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Charting a future course

When she rises to talk, Dawn Cardona’s deep voice rings effortlessly through the meeting room. As the new principal of Darwin’s Nungalinya Theological College she is touring NSW, Adelaide and Melbourne to heighten awareness of its work. She mentions triumphantly that one of their students, Theodore Tipaloura, is to be made a deacon in early December at his home parish on Bathurst Island. Then there is a sardonic grin: she wonders if she’ll need a new passport to go there, since the Howard government has just excised Bathurst Island from Australia in order to prevent some desperate Turks from claiming asylum. Cardona is unsurprised; she is no stranger to the vagaries of government.

At a young-looking 40, she is probably the youngest person in the meeting room at St John’s Southgate on an unseasonably warm and muggy November morning. St John’s is a Lutheran church, much sought after by musicians for its excellent acoustics, tucked into the new brutalist developments around Melbourne’s southern and docklands area. Over the last 15 years, hotels, offices and shops have mushroomed, along with the casino and the kind of apartment blocks that are favoured by youngish lawyers and advertising folk with no pets or children. St John’s is just as new, but its timber fittings inside and bits of garden outside make an oasis in the grey concrete tourist traps that surround it.

The space is late 20th century but the people who have come to see Cardona, are drawn firmly from the first half. Kind grey heads nod appreciatively as she talks; lined faces are bright and eager with goodwill. It is obvious that she is comfortable around the kind of enthusiasm that Catholics are often embarrassed about, and that Protestants can do very well.

Cardona looks as though she fits this postmodern space well. She represents many new things, many firsts: the first Catholic, the first woman principal of Nungalinya. She is one of nine children, a single mother, who likes self-help books, loves fishing and never forgets her Bible. ‘I keep it close to my heart,’ she says. ‘My mum was a strict Catholic. I always try to live by what it says. I see myself as here to do the work of Jesus.’

She has entered into her job at a turbulent time for education in Australia, when higher education finds itself under the scrutiny of those whose first priority is not the education of the poor, the Indigenous or the unusual. At St John’s that day, the whole Nungalinya endeavour looked to be under threat.

Cardona told us briefly about the Nungalinya story. The college was founded in 1973 by the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) and the Methodist Overseas Missions (later the Anglican and Uniting churches). The purpose was to train Indigenous people for leadership in their own communities. In 1994 the Catholic Church joined by invitation. Indigenous participation has always been a priority: by 1977 there was an Indigenous lecturer and now the principal is Indigenous. Since 1983, the majority of the Nungalinya Council members have been Indigenous.

The secret of Nungalinya’s unique success is that it has built on Indigenous strengths. Its Textile Arts School has been an enormous success, along with its groundbreaking School of Family and Community Services, but these were the very areas threatened by severe funding cuts.

Nungalinya is dependent on Northern Territory government funding. The NT government receives the money to do this from the Commonwealth government GST allocations. But in November 2003, said Cardona, they were advised by government of a redirection of funding. This meant that the Recurrent Funding allocated to private registered Training Organisations was at risk.  The threatened closure of two schools—Textile Arts and Family and Community Services—meant that Nungalinya students’ commitment to a course of education would be interfered with. It is very difficult to get some box-ticking education bureaucrats to understand the needs of Indigenous students in higher education. Attendance criteria that are framed for urban Australians take no account of Indigenous cultural imperatives:

for instance, if a death occurs, a whole family group must leave college for weeks to mourn the person properly. If the college were inflexible about such matters, then no Indigenous person could do a higher ed course and still remain faithful to his or her culture. And it was the unique, Indigenous-rich curriculum that was under attack: at one point it was decreed that the textile course should be a duplicate of a Melbourne one.

However, Cardona has since shown her steel. After leaving the southern states she lobbied politicians carefully and persistently. On 2 December she met with NT government representatives. The news, surprisingly enough, was good: funding was made available for their courses via Competitive Response Funding, allocated on a yearly basis. They would have to fulfil actual contact hours of delivery but could negotiate if these were not met.

The news was welcome but that made the earlier rejection puzzling. ‘The information we initially received indicated no funding at all’, said Cardona. ‘Was it a misinterpretation or uncommunicative information? For me, I understood and so did my two colleagues that there was to be no funding.’

The turnaround was complete, and they went to Theodore’s diaconate with joy, and without needing new passports, and prayed for all the poor and desperate people caught in the snares of government. They were content to let their good fortune remain mysterious.

In the meantime Cardona can get back to the real job, that of running an ecumenical college that caters actively to Indigenous culture, without worrying that it will all fall to pieces, for this year at least.

She likens working in an ecumenical environment to making a cake. ‘The answer is in the recipe stemming from the thoughts of Marie Vines,’ she says. ‘Think of it as making a cake. First let’s put in some faith and hope—the Anglican, Uniting and Catholic Churches, a dash of culture—remote, rural, southern, Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people, a dollop of achievement—education, training, learning, and ministry. Now mix it all together so it’s well blended, place in the sun and let it nurture with encouragement, commitment and dedication, then watch it rise to success.’

Nungalinya is still vulnerable. Like many wondrous things in this country that exist only because governments support it, it is subject to whims, fashions and vagaries among the box-tickers. It has been a success for Indigenous people because it respects their culture. People go there because they want to; old ghosts of past missionary coercion and wrongdoing have no place there except to be discussed freely. One of the participants at the St John’s meeting mentioned that when she had worked in Papua New Guinea, it was the fundamentalist missions who created problems, ‘threatening them if they did their traditional dances’. Nungalinya’s unique gift is to convey Christianity with utter respect for Indigenous wisdom.

Cardona says that each student works out the balance for himself or herself, that one culture impinges on another in completely individual ways.

She still marvels at the change of heart, and the hope for the future:

On Tuesday when we met with the Government it was the day the tides were 0.0m—the day when Old Man Rock appears—a day of strength, solidarity and continuity. That’s Nungalinya—solid rock standing on sacred ground.   

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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