Indigenous Governance Awards 2005 address

My acknowledgement to the traditional owners of the land, the Warundjeri people.

Thank you to Reconciliation Australia for asking me to speak today. It is a great honour and privilege to celebrate with the finalists of these awards. Awards which recognise the successful efforts of indigenous Australians – people who are great survivors, people who have succeeded against the odds.

I want to start by quoting a commentator on Aboriginal affairs who said recently:

“What can we agree on undeniably? We can agree on the special status of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander as the first people of our nation. We can recognise and acknowledge past injustices and I’ve frequently said … that the treatment of indigenous Australians represents the most blemished chapter in the history of this country.”

That wasn’t Sir William Deane or Malcolm Fraser, or Paul Keating.

It was the Prime Minister –in May this year.

When we hear John Howard talking like that, I hope we can confidently say that the history wars are over.

The history wars that so polarised debate and thinking in indigenous affairs.

Let’s all hope that it is now time to move on.

Let’s also hope that the Prime Minister’s words now represent an important coming together on these issues.

That said, I suspect there is still a significant proportion of the Australian population who believe ours is a decent society populated by decent people and that therefore it cannot be that we have wronged the First Peoples of this country.

Overwhelmingly we are, and have been, a decent society.

But I say, “not so” when it comes to our indigenous people.

Australia has some fundamental unfinished business which lies at the very heart of our sense of nationhood. And it relates to the most basic issue on which any country is built and that is:

the terms on which we share the land and live together.

217 years since Arthur Phillip weighed anchor in Port Jackson, those terms have not been adequately settled …

… as even a passing acquaintance with the statistics on indigenous disadvantage …

… or even a brief visit to many an Aboriginal community …

… well demonstrates.

The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit in his book “The Decent Society” says:

“It is clear that the spirit of a just society cannot tolerate systematic humiliation by its basic institutions …
If humiliation means damaging people’s self respect, then it is clear that a necessary condition for the just society is that it should be a society that does not humiliate its members.”

Important words for us all to think about.

When it comes to our indigenous fellow Australians, we are not yet a decent or a just society.

It seems incontestable that we have done our best to humiliate these, our fellow Australians.

Whether by the brutal denial of their rights, whether by benign neglect or whether through the paternalism of welfare, we have denied them their sense of self worth and human value. We continue to humiliate them.

For 217 years, the message we have given them is that their lives, their culture, their spiritual identity are less valuable than ours.

In the Australia of 2005 – never richer, never more self-confident – that is unacceptable.

Where do we go from here?

I believe that, as a nation, we must do a number of things:

First, we must satisfy the indigenous people of this country, the people who carry the scars of our history, that we have accepted the truth of our past.

Some kind of national compact agreed by – first the Federal Parliament – and ultimately the people of Australia, would be a good, if not essential, start. That is, in my view, a prime ministerial challenge, a challenge ideally suited to John Howard, our current Prime Minister.

I say ideally suited, because John Howard is in a powerful and commanding political position, with the capacity to bring the whole of the country with him. I can’t imagine another prime minister having this opportunity for a long time to come.

Second, we must as a people agree emphatically that the conditions in which indigenous people live today are utterly unacceptable in a decent society.

We must with sustained determination help empower every indigenous community to obtain the housing, roads, sanitation, education, medical care and, very importantly – meaningful work – things which are desperately needed and which most Australians take for granted.

John Howard has referred to “… the need for an ongoing, persistent rendition of practical, on the ground measures to challenge the real issues of indigenous deprivation”. In saying this, I think he has laid down a challenge for himself, his government and for all of us with the skills and resources to participate. Most critically that includes corporate Australia, many of whom have in recent times started to face up to this challenge.

Third, we must recognise, as Noel Pearson so rightly points out, that indigenous people have been relegated to the fringes of society by the insidious effects of welfare dependency. A fortnightly dole payment does not absolve us of our responsibilities and is in every way inimical to economic independence.

Fourth, we must come to appreciate and understand the richness of Aboriginal culture and its centrality to indigenous citizenship and the soul of this country.

