happened there?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:19:53)

We wanted government to mandate lockdown for one week only. It was just to buy us time to get the supply in. Our supply was an issue at that time. We weren’t getting on top of the outbreak. It was spreading across town camps, across public housing in Alice Springs. And so the lockdown that Congress was calling for was to buy us time to slow the spread and to ensure that we could get adequate supplies of vaccinations, PPE, masks, you know, really important new medications that are available.

Meri Fatin (00:20:51

And did you succeed in that?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:20:56)

No, Government did not support our calls for a lockdown. So we just had to continue to do the best that we could. And I think Congress’s role in managing the COVID response in Alice Springs and remote clinics was exceptional.

Pictured on trail between Anthwerrke (Emily Gap) and Atherrke (Jessie Gap)
Josie - keen trail runner!
Pictured on trail between Anthwerrke (Emily Gap) and Atherrke (Jessie Gap)

Meri Fatin (00:20:51)

Josie, I’d love to hear a little bit about your story. About your mob and where you grew up and why you ended up doing this work?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:21:51)

Yeah, sure. I’m Darwin born and bred and I’m a Wardaman woman, that’s southwest of Katherine. So Northern Territory, Top End. I have been living in Alice Springs for thirty years. My husband is from Alice Springs, he’s a local Aboriginal fella. I love Alice Springs; it does get a bad rap at times, but it’s got such a strong sense of community. You come to Alice Springs, you hear language being spoken as you walk down the Todd Mall and you know that you’re on Aboriginal country and that you’re surrounded by Aboriginal people. It’s got a real sense of community, you know, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. I like to think that Alice Springs is quite progressive, given the recent result of Marion Scrymgour, an Aboriginal woman winning the seat of Lingiari. You want to know a bit more about me? I’ve got four children and two grandies all Alice Springs born and bred. I suppose I’ve got a strong sense of social justice. Even as a little child, I was seeing things and questioning why? Why is it like that?

Meri Fatin (00:25:00)

Is there a story that springs to mind as an example of that?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:25:04)

I suppose as an Aboriginal kid in the seventies, just being very aware of the difference in how I was living, you know, the house that I grew up in, the extended family that was living in my house compared to some of my school mates. I think there’s a noticing. Noticing that’s an anthropological term, you know, noticing.

And I was I think, just noticing the differences from a very young age and always being curious about people and their stories.

My parents really shaped who I am. My mum Lorraine, was politically active combined with my Dad who had a really strong work ethic. Both growing up with not much but making the best of what they had. And I think my education was fundamental. It was always about ensuring that you got a good education so you could get a good job. Because I think not having a job in my family was like a sin. And that comes also from my Wardaman family – growing up working on cattle stations outside of Katherine and having a very strong work ethic despite the rations they were receiving.

Jackie, Shawn, Acacia and Luke
Josie's Children
Jackie, Shawn, Acacia and Luke

Meri Fatin (00:28:43)

So obviously that noticing was felt deeply and it’s apparent across your career too.

Dr Josie Douglas (00:29:29)

What drives me to fight for social justice, both personally and professionally, is the social determinants. It is about housing. It is about access to drinking water. It is about having a better Community Development Program. It is about ensuring that all young people on remote communities are signed up to access the citizen entitlements that they’re entitled to receive and are not dependent on a great grandmother to financially provide for them. It’s all these social determinants of health that I strongly advocated for in my role at the Central Land Council.

Meri Fatin (00:31:23)

All of those components lead to the one outcome of good health and wellbeing.

Dr Josie Douglas (00:31:31)

Yeah, so now I’m at the pointy end of making operational decisions in terms of how health care is delivered. At Congress we have a strong CEO and Chair who are both advocating for policy changes to influence social determinants of health.

Meri Fatin (00:31:57)

I’m really interested in your doctoral research project. It was described in an article that you examined the lives of young Aboriginal adults and the role they fulfill in acquiring and transmitting Indigenous ecological knowledge. Tell me more about that, because this is a critical kind of moment where we’ve realized with human caused climate change, that we need to return to this kind of deeply known ecological knowledge.

Dr Josie Douglas (00:32:59)

Most of my working life has been within the cultural sphere. Whether it’s working at the Central Land Council, for an Aboriginal community-controlled health centre or many years ago at the Institute for Aboriginal Development. I’ve been lucky to be in Alice Springs, working with senior knowledge holders, particularly around language maintenance. People like M.K. Turner and Veronica Dobson, very senior knowledge holders, published authors and women held in high regard within the community for the depth and breadth of their traditional knowledge. So, over many years, I’ve heard the older generation talk passionately about keeping language and culture strong for future generations. And at the same time, the flip side of that is worry and despair that the younger generation weren’t interested in the old ways, that they were only interested in new ways. Senior Aboriginal people feel a moral imperative to pass culture on, which is the foundation to Aboriginal society, the continuity of Aboriginal culture going forward. So young people are seen as the heroes in terms of their role in that, but also the villains in terms of how they were undermining that. My PhD asked, where are the young people’s voices in all of this? It turns out they were missing.

