Introduction in language
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of Naarm, all the Countries of the Kulin Nations, and I pay my respects to Elder’s past, present and emerging. I recognise our First Women, our mothers, sisters, aunties, and daughters who have cared for our communities, shared knowledge and culture, and nurture future generations through women’s ways of knowing, doing and being.
Thank you Chief Executive Women for bringing this event together today and having me here to speak with you all. I am very excited to listen to the incredible women and men who I am sharing this stage with, and the insights that will be shared in the panels and conversations throughout the day.
It is women – women in all our diversity, including transwomen, sister girls and all gender-diverse peoples from many different backgrounds and cultures, that share knowledges and ways of doing – about caring, nurturing and protecting – acting as the backbones of our communities to keep the ball rolling.
Very rightly as this session is named, We are shaping our future.
Throughout history, as women, we have often been stifled, drowned out by the noise of patriarchal norms and societal biases. Yet, our voices carry with them the wisdom, perspective, and creativity that is crucial for problem-solving and holistic progress. Within our voices are stories that span generations, cultures, and struggles, stories that are intertwined with the very fabric of our communities.
For First Nations women, these stories hold within them a deep connection to the land, a profound understanding of sustainability, and an intergenerational knowledge that we can all learn from. Our women are leaders, we carry this in our bellies, a strong deep gut feeling that we care for our communities and country, use our skills and knowledge to maintain healthy societies, and build a future that is developed on strength in our identity, shared responsibility and unity.
It is without a doubt that I share the collective experience with many women here today that we have had to fight for where we are now. We’ve been the elephant in the room, apparently ‘too loud’, ‘too passionate’—I don’t think so! I think appropriately loud, and understandably passionate. It is our passion and ambition that have uniquely placed us where we are now to do incredible and transformational work and be role models for other women and girls so that their journey to the head of the table is not as difficult.
So, as the first Aboriginal woman to become the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I made it my commitment to make First Nations women's and girl’s rights and lives a clear priority. In 2018, I began a multi-year systemic change project called Wiyi Yani U Thangani, meaning ‘women’s voices’ in my Bunuba language.
Through Wiyi Yani U Thangani, I have engaged in conversations with women and girls across all ends of this vast continent. I have met incredible women and girls who are leading innovative, sustainable, and empowering initiatives for the betterment of community and society at large. First Nations women are on the ground, everyday, demonstrating resilience and strength, fighting for our rights and preserving our culture, language and Country for the next generation.
These women carry the torch of our ancestors who were leaders in politics, arts and advocacy fighting for our rights, so we could exist freely without harm and inequality, since the beginning of colonialisation. It is our women who are tenacious, who will always be present, even if the dark shadow of patriarchy threatens to erase them. They have never been silent, always been present, even when dominant structure refuse to acknowledge the fight.
Because of the incredible knowledges we carry, because of what we have withstood that will never make us disappear, because of our love and nurture, I know the future is safe in women's hands.
The Wiyi Yani U Thangani report and Implementation Framework amplifies these conversations with women – sharing lived experiences and the complex interconnections that shape all dimensions of our lives, exposes systemic failings and entrenched inequalities, and provides a call for action, recommendations and tools to envisage a stronger, more compassionate and caring nation for everyone.
I encourage you all to take a moment to go to the Wiyi Yani U Thangani or Australian Human Right’s Commission’s website and read these documents and think about how these messages and actions can be amplified within your space of influence.
We have put these conversations down on paper not just as a resource for policy-makers, but as a framework for all Australians to engage in a process of systemic reform, and walk alongside us in our movement for change.
It is a movement that is deeply rooted in our fight for self-determination and sovereignty – something that should have rightfully taken place at the beginning of colonisation. Instead our recognition has been denied and structures have become entrenched that both overtly and unintentionally cause violence, racism, sexism, inequality and generational disadvantage to fester and grow.
This has resulted in a context where First Nations women are disproportionately vulnerable to violence and harm, live in unsafe or overcrowded housing, or are homeless, have children taken away from their families, are incarcerated and live in poverty at rates far greater than non-Indigenous women. This is a system that has developed since colonisation where structural and institutional settings entrench trauma, inequality and discrimination, and where our voices are routinely neglected and pushed aside.
Over decades, we have made some strides as a nation to overcome these wrongdoings – the overturning of terra nullius with Mabo and land rights, and ongoing processes for state wide treaties, along with the registering of many Indigenous protected areas, but there has always been pushback.
In 2008, we seemed to take another step, the apology to the Stolen Generations and the introduction of the Closing the gap agenda—it represented a whole-of-government commitment to achieving health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Still by 2023, after 16 years, only 4 of the 15 targets are on track, and another 4 are going backwards. How can we possibly say our system is working to improve the lives of First Nations peoples after looking at that.
It is in examples like this that I am reminded that the structures that currently exist in Australia have not been designed with diversity in mind—they barely consider women, gender diverse, culturally and linguistically diverse people, and all other communities that do not fit the nuclear family silhouette society deems as acceptable. If we think for a moment, and we acknowledge the cost of living crisis, and how impossible it is becoming to rent and buy a house, we realise this system is not designed for any of us!
And it is for this reason that we need First Nations women and communities in roles of influence, where our voices are heard and responded to with reciprocity so that Australia can become the nation I believe it truly is—so it can become the best of us—a country that is welcoming, caring and empowering for all its peoples, regardless of their background or status. Where racialized sexism, violence and poverty are not common to our lives, but where our lives, in all our diversity are celebrated and valued.
The Uluru statement from the Heart has provided an invitation for all Australian peoples to join this movement for change. Written by the collective voices of First Nations peoples across the continent, it is a compelling mandate for structural reform recognising that First Nations peoples are not the problem, but that the problem lies in structural inequality and exclusion, where we are not ever given the authority or capacity to make decisions that impact our lives.
The Statement calls for a First Nations Voice, enshrined in the constitution, as the first crucial step towards this reality. To empowering First Nations communities to influence and reshape laws and policies through our knowledges and values, so that societal structures mirror and embrace who we are.
I want to be clear that this reform to our constitution is not just about platitudes or symbolism – it is a practical tool to making Australia a stronger nation that values and safeguards the rights of everyone and is ready to have conversations about our collective narrative and what we want to stand for. When there are more seats at the table to inform policy, laws and decision-making, we are advocating for diversity of thought.
I also want to share briefly the current reality that I have experienced firsthand, and we heard over and over from women and girls across this country. Currently, uninformed short-term policy that does not reflect our needs on the ground perpetrates trauma, harm and injustices over and over. Policy and legislation made without our advice sends us all into the tumble dryer of chaos. I’ve also been part of regional governance structures responding directly to local concerns and aspirations, and these structures can too easily be dismantled by state and commonwealth governments that do not want to listen. We need a voice enshrined, that is permanent, to set the standard for listening to our voices on the ground—without that level of accountability at the national level we will never guarantee that we will be heard, and never guaranteed that what we want to see on the ground will ever last and take effect.
So, I see the referendum as a gateway to more … to more discussion and inclusivity, with more voices being heard, with avenues for recourse, accountability and ongoing structural change.
For all of us—Indigenous and non-indigenous—this will matter.
I know we all want a foundational national document that honestly reflects who we are as a polity and who we aspire to become.
We all have the opportunity in front of us to use our sphere of influence to weave a future into being where were this becomes a reality.
We have the opportunity to have conversations about what future we want, educate others, and share our stories and values be it through our kitchen dinner tables, workplace coffees and meetings or on social media. Simply showing your intention to engage and creating safe and inclusive spaces for others enables respectful dialogue where we are not just arguing and teetering around disagreement but meaningfully sharing and considering what this vote means to our national identity.
We can lead by example – call out poor behaviour and misinformation, take on the role of educator and advocate – recognising that the load of educating others often falls on First Nations’ colleagues, and get active in your community and networks by sharing information, investing in First Nations community initiatives and programs, and consider developing workplace policies and principles that are culturally responsive, safe and inclusive. If you don’t know get informed—I can honestly say no goes nowhere, it closes the door on more possibility. The Voice is about changing the status quo and that will bring us so many options, without it, we are left where we are and that’s not good enough. It never has been.
And we can engage in active listening, acknowledging the unique challenges First Nations communities face, and supporting initiatives that promote our rights and opportunities. By doing so, we not only work towards a more just and equitable society but also ensure that the wisdom of First Nations women is integrated into our shared future.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has released a suite of resources on its website to help understand more about minimising harm when engaging in conversations and action about the Voice. The ANU First Nations Portfolio also has an excellent document on dispelling information about the Voice and you can find it on their website. I encourage taking a look at these resources, sharing with your colleagues and networks.
So, as we embark on this journey of understanding and unity, let us remember that recognising and amplifying the voices of women is not just a step, but a stride toward justice and progress.
Australia is a rich map of cultures, beliefs, and experiences, and it is through the sharing of these knowledges that we can truly understand the intricacies of our community. By supporting the voice – as a body to parliament and as a movement for structural reform, we enrich conversations, policy decisions, and innovations with a wealth of ideas that otherwise would have remain unheard.
Let us all commit to listening, learning, and engaging with First Nations women and communities, for in doing so, we weave a richer tapestry of human experience—one that honours the past, shapes the present, and paves the way for a better tomorrow. I know I don’t want to leave to my great granddaughter, the tireless unending struggle to be recognised and included in this nations democratic tapestry. I want to wake up in 10, 20 years time and exist in a different time in a nation-state that has listened deeply to its First Nations people and influenced and informed policy and legislation with the ancient knowledges and wisdom of this land—I know it is going to mean so much to us all and our future generations. You can be a part of making that happen. Don’t let this opportunity slip through your hands. You all have a part to play in making our modern history.