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Garma Festival

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Jalangurru lanygu balangarri. Yaningi Yatharra ngindaji muwayi indirranggu, Gumatj, Yolngu yani U.

Galwurruy and your family thank you for hosting us.

I pay my respects to all Yolŋu people and the Gumatj people of this land, and all the clan groups of Arnhem land and surrounds. My deepest respects to your elder’s past, present and emerging. A huge congratulations to the Yothu Yindi Foundation for bringing back such a celebrated event in all our calendars—thank you for your tireless efforts, Denise, all the board of directors, and the many Yolŋu people, families and communities who have brought this festival to life.

Well, how good is it to be back? After a turbulent period that kept us all apart, it is comforting and reaffirming to gather again—from places distant and diverse—on this sacred land.

And what a time to come together, with a new Commonwealth Government agenda before us, one which places our First Nations rights and interests as its centrepiece for policy and legislative reform.

I know we are all feeling the excitement that comes with the anticipation of reaching a moment—after a very long wait—where the aspirations of the Commonwealth, and of Australian citizens, connect with our aspirations.

Right now, there is a unified will to act and recognise the deep continuum of our First Nations societies, and for our self-determination, our First Nations Voice, to be enshrined in the foundational document of Australia.

We must grasp this political momentum and people power. I felt that on the first day of the 47th Parliament, when our Prime Minister, the Hon Anthony Albanese’s voice shook with courage and belief. This new Parliament, together with us, can take the necessary steps to implement the Uluru Statement in full.

In the Prime Ministers words, ‘there is no middle path’, and I would add, we have only moments in life that we must make count. Let our actions matter for generations to come.

Less than a week after Parliament began, this is the perfect site for the Prime Minister, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Linda Burney, and Senator Patrick Dodson, Special Envoy for Reconciliation and the Implementation of the Uluru Statement, to come together and reaffirm their commitment to the Statement and the way ahead.

Let me take a moment to reflect on why it is such an important site: Yolŋu people’s leadership has been so consistent on these matters over so many decades. At critical moments, Yolŋu have asserted that First Nations peoples have a deep spiritual, cultural, societal and legal connection and belonging to our traditional countries across this continent, extending back to creation. Yolŋu have called for many Governments to recognise our equal worth and voice in this nation-state’s decision-making, particularly over matters that most impact our lives.

These powerful pronouncements and calls for nation-building dialogues to lay the groundwork for meaningful reconciliation and agreement-making, are recorded across several bark petitions.

The Yirrkala Bark Petition in 1963, paved the way for statutory land rights, even in an era when the insidious doctrine of terra nullius seemed unbreakable.

Following petitions and statements, which brought together many Indigenous language groups, called for Treaty, an Indigenous representative body and for our rights to be secured and protected in the constitution. The petitions fused together the English language of the Commonwealth and the painted Language and Laws of First Nations countries. Those that hang in Parliament—Yirrkala and the Burunga Statement—are a reminder that these lands are and always will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands.

Many elements of these documents have been rejected by past governments. The hope of the Uluru Statement, which continues the tradition of English words wrapped in the language and law of the land, is that we can finally realise these past and present heroic calls for justice.

A focus on Makarrata affirms this for me—a distinctly Yolŋu word, so significant in the Uluru Statement, is quickly becoming a known word. It is spoken by thousands of Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples everywhere. We all want its meaning to be reality—to truly settle differences after conflict and together live a better future.

Throughout our petitions to Government, our political system was not ready, not brave enough to accept the truth: that we live in an unsettled nation, with grievances that can never be reconciled until we embark on a process of political settlement and, create a shared vision for what Australia can become.

Is it ready now? Is the political system ready to do the hard work of structural change to guarantee our equal place—our rightful place—in decision making? So, we can proceed differently to how we have gone before.

And if we act in the right way, we will achieve far more than symbolism.

The stirring rhetoric of the past is enriched by the substance of the work that we have engaged in over decades.

The Uluru Statement reawakens the possibility for renewed relationship building. It lays out the mechanisms—Voice, Treaty, Truth—to take this nation on a journey of historic reckoning: to embark on courageous acceptance of a brutal history; to hear hard truths that can collectively enable us to grieve, learn, heal and, through doing so reconfigure our national identity.