The focus of my PhD was on the social and cultural practices of young Aboriginal people in relation to traditional and Indigenous ecological knowledge. Young people want to learn but my PhD reveals how things have been completely turned on its head in terms of the available time. People need to be out on Country to learn but that is being squeezed into school holidays. It’s not an iterative, daily learning process as it once was. It’s fitting it into a Western calendar. It’s fitting it into the availability of family members and senior family members.

There are genealogical gaps in the demographics of Aboriginal Australia. Families aren’t intact anymore. Generations aren’t intact anymore. So, young people aren’t born with culture, they grow up in the culture of their parents. My PhD unpacks the change the Aboriginal community has experienced over many decades and where young people see themselves in it. Young people want to learn, it’s just that they’ve got less time and less people to learn from. Fortunately, there’s been pragmatic and innovative approaches to the role of institutions in knowledge transfer. The role in Country visits, the role of school programs, the role of organizations like the Central Land Council in facilitating Indigenous ecological knowledge transfer. For instance, at the CLC young people and older people are involved in the ranger program, from a governance level through to doing the physical work on Country.

Meri Fatin (00:38:45)

What did you find was behind the perceived lack of engagement from young people?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:39:07)

It wasn’t about young people pushing it away at all. I think young people were desperate for more engagement, desperate to be doing more and learning more. But there’s so many challenges in the face of that. Young people are very interested in language and being out on Country. Young mums are interested in smoking their newborn babies and participating in different cultural practices. And I think engagement with traditional knowledge comes through in contemporary life, hunting, going out to collect bush foods or bush medicines. Beliefs and practices are still strong, it’s just that in a contemporary context it looks different. And it is different, but I think it’s still foundational to young people’s identities.

With Megan Davis, Pat Anderson, Noel Pearson and others accepting the Sydney Peace Prize for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, November 2022.
Sydney Peace Prize
With Megan Davis, Pat Anderson, Noel Pearson and others accepting the Sydney Peace Prize for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, November 2022.

Meri Fatin (00:41:26)

On the converse of that, you said part of the issue for young people is the fact that there aren’t as many people to teach them culture, there is the burden on senior Aboriginal people in the community and their responsibilities. What’s your observation on that?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:41:48)

I do write about this a lot in my Ph.D. that the responsibility does fall to a few. And that’s because of the mortality rate. It comes down to the life expectancy of Aboriginal men and women. There are genealogical gaps in Aboriginal families and that’s through early deaths. The situation is now that you have one old person in a culture camp or on Country teaching a group of 10 – 15 young people, and that within itself is new. That isn’t the traditional way of learning in terms of practice space, you know, that nexus between practice and belief.

Meri Fatin (00:43:39)

Would that ratio have been more one on one in the past?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:43:46)

One on one, plus you would have had a greater number of peers, of middle age people, of the older generation. You would have had a greater number wrapping around that little person from two, three years old and staying with them as they grew up. Whereas now what’s happened in terms of demographics is that you’ve got many more young people. You know, it’s a pyramid. Smaller numbers up top and more young people at the base. But there’s still peer to peer learning for young people. Some people will have grown up with grandparents and aunties and uncles who are very much going out bush, who are learning and knowledgeable, and they will teach their contemporaries, their peers. But, yeah, there were just many  more people for young people to learn from whereas now it looks completely different. A lot fewer old people. The middle-aged generation is also missing and they’re crucial to knowledge transmission as much as the older people are.

Meri Fatin (00:45:25)

The two dates that have been potentially forecast for the referendum, May 27, 2023, and January 27, 2024. In the lead up, what would you really want to underscore in the public conversation?

Dr Josie Douglas (00:46:25)

Well, I think it is education. People need time to fully understand what the Uluru Statement from the Heart is, and what the voice to Parliament is. And to understand that you need a community education campaign at different levels, from the grassroots to corporate Australia.

Meri Fatin (00:49:45)

Thank you so much Josie. It’s been a real pleasure listening to your thoughts.

*Journalist Meri Fatin conducts the main interview in each edition of our journal, and always astounds us with her thoughtful, intelligent and kind approach to these conversations. Copies of Equity can be purchased at The Fulcrum Press, with all proceeds going to projects within First Nations communities.

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