Reconciliation Australia National RAP Conference - Wednesday 8th June 2022
Can I begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the Gadigal traditional owners of the Eora Nation and to their elders past and
present and to thank you for your generous and warm welcome to your wonderful country. Can I also acknowledge all other First Nation peoples that are here to day and pay my respects to you all.
Can I also acknowledge Co-Chairs of Reconciliation Australia, Professor Tom Calma and Melinda Cilento, their Board, CEO Karen
Mundine and her team and thank them for the hard and challenging work that Reconciliation Australia has done for more than two decades to keep the Reconciliation light on the hill burning.
The results of the May 21st election, I think, we might agree, gives some cause for optimism that the dark clouds of continuous disappointment might be shifting and that that we are now at a time where change feels inevitable.
The new National Government has not only committed to implementing the Uluru Statement in full but it has also made this
commitment a major theme of its forthcoming term of Government.
In the next few weeks and months there will be considerable discussion about the pathway to Constitutional Recognition. Again, there is optimism and perhaps some confidence that the right question will emerge to be put to the Australian people at a Constitutional Referendum which we all hope will result in overwhelming support.
I can’t stress how important it is for First Nations people to get the question for the constitutional reform right. I had a conversation yesterday with a Squamish leader from British Columbia, Mr Harold Calla, who will be visiting Australia shortly for a First Nations
Economic Development Symposium at the Australian National University.
He said that in formulating the questions for constitutional recognition of Canadian First Nations people in 1982, there wasn’t sufficient attention paid to the institutions that were needed to implement the new provisions. In particular, the institutional arrangements needed to advance the Aboriginal rights affirmed in the 1982 amendments were not considered.
Mr Calla told me it is only now that institutions such as the Canadian First Nations Financial Management Board have been set up that
have the potential for the rights affirmed in the Constitution to have practical benefits, particularly in relation to economic self-determination which is of the highest priority for Australia’s First Nations.
In Australia, the Constitutionally enshrined Voice will be critically important on several levels including the practical level. One can
never underestimate the power of symbols. The recognition of First Nation people in Australia’s Constitution will be an uplifting of our
spirits and sense of who we are as inheritors of thousands of generations of people who own the lands and waters that make up modern Australia.
The Yawuru words to describe an inner and deep sense of wellbeing is called Mabu Liyan. This is a collective spiritual wellbeing that is
empowering and is universal to all First Nation people. Constitutional recognition will impact us all in ways that the English language
This Constitutional enshrined Voice will mean that the powers that Australian people so overwhelmingly gave the national parliament in the 1967 Referendum will no longer be an unshackled power. The Voice will provide a level of parliamentary accountability to First
Nation peoples. While not a third chamber of parliament, it will be a mechanism to promote collaboration and partnership.
Most importantly the Voice can provide an institutional framework to formalise a settlement or treaty between First Nation peoples and
the Australian Nation State underpinned by a Truth Telling process.
That institutional framework is critical, as my colleague, Harold Calla, explained to me and it must be set up to provide a platform for self-determination, equity, justice and economic development that has been denied to First Nations people for far too long.
We are now in an environment where there is an opportunity to think and work creatively with purpose. There should be a collective
will and renewed determination for both public and political change.
Paul Keating was Prime Minister in 1992 when the High Court handed down the Mabo judgment and six months later in his celebrated Redfern Park Speech, signalled that the recognition of native title would be taken seriously should he be re-elected. He called Mabo an historic decision and said – “we can make it an historic turning point, the basis of a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians”
Thirty years later we have the opportunity to make Prime Minister Albanese commitments the same as Keating’s vision for a new relationship.
Without going into the detail of post Mabo Australian history, we should remind ourselves of the precarious nature of Australian politics and indeed the fragile position of First Nation peoples in Australia.
In the aftermath of Mabo there was a belief amongst so many of us that we could pave the way to a reconciled Australia. The statutory
reconciliation process grew into a people’s movement as Australians were awoken to this nation’s history of injustice highlighted by the
Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into the Stolen Generations.
The Keating Government’s three tranche response to Mabo – the Native Title Act, Indigenous Land Fund, and the Social Justice Package – engaged First Nation people in institutional and public policy reform like never before.
And then in 1996 the country changed. The Howard Government was elected and almost immediately the conversation shifted. The Social Justice Package was jettisoned and with it the hopes for a new relationship.
First Nation people became victims and targets in a political combat that had other agendas. Political contests over conjured up binary
divisions came to dominate public discourse about First Nation people; Symbolic Reconciliation vs Practical Reconciliation; Rights vs
Responsibility; the individual vs the community.
First Nation peoples became embedded in the swamp of wedge politics and the culture wars.
But still, within all this, more than a million people marched across bridges around Australia hopeful for a reconciled nation. The goodwill among Settler Australians is there and First Nation people know it. Yet without political leadership to shine a beacon towards
a reconciled nation the marches were powerless gestures of goodwill that led nowhere.
Throughout this period of culture wars and wedge politics – which has now been so resoundingly rejected in conservative heartland
electorates – First Nation people and vast numbers of Australians who instinctively believe in a just Settlement have not yielded to the
political forces of denial and have sought and striven for meaningful and substantial reconciliation.
The evidence of that collective search for a truly reconciled Australia prepared to place our Indigenous self I think is everywhere:
Australians united in the spirit of the Uluru Statement must strategically plan for its implementation. We cannot allow this process to belong only to Governments – Governments must facilitate the process and ensure that all voices are heard in the dialogue. But Settlement and the creation of just societies are the task of the citizens.
First Nation people have set the bar with the Uluru Statement. We developed and endorsed it at Uluru five years ago. We invited all
Australians to support our aspirations and at the recent election, those people who were elected to govern were given a mandate to deliver on our dream for the future of this country.
The Statement must be owned comprehensively by all Australians in our cultural and social diversity living in every part of the Australian Nation State. We must own the opportunity but also the risk if we fail to achieve the desired outcomes.
Aboriginal people are continually asked by non-Indigenous people how they can help us in getting the proposed reforms over the line.
There is in fact only one simple answer to that question and that is simply “we need you to stand side by side with us.”
The greatest and most effective result of our joint reconciliation effort for the nation today and until the Referendum has been had,
would be for the loud vocal and deliberate interest and manifest public support for the delivery of the sentiment of the Uluru Statement and the matters that the Statement seeks to address Madiba Mandela, in addressing the dismantling of the apartheid system in South Africa said to all South Africans “don’t feel guilty about what has happened in the past, feel guilty if you want to perpetuate what has happened… It is the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences”
The three tenets of the Uluru statement are drawn from fundamental principles of self-determination that First Nation people have articulated over countless decades. This is not another policy plan by governments. We are talking about settling our historic grievance of dispossession and colonisation. We are talking about a treaty. We are talking about our nation reconciled.
There is a pressing and urgent need for the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments to invest in a comprehensive
engagement process with First Nation peoples and the wider Australian community about what the Uluru Statement means for us as a nation and then how it should be implemented.
Universal support for the Statement is contingent on the comprehensive support of First Nation peoples. And our people must be fully informed about it and endorse the goals and principles outlined by many of our people at Uluru after much consultation prior to the Statement being put forward.
There is emerging serious discussion and debate in First Nation communities across the country and this is positive but it must be
harnessed in an inclusive engagement process within the broader society. This is the challenge and task for organisations like Reconciliation Australia and the RAP movement to take up the plough again and drive a people’s movement for a just settlement.
We must look to our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, and their children and imagine the society and Australian nation that we want them to enjoy. The weight of responsibility on us today is profound.
The Uluru Statement is not simply a demand for Justice and Truth telling. It is a road map for Australians to deliver for future generations a just relationship between us underpinned by the recognition of our First Peoples within the Constitution. Once we, as
a nation, create the place at the table for a structured engagement between First Australians and Settler Society then we have the basis to pursue the instruments of healing and reconciliation – either through Treaty or Makarrata that deals with the matters of Unfinished Business between us.
The work leading to settlement must go hand in hand with the constitutional referendum process. The Settlement and Treaty processes that are now etched into the Australian body politic must be integrated into the engagement with First Nation people on the Uluru Statement.
Much work has already been done both within our parliaments and in State and Territory processes by many Australians. We must build on the work of treaty commissions and comprehensive native title agreements as they are all informed by the aspirations of Australians for the development of a national settlement.
Australian voters in 1967 demanded that First Australians be recognised within the Constitution and as equal citizens. And
Australia became a more inclusive and democratic country because of it. 1967 was the first step for a maturing society but definitely not
perfect nor complete.
In the half Century since the 1967 Referendum, we have been confronted by the shameful findings of Royal Commissions and diabolical statistics on the health and incarceration rates of our people and more besides.
Despite this we have astounded ourselves by our ability to deal with the Mabo High Court Ruling in a sophisticated manner, to recognise that Closing the Gap is a national task and responsibility, but one that only First Nations people can guide and inform.
Constitutional recognition and the creation of a Voice to the Parliament will be relatively minor outcomes if we do not resolve our health and well being outcomes for our First Nations peoples and stop incarcerating the cream of our youth in our gaols and institutions.
But a place at the table will enable us to be part of the solution to these issues rather than disempowered by our continued exclusion, to the detriment of our society.
Settlement and agreement processes are widely accepted by State governments, local shires, industry, and settler landholders. The promise of the Uluru Statement is a nation building framework to build on agreement making processes already underway throughout
These are the arguments that should inform our engagement and advocacy on the Uluru Statement. Dialogue on compensation should be based on First Nation recovery and building resilience.
We cannot underestimate the depth of trauma and torment that so many First nation families experience. It is the reason that so many in our community are impoverished and alienated from participating in a society and economy that is not welcoming.
I believe that a truth telling process should work hand in hand with the development of the treaty. I see this process as critical for First
Nation people’s restoration and empowerment.
I envisage a process of truth telling that is anchored in regions and places of our people’s connection and historical experience. Truth telling has the capacity to empower all of us with knowledge and understanding of the colonisation trauma that we have inherited.
It is a process that should be embedded in education and skills development aimed at promoting First Nation economic participation and independence.
The concept of a Treaty is no longer controversial. Australia has come a long way from when Bob Hawke first proposed that there shall be a Treaty between First Nation peoples and the Australian Nation State prior to the commencement of the year-long celebration in 1988 of two centuries of Settler colonisation.
Bob Hawke’s acceptance of the Barunga Statement and its call for a Treaty and the final recommendation of the Royal Commission into
Aboriginal Deaths in Custody morphed into a decade long statutory process concluding with a Document of Reconciliation.
Patrick Dodson led the statutory process and created a people’s movement. He is aptly called “the Father of Reconciliation.” Senator Dodson is now the Prime Minister’s special envoy for Reconciliation and the Implementation of the Uluru Statement, and we look to his
and Minister Burney’s leadership to support First Nation people to achieve their modest aspirations for constitutional reform.
The First Nation position eloquently articulated in the Uluru Statement cannot belong to one side of politics. Our rights and responsibilities as First Peoples must transcend Australian party politics. This is not about the progressive side of politics versus the
A new relationship envisaged by the Uluru Statement must be supported by most Australians. That requires bipartisan support
from progressive and conservative politicians.
Australia’s potential to reconcile must not be the subject of ideological division. We need to embed the politics of bipartisanship of the 1960s that culminated in the 1967 referendum that was supported by more than 90% of Australians.
With other First Nation leaders, I was intricately involved in an extraordinary engagement with conservative political leaders mainly
from the National Party in the late 1990s.
The engagement was premised on the fact that many political leaders in the bush understood that a national inability to come to
terms with the genuine rights and aspirations of First Nations people would leave us constantly in dispute with one another over “whose
country is this” and if that matter remained unresolved the bush communities would become the first but greatest losers in that conflict.
There was broad agreement and recognition that there must be a statutory treaty process established to negotiate and agree on the
terms of the Treaty. Once agreed there would be a symbolic moment when all the lands and waters of Australia would revert to First Nation ownership and immediately transferred back to Australian sovereignty with conditions and obligations.
A group comprising First Nation people and National Party leaders, leaders of rural Industry associations and conservative thinkers, met in different locations around Australia to discuss what those conditions should include.
It was a genuine engagement where we agreed on the broad themes that would frame a Treaty Settlement process. Themes that First
Nation people have been calling for decades.
Sadly, in the end the engagement with rural conservatives on the treaty could not be sustained in a culture war political environment
that prevailed with the Wik 10 Point Plan and a poisonous well comprising sections of the media and government intent on something less for the future of this nation.
I want to end by saying that we should imagine a society that we can build from treaty making. Imagine a society where people were fully engaged in an economy that is embracing.
We can see the emergence of a different economy through native title and land rights agreements with developers. But we are faced
with the reality that so many First Nation people are alienated and disengaged.
Those rural based political visionaries that engaged with us back in the 1990s were not simply driven by altruism. They understood
better than any of us that ongoing dispute over who owns or controls our lands, sea and waters if not resolved would have a long-
term detrimental effect on our national bottom line.
No less, in my view, will the resolution of the Unfinished Business between our First Nations Peoples and the Settler Society deliver an
economic dividend to our nation, as well as a just resolution of all that has divided us since Arthur Phillip landed in Sydney Cove almost
two and a half centuries ago.
There are diverse voices and we should embrace debate within our own community as critical to developing an inclusive First Nation
ownership of the Uluru Statement’s implementation and pathway to a reconciled Australia.
I want to re-emphasis the positivity I feel about the engagement of First Nation people in the dialogue on the Uluru Statement, particularly young First Nation people.
There must be an end point to a formal reconciliation process, this part of the political journey has to end somewhere. Yet the personal
journeys and the continued sharing of our history and stories will need to go on in perpetuity because that is what is demanded in a
reconciled and civil society; a commitment to not forget and not return to the bad old days.
The most critical part of all of this is to ask ourselves about what happens the day after we have the referendum on constitutional
change, or the establishment of a Voice to Parliament, or a Makarrata Commission leading to negotiations for a treaty and compensation.
These questions shouldn’t be left to answer at the last moment. If are we are going to secure outcomes that meet the expectations of First Nations people, we have to be answering them now and in a way that has regard to the institutional structures that need to be put in place to implement these reforms.
First Nations people also cannot answer the question on their own. We need the support of all Australians now, including this audience,
to make sure the implementation of the Uluru Statement makes a difference that is so desperately needed for our nation.