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Human Rights Dinner 2019 - Human Rights Law Centre

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Jalangurru lanygu balangarri. Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Gadigal yani U.

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of Eora Nation whose land we gather on tonight, and all your elders past, present and emerging.

And I acknowledge all of my esteemed colleagues from the Australian Human Rights Commission including Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher.

There are many other names around the table there, and in this room – too many to mention. Many of you are close friends and wonderful professional partners in the very important work we do.

I want to say a special thank you to the Human Rights Law Centre for bringing us altogether. This evening in many respects is for you and an acknowledgment of the vital work you do. Your rights work for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is invaluable – both at the coalface and your national advocacy for policy and legislative change.

My team and I have used your landmark report on Indigenous women’s incarceration to shed light on the major issue of our rapidly increasing rate of imprisonment. When we don’t have the data and the information to tell the story of what is happening, as your report rightly stated, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls are overlooked.

Tonight, I’ll talk to this, the importance of Indigenous women and girls telling their story on their own terms. So, they can set the agenda for the work that needs to be done, particularly in realising their rights.

As the first woman to become the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, and coming straight from community, I was committed to uniting our women and girls’ voices and lives on the ground with the making of policy and legislation.

In 2017 I launched Wiyi Yani U Thangani, the Women’s Voices project. Throughout last year, my team and I travelled to communities in every state and territory to talk with our women and girls. I will come to discuss some of what we heard.

My focus tonight is to consider the linkages between work and ‘voices’ on the ground, and across advocacy, and into spaces like this. There are many layers to ‘rights’ work, and I firmly believe that when we are informed by the lived experience of rights, all our work is connected, and its powerful. So, in thinking about what we are doing with Wiyi Yani U Thangani, I want to consider why we all do ‘human rights’ work.

I know, you all believe in the power of the pen (or the keyboard), as I do. Everyone here knows that what is written has consequences. Very few of us would be in this space if that wasn’t the case.

But rights did not begin on paper. The reason we are such strong advocates is because our rights are not abstract.

Rights are inherent to us, because they are us. We know the enjoyment of having them. We know the pain and grief of not having them.

In their presence and absence, rights shape our existence.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples we know this better than most.

Rights has certainly defined many aspects of me. I am a Bunuba person, a woman, an Australian citizen, An Australian Indigenous/Aboriginal/First Nations person, a person who has a connection to European heritage as a consequence of the colonial frontier.

Like all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples we stand at the crossroad of multiple identities, at the intersection of many rights – those to be asserted, to be realised and to be protected. 

All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, in however we choose to define ourselves, should be confident to be all of who we are. We should never feel the need to assimilate to get by and have success in this society.

Under our traditional laws, the laws of this nation, and our international human rights obligations, in particular the most comprehensive instrument expressing our collective and cultural rights – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – we should be free to express all of who we are, without fear of persecution, discrimination or any form of marginalisation. 

But too often for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples our rights are not enjoyed because they are not formally recognised by this nation. UNDRIP is endorsed by Australia but not incorporated into our domestic law and policy frameworks.

I know we can change this.

I know this because I have seen great changes – I have seen our rights achieved and eroded. In my lifetime I have seen things that we never thought possible, become our reality.

I have felt the repercussions of my people’s world turned upside down by colonisation. I grew up between station and mission life when no towns in the Fitzroy Valley region, of the Kimberley, existed. I was born in a time when our people did not have citizenship rights. And then I saw the eradication of the most abhorrent forms of discrimination and racism in the White Australia Policy. I felt a public rally behind us, with us, to demand that we become full citizens, knowing that equality is not assimilation but the recognition of diversity. And then we were awarded equal wages, and forced off the stations, to become refugees on our own land. My home town Fitzroy Crossing came into being during that era, as did our communities and community-controlled organisations. Later our rights to our traditional country were recognised through native title, and then weakened from one set of legislative reforms to another.

We had a national representative governance and decision-making body and then we didn’t. And today, we say, at least give us a Voice, enshrined in the constitution of this nation.

We must take seriously the impact of policy and legislation. Still, it is not just these national and global forces of political agendas that drive change in our lives.

Many of you would have seen, or worked with, our remarkable leaders who have fought for our recognition and written some of our rights into legislation.  

Not as many, would have seen the tireless commitment of our peoples and communities on the ground. Who, no matter the framework in place, have worked together, through it all, determined to maintain our cultural integrity and family and societal networks and institutions. Not being recognised in the legal documents of this nation – as is still the case with our constitution – did not mean that our rights disappeared. They are always there, because our people keep them alive.

