In the final years of his life, the charismatic figure whose importance to Australia has been compared to former Prime Ministers such as Paul Keating and John Howard, shared his vision, opinions, ideas and life stories with his friend, Miles Franklin Award-winning author Alexis Wright.
The result is Tracker, a 618-page book that gives an insight into the thinking of a larger-than-life character and visionary.
In the exclusive extract published below this story, Tracker posthumously offers some straight-talking advice on the future of Treaty.
Ms Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpenteria who now lives in Melbourne, says Tilmouth deserved a big book.
“Maybe non-Indigenous Australia might think huge books only belong to ex Prime Ministers like Paul Keating and John Howard or people like that,” Ms Wright says.
“But Tracker was right up there in his thinking and his understanding of what this country needed.”
Tilmouth worked tirelessly for Aboriginal self-determination, creating opportunities for land use and economic development in many roles, including Director of the Central Land Council of the Northern Territory.
He passed away in Darwin in 2015 at the age of 62 after a battle with cancer.
Tracker depicts his views on a wide range of subjects, including a no-holds barred report card on today’s Aboriginal leaders and academics.
He thought Mick Dodson and Michael Mansell were head and shoulders above the rest, found Top End leadership lacking compared to his stomping ground in central Australia and said Aboriginal activism had all but disappeared from Western Australia’s Kimberley.
Tilmouth also said he found it hard to follow where Noel Pearson was going and had difficulty understanding what academic Marcia Langton was talking about.
Warren Mundine’s debate was “pretty limited”, he said.
He also shares his views on everything from the Constitution and Native Title to the United Nations.
“His idea was to build an Aboriginal economy,” Ms Wright says. “We always had an economy in our traditional world in how we were able to survive and live on the land and he was trying to build an economy based on those sort of principles he learnt through the teachings of a lot of people in Central Australia, old men and women, when he was younger and throughout his life.”
Ms Wright said the book would help Tilmouth’s ideas and legacies live on, but she would rather he was still here to deliver them in person.
“He had a huge vision and it was a pity he wasn’t able to live longer because I think it was starting to work for him,” she says.
“I think the vision is in the book and the minds of a lot of people where he’s tried to plant the sort of ideas he had over the years.”
Ms Wright says Tilmouth wanted a warts-and-all book and for other people to give their honest opinions of him.
She interviewed up to 60 people over the five years of the book’s making, including former ACTU president Martin Ferguson, former Labor MPs Nick Bolkus and Laurie Brereton, Bob Katter and Tasmanian activist and lawyer Michael Mansell.
Tilmouth’s story — from his time in a Croker Island mission at the age of three to his last years — is told in his own words and those of the people who knew him. He began it at a time his fight with cancer had begun.
“He was suffering from cancer at that stage and he wasn’t well, but he was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known,” Ms Wright says. “He was always like that.
“When he was having treatment it would knock him around, but as soon as he could get up he was doing things and working on many ideas and this huge vision he had been building, particularly in the Northern Territory and northern Australia, on how to build an Aboriginal economy.”
Ms Wright says Tilmouth knew people across Australia.
“You can go anywhere in Australia and say you are writing a book about Tracker Tilmouth and someone will say ‘I knew Tracker and did you know this story?’” she says. “And they will have a fantastic story to tell about Tracker.
“He knew people from all walks of life and they all had big stories to tell about him.”
Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth by Alexis Wright is published by Giramondo Publishing. $39.95. Available: bookstores Australia-wide and from https://giramondopublishing.com/
EXTRACT FROM TRACKER:
We will be talking about treaty at the end of the day under a renegotiated process. What we have got to work out is what if someone agrees. We are alright at the moment while everyone is dozing, and saying fuck off. We can all be heroes. The minute someone agrees with us we are fucked. We need to understand that we do not have a plan to go to that deals with the mining industry up-front, no more negotiated outcomes, it is all statutory royalties. You do not have to prove your native title, you get a property right and you get a statutory royalty, and fifty per cent of that statutory royalty goes into an investment fund held by the state native title representative body.
You can set up structures but at the end of the day you have to come back to what your economic situation is in relation to remote communities. What have you got? Forget about the welfare. Forget about inherent rights. Forget about unemployment and CDEP, and everything else that has been funding you. You have to come back to the argument about what you have that somebody else wants. The answer is, there is not much. I went through this argument with the Territory Government about resourcing infrastructure for horticulture, and the areas that are going to provide economic benefits should they put the infrastructure in. Now, there is not much outside of Ti Tree and Ali Curung, Willowra, Utopia, and there is not much north of Tennant Creek. There is a bit south of Tennant Creek. There is nothing in Tennant Creek. In the northern region, Elliott is alright, Mataranka and Larrimah are alright. There is nothing at Ngukurr. There’s a little bit of potential at Port Keats [Wadeye]. There is really nothing, nothing whatsoever north of that other than the Douglas-Daly and this area is owned by the white blokes, not owned by the blacks. And there is nothing out at Ord River Stage 2 or 3 in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. It is buggered. It is being closed. So when you have all these arguments about where the infrastructure should or should not go, the economics of it, then the Aboriginal community has to be really thinking outside the box.
Aboriginal people had better be aware of this – because of the lack of finances the infrastructure has to have a degree of rationality to it. You cannot just put in electricity grids for the sake of it anymore. You have got to have a commercial outlook. So communities that do not have large aquifers, or an industry, or a tourism process, will now probably not be looked after in such a way [as they have previously expected], and will probably go back to diesel and not be a part of the grid. Aboriginal communities will end up with two or three classes of resource development. You are going to have the ones that will be able to survive using horticulture and having investors. You are going to have some who will have mining and not much of it. You have got to remember there are not many mines in the Northern Territory as such.
