A great hero

Tribute to Mum Shirl – Williame Deane

In late November 2000 the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Sydney’s inner city Annandale staged the exhibition, "Mum Shirl: The Sacred Trust of Memory", which subsequently moved to the Powerhouse Museum. It was opened on 22 November by the Governor-General, Fr Ted Kennedy and family members. The packed crowd of Aboriginal and other Australians overflowed and blocked one lane of busy Parramatta Road, one of Sydney’s main thoroughfares.

The text of Sir William Deane’s speech is reproduced below.

At the outset, I acknowledge all the traditional custodians, past and present, upon whose ancestral lands we are gathered. And, in the context of this important occasion, I also acknowledge the Wiradjuri people.

Some of you may be wondering why I am opening this Exhibition when there are many people here who are much better qualified than I to speak of Shirley C Smith – Mum Shirl. The best response I can make is that I was invited and am greatly honoured to be here. In other words, any complaints should be directed to the management.

We Australians are prone to use the words ‘great’ and ‘hero’ too lightly and too readily. There are, however, a few people – a mere handful – for whom they really are the only appropriate words. Mum Shirl was one of them.

Indeed, I find it remarkable that two of the very few people associated with this city in my lifetime to whom I would unhesitatingly apply those two words, Mum Shirl and Professor Fred Hollows, had so much in common.

Both came to this city from other places. Both could be uncompromisingly outspoken in unforgettable language in fighting sickness and poverty. Both were openly angered by injustice – in Fred Hollows’ case to the point of incoherence. Both devoted their lives to selfless service of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable of their fellows – in the case of both with particular emphasis on Aboriginal disadvantage. And appropriately, they worked together to establish the Aboriginal Medical Service and to address the appalling problems of Aboriginal ill health.

One can, of course, find justification for applying those words to Mum Shirl in what she did and what she achieved – for her people and for our country. If anyone doubts that is so, I suggest that he or she read the staggering list of things in the fifth paragraph of page 6 of this [exhibition catalogue] book:

  • the struggle for Aboriginal land rights
  • Aboriginal Legal Service
  • Aboriginal Medical Service
  • Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs
  • Aboriginal Children’s Service
  • Aboriginal Housing Company.

Hers was a guiding hand and influence in those and many other pioneering endeavours. And at least as important as all those things were the comfort, help, encouragement and hope she brought and gave to so many individual lives over so many years.

If, as I profoundly believe, the ultimate test of our decency and our worth as a democratic community is how we treat the most disadvantaged and vulnerable of our people, Mum Shirl made an absolutely extraordinary contribution towards helping us pass that test.

One can also find obvious justification for seeing Shirley Smith as a great Australian in what she said. Her capacity and ability, as Father Ted Kennedy has written, "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable": to identify and uncompromisingly speak the unvarnished truth about things that truly matter.

Some of those plain truths are reproduced at pages 9 and 10 of this book. Let me paraphrase but two of them:

First. "on the present". People are far more comfortable hearing about problems that are too far away for them to be able to do anything about them than hearing about problems in their own backyard.

That leads me to two thoughts. The first is the danger of speaking in abstract terms about ‘Aboriginal reconciliation’ as if it were a panacea. As we approach the Centenary of our Nation the search for reconciliation is of overwhelming national importance. But reconciliation of itself will not solve the searing problems of aboriginal education, unemployment, sickness, premature death, imprisonment, lack of opportunity and other disadvantage which Mum Shirl fought to overcome. To the contrary, true and lasting reconciliation will not be achieved unless, and until, we together make much more effective progress along the road towards resolving those problems.

My second thought is that the time has come when none of us Australians can properly see any of the problems of Aboriginal disadvantage as being too far away to be of immediate concern. All the problems of Aboriginal disadvantage regardless of where they occur are in the backyard of, and of immediate concern to, each one of us. And it is the duty of each of us to face them and help resolve them.

The second of Mum Shirl’s plain truths to which I would refer is the last on page 10: ‘on religion’: "There’s nothing out of plumb with the Catholic religion; it’s the way Catholics practise it."

I suspect that Mum Shirl was referring to the fact that those of us who are Christians commonly close our minds to how unqualifiedly radical the message of Christianity is. I am sure, for example, that she would want to remind us of its uncomfortable teaching that to fail to feed the man dying from hunger is to kill him.

In truth, of course, Mum Shirl was a great Australian and one of our few real Australian heroes because of the sum of her all; of what she did; of what she said; but most of all of what she was. I believe that it is primarily because of what she was that her spirit will increasingly walk abroad in this city and in our land to teach, to guide and to inspire.

This Exhibition and its catalogue constitute a wonderful tribute to Mum Shirl. Appropriately, they tell us much of the despair and disadvantage among her people against which she fought. And they tell us much about Mum Shirl herself. About her generosity; her selflessness; her understanding; her outspokenness; her anger; her humanity. And her love.

The Exhibition celebrates the relationships between Mum Shirl and all who have contributed to her. But most of all it is a worthy and living celebration of her life.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me conclude by congratulating and thanking the Mum Shirl Tribute Working Group and all responsible for organising and staging the Exhibition including all who have contributed their work to it or to the catalogue.

And now, with extraordinary pleasure, I declare The Sacred Trust of Memory – A Tribute Exhibition in Celebration of the Life of Shirley C Smith to be officially open. May it enjoy all the success it so richly deserves.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply