Ancient lessons on custodianship for the PM

After acting like a sook on election night, Malcolm Turnbull re-emerged this past week as something more akin to a statesman or Indigenous elder.

He said he was touched when Bill Shorten rang to concede. Turnbull was carrying his young granddaughter on his hip. It was a "beautiful reminder" that politicians are "trustees" for future generations. He might just be preoccupied with personal legacy but I'm taking hope from this.

Indigenous Australian have long been trustees, and storytellers as they hand down wisdom to generations to follow. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It was fitting that this year's NAIDOC celebrations focused on "songlines" in the same week that a marathon count decided who would govern us and shape our story.

Turnbull's grandchildren won't think twice about opening school assemblies and parliaments with a "welcome to country". Yet until the arrival of Kevin Rudd nine years ago it didn't happen in parliament and often didn't happen at schools. They will probably not think twice about recognising Indigenous peoples in the constitution. In just a few generations we have moved from seeing Indigenous Australians as backwards to seeing them as custodians with something to teach.

In declaring himself and all parliamentarians "trustees" Turnbull is positioning himself as part of a continuum.

Here are some things he could also take on board from an ancient culture:

1. Connection to country. Society can take new shapes but that primary connection provides one of the most stabilising aspects of life. One cares for country and she cares for you. From young Indigenous people are taught to pay attention to country. They develop a sixth sense; an openness that sees them tune in. What's the take home message for someone who thinks he is a trustee for future generations? No new coal mines? In the very least, narrow victories are not opportunities to berate others or boast but opportunities to listen and pay attention to 'country'.

2. There are many Aboriginal nations. It's worth remembering this as new tensions surface about race and ethnicity and what it means to belong to this island home.

3. A spirituality that fosters the common good. An enduring practice in Aboriginal culture is living in a collective rather than identifying as an individual. Community life depends on brothers and sisters getting along and looking out for each other. Aboriginal people have for generations shared food and readily cared for children that are not their own. In all likelihood, Turnbull's grandchildren will be provided for. As a true trustee, he should be aware of children born into families not so lucky.

4. Traditional Aboriginal practice inspires the way forward. For example, fire-stick farming – creating waves of "cool" fire that ripples across land – was done for thousands of years so things can grow back stronger. Aboriginal people see themselves as co-creators with the creation spirit. Fire propagates seed so species continue. With that, sacred songs are sung to nourish country.

5. Being a custodian means nurturing stories. The arts are central to continuing cultures, and central to Australia's oldest. Stories tell us who we are. Restoring cuts to the arts and national museums would be a way to help.

Over time our way of doing politics should go deeper into the conceptual framework of Aboriginal Australia, melding Indigenous concepts with those from Western democracies to make something truly our own, and to shape modern songlines befitting a mature opal-hearted nation. Tell me, I'm not dreaming.

First published in The Canberra Times, 18 July, 2016.

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