So when you get this argument about how to fund the infrastructure and the benefit for us, it is a hard lesson that we are about to learn, that it is good to have property rights, but having property rights for the sake of property rights you can end up with an economic burden. It could be a negative, instead of a plus. And this is the essence of the Mount Allans of the world, the Yuendumus of the world, to a certain extent Mount Liebig and Kintore, maybe Papunya, the Haasts Bluffs of the world, being left behind because of the lack of water underneath. Whereas the Larambas, the Willowras, Alkara, Utopia, the Woodgreens, the Ali Curungs and Neutral Junction, these places north and north-west of Alice Springs [which are all Aboriginal communities of hundreds of people or more] have huge potential for economic development, and Mungara south of Tennant Creek and the Karlantijpa and Kalampurllpa north of Tennant Creek. These will have long-term economic outcomes.
And they will be very lucrative because they will have opportunities for jobs and training, employment and everything else. So you are going to end up with a population shift, with for instance Ti Tree becoming a service centre for the horticulture industry. All the fruit packing and all that sort of stuff will be at Ti Tree. So you will not have dislocation, but people chasing jobs within their language region and moving, in this case, from Utopia across to Ti Tree, or across to Six Mile. Or moving from Aileron across to Woodgreen. This kind of movement of people will take place.
Now the hardest thing to emphasise in relation to native title is property rights, because you want the enjoyment of property rights, and there isn’t any enjoyment. There isn’t any enjoyment other than a cultural enjoyment, which is like outstation development, you can have an outstation but it gets awfully boring watching the sun go down on a whole mob of old motor cars and doing nothing else. It is good for the old blokes, they love it all because they are back with the scrub, but the kids are gone. Kids are all headed to Alice or wherever, Tennant Creek, or Katherine. So the arguments that you must have will be all about what happens after you get property rights.
And this is why the Noel Pearson discussion is extremely interesting. I may not always agree with him but it is still very interesting and he has some good points. What happens to the people who have and the people who have not? This is the argument that the land councils had with mining royalties. Those with royalties received a certain amount of benefits and those without got fuck all. This is still the case today. So these are the long-term arguments that are going to befall the Aboriginal community and probably tear it apart quicker than it did with the American Indians, because their treaties in America are so different to each other. And not only that, one recognises minerals while the other one doesn’t. You can do gambling in one, or you have a tax haven in another one, and can therefore run a casino, but in others you can’t. And it stops and starts at the fence. This is the argument about some of them, similar to up in Alaska and in the northern parts of Canada, where their arguments were that some people had millions and millions of dollars, and the crew down the road didn’t get anything.
This is where the planning has got to be – how do you underwrite the enjoyment of native title property rights when a lot of people are going to miss out? A lot of people are going to be saying, Well! That was a good exercise. I’ve got property rights but that’s all I got. Now what does that mean in real terms? And the truth is, fuck all. It does not matter which title you put on it, you can put a land claim title on it, you can put a native title claim on it, you can do a property-right title on it, it does not change the nature of the land that you have [as your traditional country]. It may offer an economic opportunity for the non-Indigenous community, or it may not. You may be able to trade with an external process, the mining industry for instance, or the oil and gas industry. If you do not find oil or gas on your country it’s, Oh! Well! Thanks for the exercise. That is unfortunately the lot of Aboriginal people in the near future. Some people are going to end up with a lot of money while other people are going to end up with nothing.
This happens right across the Land Rights Act process. You get the Warlpiri in the Tanami, where three out of the five Warlpiri groups get a lot of money [from mining royalties], and the other two Warlpiri groups get nothing. And they are all Warlpiri, but their country is different. The Bootu Creek [manganese mine] exercise is another example where a certain number of clans in the Warumungu tribe get a lot of money while the rest who are also Warumungu do not get anything.
People are trying to re-establish themselves as tribal groups, but you have this discourse happening that splits the community because of the finances. You have to really explain to people that they are going to have a situation where there isn’t going to be any money. There will not be any money, and for every cent you make you are going to have to really, really try hard. It is property rights versus native title versus land rights process and you are going to find that like the Waanyi [in the Gulf of Carpentaria] there will be certain groups of Waanyi that are more Waanyi than Waanyi, and certain groups that will benefit. Cook the books. They have lawyers and anthropologists who understand where they are going and bang, all of a sudden you have this so-called group of Aboriginal people that were together until the mine turned up, and now they are split more ways than one.
This will happen, this will happen time and time again. This will happen with the gas stuff in the Gulf if it is not done properly. This is happening in Borroloola with the McArthur River mine. It is happening in Gove with the Gove Agreement. That is a classic example. The process rolls on. So having property rights is not going to be your answer, it is going to be part of the answer, it is going to be a tool. It can be used as leverage but there has to be a lot of thought put into what happens if the High Court says, Yes, you’ve now got property rights. What does it mean? That will be the biggest argument.
This is the reason why all of a sudden Michael Mansell has been trying to get pan-Aboriginality in a seventh state [of Australia]. Now I know that the Warlpiri do not like sharing their country. I know the Eastern Arrernte mob don’t. I definitely understand that the Kaytetye and the Warumungu do not get on in the best of times. So it is going to be amazing. Anyway.