Skip to main content

"An Acknowledgement of Traditional Custodianship"

Commission Commission – General

"An Acknowledgement of Traditional Custodianship"

Occasional Address
University of Adelaide Graduation Ceremony, 23rd December 2004

The Hon John von Doussa QC
President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Chancellor of the University of Adelaide.

At the start of the ceremony today a formal acknowledgement was made of our presence on the land of the Kaurna people. The Council of this University at its meeting in October 2004 resolved that this acknowledgement would be made at all major University of Adelaide functions. It is appropriate that something be said about the significance and reasons for the acknowledgment during these, the first group of graduation ceremonies after the Council resolution.

I have chosen this ceremony to do so, as amongst today's graduands are students from the Centre for Australian Indigenous Research and Studies, Wilto Yerlo. They will graduate in Aboriginal studies in music.

The October resolution followed the adoption of a formal Reconciliation Statement by the University in 2003.

In that statement the University of Adelaide committed itself to pursue its mission to advance knowledge, understanding and culture in the context of a vision of a united Australia, which respects its land, provides justice and equality for all its people, and values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.

The University affirmed a commitment to an informed respect for the Indigenous peoples of Australia, their rich culture and the unique importance of land and waters to them.

The University acknowledged that the Kaurna people had been dispossessed, alienated and impoverished during the period of colonisation, and expressed deep sorrow for those injustices.

It is becoming common in Australia for acknowledgements of traditional ownership to be made at the commencement of public events, but regretfully, I do not think the significance and purpose for the acknowledgements is always understood. All too often, an acknowledgement is treated as an act of political correctness, but that is to totally misunderstanding why the acknowledgement is made.

It is made to formally recognise that the land, part of the Australian continent on which we live and of which all Australians are proud, traditionally belonged to Indigenous peoples who had managed it with distinction for countless generations.

It is an acknowledgement of the Indigenous peoples themselves, of their culture, and of the fact that they have been displaced. The statement is intended as one of respect, and hopefully it will become one of pride by all Australians to be part of the rich history of this country.

The University's reconciliation statement affirms a commitment to an informed respect for Indigenous Australians. But our community is far from achieving that position. Reconciliation is tragically far from being a reality.

In recent years the Government has expended large sums on policies labelled practical reconciliation aimed at improving the health, education and employment of Indigenous Australians, but the hard fact remains that by whatever measure is applied, their plight remains tragic.

Can I just give you a few statistics. These figures are for the most part drawn from the most recent census in 2001.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Australia was at that time estimated to be just under half a million, or 2.4 per cent the total population. Thirty (30) per cent are living in major Australian cities. Only one in four lives in regions of Australia described as remote or very remote.

The statistics I am about to give you cannot be explained simply on the ground that people are beyond the range of standard service delivery. Most are living in suburbs or well serviced towns in circumstances that are not dissimilar to those of other Australians.

Yet the statistics beggar the question - why is their situation so much worse than their neighbour, and why, when there are less than 500,000 Indigenous Australians, are the governments still struggling to meet their most basic needs?

The life expectancy of Indigenous people is worse than in most first world countries, and is becoming still worse. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous female life expectancy has widened to almost 20 years, and in the case of males is approaching 21 years.

Infant health is very poor. There are twice as many low birth weight babies born to Indigenous mothers as non-Indigenous mothers. And the rate of death among Indigenous infants is 2.5 times higher than for non-Indigenous infants across Australia.

Unemployment rates remain atrocious. The unemployment rate is three times higher amongst Indigenous people than non-Indigenous people, and considerably worse if CDEP (work for the dole) recipients are treated as unemployed.

The contact rate within the criminal justice system is a disgrace. Twenty (20) per cent of the total prison population in Australia comprises Indigenous people. Indigenous males are imprisoned at 16 times the rate of non-Indigenous males, and Indigenous women who are now being imprisoned at 19 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.

A recent study in South Australia disclosed that Aboriginal children are four times more likely to be dislocated from their families, and this for a variety of reasons including homelessness of their parents, and death of parents.

Recently, other research was published showing that Aboriginal women are nearly 12 times more likely than other women in the community to be murdered through domestic violence.

In the area of education, a recent study in New South Wales indicated that by the time Aboriginal children reached seventh year, on average they were three years behind other students in literacy and numeracy skills. Retention rates beyond year ten drop off markedly, and now Australia wide Indigenous secondary students are only half as likely to complete year twelve as non-Indigenous students.

For most young Indigenous people, to overcome these disadvantages and to enter the university is an enormous achievement, but once at a university, with the assistance and support of centres like Wilto Yerlo, the ultimate success rate, fortunately, is on par with that of the rest of the university student body.

This tragic picture of disadvantage is not new, and it cannot be said to reflect the assertion that Australia is the land where everyone gets a "fair go".

In the 1990s the notion of reconciliation was advocated as the remedy, and there were promising signs - the Mabo and Wik decisions in the High Court; the community reaction to the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission report and the Stolen Generation Inquiry; the sea of hands; the bridge walks in 2000.

Unfortunately however other issues have intervened since then to divert public and media attention elsewhere - such things as the Tampa crisis, illegal immigrants, the terrorist attacks of 11 September and the Bali bombings, and now the war on terror.

What hopes remain for reconciliation? How are those statistics I have given to be turned around?

That there is no easy answer is obvious, but what is clear is that we must all go on trying. Leaders of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are trying, and so must white Australia. I like to think that Senator Aden Ridgeway has got it right when time and again he reminds his parliamentary colleagues "Australia has a bright future, but a black past".

There is one topic on which both the black and the white sides of the situation seemed to be in strenuous agreement: education holds the key.

It seems to me that education in fact holds many keys which can open doors on both sides of the divide, to those in each of the two worlds that presently do not understand each other.

For Indigenous people education provides the means of empowering them to assert their knowledge and skills across the wider community, and to demonstrate to all Australians, and especially their own communities, that they deserve respect, that they are valuable contributors, valuable leaders. Success in education will have a flow on effect, like the successes achieved by Aboriginal sporting heroes.

Education will also equip them to manage their own affairs, to administer the delivery of services in education, health, and community development. These are areas where the constant complaint of Aboriginal leaders is that they are not sufficiently included in policy development and expenditure of public monies.

For the non-Indigenous community, education holds to key to expanding understanding of pre-European history and culture in Australia. In time it will lead to recognition, if not understanding, of the spiritual connection Indigenous people have with their land.

In this respect such an understanding has slowly developed in recent years through an appreciation of the beauty in Aboriginal art, music and dance. The white community at least has come to appreciate the immediate visual and auditory impact of these forms of communication, even though the deeper significance of much of it still remains a mystery.

Through education, bridges across the divide will be established which further mutual respect and understanding for each other's culture beliefs and aspirations.

This brings me back to where I started, the acknowledgement of the traditional custodians of this land, and at the University's Reconciliation Statement.

The university has recognised the importance of assisting Indigenous students to enter this Institution, and to succeed in their chosen career paths. Indigenous graduates are entitled be very proud of their achievements, which alone are enough to make them important role models. And it is these graduates who can now move on to be bridges for reconciliation and an enlightened future.

The acknowledgement is to be understood in this context, and as I said earlier, may the acknowledgement become one of pride and patriotism for all Australians.

This University will do its part to bring that about. And to all of you, who are graduating today, please remember the importance of using your education and your ability to foster an inclusive society where everyone can enjoy equal rights and the freedom to develop to their full potential.

Once again, may I congratulate all of you who are graduating today, and wish you the best of good fortune in your future lives.