Finally, we must provide the necessary political, legal, social and economic frameworks so that indigenous Australians can fully participate in the life and benefits of this country as its First Peoples, as peoples who continue to live and celebrate their own unique cultures.

As Patrick Dodson said recently:

“It is not acceptable that the constitutional, cultural, political, economic and social status of the indigenous people of this country has not been seriously addressed and resolved. It is not acceptable for indigenous people to have to tell their children that, despite the wealth and resources available in this shared land, that their lives will be shorter than their non Aboriginal friend, their health and education will be that of a third world country. It is not acceptable that this act of political exclusion guarantees that Aboriginal people will remain at the bottom of the rung of every possible social indicator into the future.”

For how long do we have to still hear Aboriginal leaders saying these things? In so many ways it beggars belief that these things still need to be said after 200 years.

In the 19th Century, Aboriginal Australians were victims of European expansionism in the fight for possession of this continent.

In the 20th Century they were victims of our paternalism and our simplistic welfare solutions.

In this, the 21st Century, let’s give indigenous Australians the space to visualise and exploit, on an equal footing with non indigenous Australians, the opportunities that this wonderful country of ours has to offer.

And we have much to be optimistic about – there are plenty of good stories out there and we are celebrating some of them today. Stories about indigenous organisations alive and flourishing in contemporary Australia.

Good stories apart, for too long Aboriginal Australia has been seen as an encumbrance, an embarrassment, an issue we wish would just go away.

But the nagging, persistent voice of conscience will not be answered without just and lasting change.

We can tell ourselves that it has nothing to do with us.

But it has everything to do with us. I am not saying that the task is easy. On the contrary, it is very hard. But we are not talking about several million people here; we are talking about 400,000 of our fellow Australians. The challenge cannot be beyond us.

We are the beneficiaries of the dispossession.

The recently deceased Catholic priest of Redfern, Father Ted Kennedy put it so powerfully when he said:

“For us whites, reconciliation starts not with guilt but with the acknowledgement of the truth … We do share the shame whether our ancestors came on the First Fleet or we are new migrants who came on the last plane, we all share the shame. We must all remember that not one of these good things which we non Aboriginal Australians enjoy today – benefits which are the envy of the world, which seems to sparkle all the more in the Australian sunlight, not one of these things have been attained without the wrenching distress and the grieving, starvation and dying of Aboriginal people in the past.”

For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone could disagree with these words.

It is our problem.

Our responsibility.

Our great national tragedy.

Having said that, it is not too late and together we have the knowledge, the wit, the wealth and the decency to fix it.

And fix it we must, without disempowering indigenous people as victims or as sidelined observers to their unfolding future. We share with them the responsibility for a better future.

I want to emphasise that indigenous people are demanding this better future in so many ways. We should never underestimate their determination and staying power. Because despite all that has happened, indigenous people have, with great steadfastness, survived and they continue to press their claims on us in so many ways. Through the courts, through their political demands on government and in the efforts they are making with corporate Australia. I should also mention the challenge that this presents to the indigenous leadership – both the elders and the next generation.

On a personal note, I want to tell you that 20 years of friendship with Aboriginal people, starting in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern, has taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life:

  • that Australia’s indigenous people and the claims they make on me are foundational to my sense of nationhood;
  • that deep within the spiritual dimensions of what it is to be an Australian, there is the strongest sense of unfinished business;
  • that indigenous people, far from belonging on the fringes of our consciousness, are in fact at the very centre of what it means to be an Australian.

After more than two Centuries, we must tend to our great unfinished national business.

We must understand the truth of how this modern Australia came to be.

We must with indigenous people work out how together we can share this land so that indigenous people participate at every level of society as indigenous citizens, as Australia’s First Peoples.

It’s called Reconciliation.

And we’re engaged in some of it now with this occasion and these important awards. My congratulations to all finalists, and to the winners

Finally thanks to Reconciliation Australia and BHP Billiton.

Thank you for listening to me.

Danny Gilbert

30 August 2005, Melbourne

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