The mistake we make is to believe that our rights are won and lost in single events – like royal commissions and referendums. These are vitally important moments in opening honest dialogue to shed truth on our history and present. But they are moments to be used in continuing the work that needs to be done. We cannot leave our rights there. Because, there is no end game in the protection and realisation of our rights.

When moments come to define our lives we only see success and too often fixate on failure. Our national narrative has drawn on this story-telling and framed us in the deficit. The media portrays us through sensationalist stories. 

And when programs and initiatives don’t work, because they have been imposed, we are blamed for policy failure.

We have to see beyond this shallow portrayal.

That is why I committed to hearing from the ground and telling the truth of our lives in their entirety. Women and girls are defying the deficit narrative, daily. They have clearly said to us: I am not your stereotype. I am not your media headline. I exist beyond your landmark occasions and celebrations.

Women have spoken about occupying multiple worlds and roles at any one time – working full time, caring for extended families and maintaining cultural obligations. They have also spoken about wanting to live in a holistic way where education, regional economies, jobs, housing, childcare and mental and physical health are interconnected and informed and grounded in culture.

Because we rarely recognise this work and the society that women are trying to maintain and bring into being, we do not support them effectively. 

The statistics speak this truth, we know them, I won’t repeat them. They are unacceptable. Behind the numbers, women have said to me that when their basic rights to adequate housing, food, safety and financial security are not guaranteed, they are trapped in poverty, homelessness, and unsafe environments. All of which perpetuates traumas.

Without our voices at the table, policy and legislation that should be stopping this and supporting us, is undermining us. Welfare and legal structures operate free of our context and lived realities. That is why social security frameworks like CDP and ParentsNext are not just incapable of meeting our needs and recognising the essential community and caring work we do, they too readily punish us for being in poverty, or existing in ways that do not tick the mainstream box.

Without an enabling social security framework and institutions that celebrate and reflect our rich culture and histories, the response to complex intergenerational issues is interventionist and institutional. I have heard it from so many women and girls – the revolving door of institutionalisation. Where families are spending lifetimes moving from child protection, juvenile detention to adult incarceration. Women have said it to me repeatedly, this is another stolen generation.

In the face of this overwhelming adversity, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls have said to us that they condemn the structures that produce injustice. And in the same breath speak about how we can rebuild a society that is vibrant, healthy and free from discrimination.

The society our women and girls envision is one that realises all of who we are, and all our rights. To truly determine the course of history, women and girls have been clear: we must be at every decision-making table to self-determine our futures. This cannot be token gestures. We can call it co-design, empowerment, place-based development, but this rhetoric only becomes real and meaningful when we do the work. It is real when we are equal partners in ongoing and purposeful decision-making about every aspect of our lives.


Later this year we will release Wiyi Yani U Thangani. It is a starting point to build constructively from. It is certainly not another moment to let settle, isolated, a closed book. The report will speak the voices of our women. It will state what we need to confront and what we want. It will address the complex strengths, issues and aspirations I have spoken to tonight. It lays the ground work. The next stage is working together and in partnership with many people in this room, I am sure. And knowing that no matter what space or layer of rights work we occupy, we all have a responsibility to listen and respond to our women and girls’ voices.

I know the time to do this work, to respond in the right way, is now.

The same is true for all our human rights work.

It is in rooms like this that brings together community workers, lawyers, advocates, philanthropists and many other influential people that the shifts required to make the changes I am speaking of can happen.

I know we can despair that there are too many roadblocks, and not enough pathways.
But there is a shift happening. Across the world and in Australia powerful institutions are being challenged through movements like metoo and black lives matter. While brutal truths, scandals and corruption are exposed. We want and deserve better.

As I said, I have experienced extraordinary change in my life time. Every time people from all backgrounds were behind that. Those that were successful, united the spaces of community, policy and legislation.
Believing in human rights necessitates that we believe in societies, economies and political structures that will uphold and realise our rights.

Now is the time to make that society a reality.

To work together in enabling the voices from the ground to set the policy making agenda.
At the same time to use our pens to advocate for and design policy that enables people on the ground to realise their rights, instead of constantly defending them.

Let’s not just wait for change to come and pass us by.

United, let’s bring about the tomorrow we want, in the way we do our work today.    

Thank you


Commission logo

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

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

See Also

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Inaugural National Indigenous Women’s Leadership Symposium

[Introduction in Bunuba] Jalangurru lanygu wiyi yani. I want to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, and to their elders both past and present. I also want to thank and congratulate the organisers of this event – everyone at...

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