This journey of reckoning collides with others that have confronted Australia since the pandemic. These being a reckoning with systemic racism through Black Lives Matter, and with patriarchy through the Women’s Movement for Justice.

For me these movements are entwined. They all are a fight for deep justice and truth, and to deconstruct the systems that have entrenched rampant inequalities, all forms of intersectional discrimination, and have marginalised and attempted to erase or assimilate diverse voices and world views.

Importantly, they move beyond the issues that trap us in inaction and harness the energy of our anger to reimagine another reality—asking us to hear and see other ways in which people live. Largely, they break down barriers to embrace those who are marginalised and who hold such powerful solutions and knowledges about how to construct a far more caring, loving, connected and sustainable existence.

The Uluru Statement gives us the processes and scaffolding for change. As we embark on its implementation, we must be willing and ready to respond. We must put the evidence and substance forward for policy and legislative reform and, be capable of enacting those changes so, together, we can progressively construct the just existences that these moments of reckoning are calling for.

There are frameworks and representative organisations already in place to help us do this, like Closing the Gap, Empowered Communities, our state and territory peak bodies and campaigns, PBCs and Land Rights bodies and our diverse community-controlled sector, to name only a few.

Alongside this sits hugely significant national projects, like Wiyi Yani U Thangani, the Women’s Voices, multi-year systemic change project that I have led since 2018. In late December 2020, the landmark Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report was tabled in the Federal Parliament—the result of extensive face-to-face national dialogues with First Nations women and girls from across this continent and surrounding islands.

It is the first time in a generation that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls have been heard from as a collective on their terms about their rights. It goes far beyond siloed issues and delivers a striking message: that we will reach a meaningful point in our journey of political agreement-making in Australia when we seriously begin the shared work of transforming our systems, across all sectors and parts of life, from punitive and top-down to holistic, healing-orientated and culturally and community-grounded.

The Women’s Voices Report, and the ongoing work of myself and many others to implement it, also highlights how vitally important our women’s knowledges, and ways of living, are to driving this transformation.

It documents how our women carry the intergenerational knowledge that sustains existence and how they do the backbone work of society. Through the work of Wiyi Yani U Thangani we are continuously learning and describing how when First Nations women are invested in and empowered, harms can be reduced while society becomes more cohesive, children thrive, driving place-based social and economic engagement and renewal. Women’s ways of living can help us confront some of the greatest challenges of our times—they show us more equitable and sustainable ways of organising society around care for children, family and Country and how to restore the connections between people and place, to renew our environments to full health and wellbeing.

I want to emphasise that advancing First Nations gender justice is for us all—there is no such thing as just ‘women’s issues’. When we see and hear the worlds our women occupy—spaces that are rendered invisible within the patriarchal structures they threaten—we are making visible worlds that we can all learn from and, come to occupy.

Thinking through what it takes to practically progress this transformative approach over time, is the work I am doing, with my colleagues, as part of the third stage of Wiyi Yani U Thangani.

We want you all, across governments and all sectors and areas of life, to be on the journey with us as we develop a National Framework for Action to achieve First Nations Gender Justice and Equality in Australia. This draft Framework and, showcasing examples of women-led projects in diverse areas from healing on country to leadership and climate change, will form the basis of dialogue and agreement-making at the first ever National First Nations women and girls Summit, that we will host in Canberra in early May 2023. Watch this space as we are soon to release the dates.

Let me finish by saying, I am under no illusion of how hard the path ahead will be. What I have put forward today may seem overly ambitious, but this is what is contained within the hope of realising the Uluru Statement in its entirety.

And really, for the sake of our planet and humanity, nothing less is acceptable. I believe it is possible because our peoples have thrived for tens of thousands of years in a caring and sustainable society—and it continues. Our rich culture and heritage are the foundations of Australia, its past, present and future and in the grand scale of time, we are only moments away from this nation-state embracing that truth.

When we reflect on the remarkable legacy of our ancestors and contemporary leaders and communities, like the Yolŋu, who have given everything to the fight for recognition and justice, we must re-commit with a sense of destiny knowing that we cannot fail today in this historic moment.

Thank you.


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Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice