Kevin Cook Lecture – Looking Back, Looking
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Australian Human Rights Commission
Yabun – Survival Day 2010
Tuesday 26 January, 2010
Good morning ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, uncles
and aunties and all of the children and youth here today. I particularly
welcome our youth who will be our leaders and elders of the future.
I begin today by paying my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation,
the Traditional Owners of the land where we gather today. I pay my respects to
your elders, to the ancestors and to those who have come before us.
The message that is given through the Welcome to Country, particularly the
welcome of Aboriginal peoples in New South Wales, is appropriate for us all here
today because it reminds all Australians that we are on Aboriginal land.
Land that was, that is and always will be Aboriginal Land.
It is particularly important to remember this today when many Australians
celebrate the colonisation of this country. As we all know, the affects of
colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across this entire
country have been devastating and continue to effect our human rights, our
standard of living, and our ability to determine our own futures. That is why
we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples come together on what has
been named “Australia Day” to celebrate our resilience and
We call it Survival Day.
On this day we reflect on the struggle and the success of our elders;
those who have come before us; and many of whom are still with us and continue
the fight; who have ensured a legacy of opportunity for our people. This
includes but it also goes beyond those of us who are in newspapers and on the
television. This recognition goes also to those community members who
represented the fight in their local communities, on their traditional lands and
through their leadership in preparing the next generations to continue on where
they left off.
They fought hard for our people to be recognised as human beings on our own
lands. They fought hard for our people to be paid the same amount of money as
non-Indigenous people and to receive that money in our own hands and to not be
managed by the Protector, the missionaries or the government. They fought hard
for our people to have access to legal aid, housing, health, and education.
They fought hard for our land rights; to overturn the doctrine of terra
nullius; and to have our traditional laws and customs formally acknowledged by a
legal system that is not designed to provide for the rights and interests of the
original owners of this land. And they fought hard to establish Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander organisations at the local, state, national, and
international levels that were and are designed to promote and support our
It is inspiring to see so many of our children and our youth here today;
because they are our future. This legacy will be handed to them; and we
– each and every one of us here today have a responsibility to make sure
that the legacy left to us and the sacrifices made to achieve this have not been
made in vain and the opportunities available to us are not squandered or
It is a great honour for me to have been asked by Cathie Craigie at the
Gadigal Information Centre to give this year’s Kevin Cook Lecture. Of
course the Kevin Cook Lecture was given for the first time at the 2009 Yabun
Festival – just last year - by my good friend Bev Manton, Chairperson
of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, an organisation that Kevin was
actively involved in establishing and led as the first Chairperson.
I also thank Tranby College for hosting the annual lecture. Tranby is
another organisation that Kevin was instrumental in, and he committed much of
his career to ensuring its success and continued relevance for Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people. I had the honour of being involved with Kevin
through his years at Tranby and I acknowledge his contribution to Indigenous
education. Unfortunately, in recent years, Tranby like many of our Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander education institutions has fallen victim to reduced
government support and have had to rely on funds raised through alternative
support such as the Friends of Tranby.
It is an even greater pleasure for me to be here today, given that my term as
the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner comes to
an end in three days on the 31 January 2010. I am grateful that one of my last
duties in this role is to come and be with my mob on such an important day on
The title of this years’ Kevin Cook Lecture is Looking Back, Looking
Forward. I have been asked to reflect on my term as the Social Justice
Commissioner and to highlight some of the achievements of the last five and a
half years as well as to consider some of the challenges that we face in the
As I said last Friday, at the launch of the annual Social Justice and Native
Title Reports in Redfern; undertaking my role as the Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner has been a great privilege. I have
been fortunate enough to work around the country with and for my people on a
wide range of issues – some of which were hard issues to deal with,
while others ignited my pride as an Aboriginal man.
While there are too many to list here today, some of the highlights of my
term as the Social Justice Commissioner include:
- the development of the Close the Gap Indigenous Health Equality Campaign;
- the Government’s formal support for the United Nations Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
- most recently, the establishment of a national representative body for
Indigenous peoples, the National Congress of Australia’s First
- and while I am the eternal optimist, something I, and I’m sure the
majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people never thought would
happen in our lifetimes, the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.
National Apology to the Stolen Generations
As a nation we were relieved and inspired by the Prime Minister’s
Apology to the Stolen Generations. Something that was long over-due. As
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples we cried with tears of sadness and
tears of joy, and we exhaled.
Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, came together to witness one
of the greatest acts of compassion in our country’s history. And I was
extremely humbled when I was asked by the Stolen Generations peak bodies to
deliver a response on behalf of Stolen Generations members and their families to
the Prime Minister’s historic national Apology on 13 February 2008.
In the words of the Prime Minister in his Apology to the Stolen Generations
and their descendants, ‘the time has come for our nation to turn a new
page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and moving
forward with confidence to the future’.
The Apology was the first step towards creating an Australia that is
inclusive and embracing of its First Peoples. However, we have a long way to go
before we can stand in this country as equals, and this will take commitment
from Governments at all levels and ongoing efforts by our people to achieve true
justice, equality and reconciliation.
Close the Gap
The Indigenous Health Equality Close the Gap Campaign is a real example of
this happening. In April 2007, 40 of Australia’s leading Indigenous and
non-Indigenous health peak bodies and human rights organisations joined forces
to launch a campaign to ‘Close the Gap’ on health inequality.
The campaign responded to the recommendations made in my 2005 Social Justice
Report to achieve health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people within 25 years.
The Report examined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health inequality
within the framework of the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable
standard of health. The Report highlighted that it is simply not credible to
suggest that one of the wealthiest nations of the world cannot solve a health
crisis affecting less than 3% of its citizens. It called for:
- a solid commitment by all levels of government,
- a timeframe and a plan of action for achieving equality of health status and
life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous
people within one generation, including providing equal access to primary health
care for Indigenous Australians within 10 years.
Less than a year after the launch, we saw the historic signing of a
Statement of Intent between the Australian Government, the Opposition,
Indigenous and non-Indigenous health peak bodies and the reconciliation movement
to work together to close the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples and non-indigenous Australians by the year 2030.
A fundamental feature of the Close the Gap Campaign has been the leadership
provided by the Indigenous members made up of the National Aboriginal Community
Controlled Health Organisation and other national Indigenous peak bodies
representing our Indigenous doctors, nurses, dentists and psychologists.
Indigenous leadership has been integral to the Campaign. And it is a
testament to the success of the campaign that ‘Closing the Gap’ is
now the language used by all Australian governments and the wider public to
refer to the inequality in health and other social indicators as they affect
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. One way that you can support the
Close the Gap campaign is to participate in the National Close the Gap
Day on Thursday 2 April this year. The day gives people the opportunity to
show their support for closing the 12 - 17-year life expectancy gap between
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians.
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ ability to access the
right to health is of course one of the fundamental human rights outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
I won’t say too much on this topic now as I will be launching a booklet
on the Declaration produced by Amnesty International straight after I finish
During my term though, I have had the privilege of working with a number of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the country who have
been actively engaged for the past 20 years with indigenous peoples from all
over the world on the development of a United Nations document that promotes the
protection and the full realisation of the rights of the world’s most
vulnerable peoples – Indigenous peoples.
As Social Justice Commissioner, I worked with those members to lobby the
Howard Government to secure Australia’s support for the Declaration when
it was adopted in the United Nations General Assembly in 2007. Unfortunately,
and to the international shame of our country, Australia was one of only four
countries – along with New Zealand, Canada and the USA - that voted
against the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
As with Howard’s concerns over apologising to the Stolen Generations
and compensating native title holders for the loss of our lands, he would not
come to the table and vote for the Declaration, worried that it would provide a
legal loophole for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to challenge
the sovereignty of this nation. This is despite the fact that the Declaration
provides clear provisions for the certainty of the sovereign state.
It was therefore another watershed moment in my term as Commissioner when the
change of Government in the 2007 election resulted in the Australian Government
issuing a formal statement of support for the United Nations Declaration on
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in April last year.
The Declaration provides a set of internationally endorsed minimum standards
for ensuring that government’s relationships with Indigenous peoples are
based on mutual respect, partnership and consultation and recognises the unique
and collective nature of the rights of Indigenous peoples internationally.
The principles embodied in the Declaration are consistent with the
aspirations expressed by the federal Government through the National Apology,
the Statement of Intent to Close the Gap, and in supporting the establishment of
a new national Indigenous representative body.
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples
Another achievement during the past five years that I am personally very
proud of is the establishment of a new national Indigenous representative body;
the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
Since the government announced its intent to abolish ATSIC in 2004, I have
consistently voiced my concerns and considered issues relating to the need for a
national Indigenous representative body as well as monitoring the post-ATSIC
‘new arrangements’ for the administration of Indigenous Affairs.
In response to these calls, the newly elected Australian Government invited
me in late 2008 to convene an independent Steering Committee. This Committee
can be proud of what they have achieved over the past twelve months, and I thank
each and every one of them for their time, their dedication to this process and
their commitment to the self-determination of our peoples.
The Steering Committee was charged with running consultations with Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander people and putting forward a proposed model for a new
representative body to the federal Government for consideration. The
Committee’s report, Our future in our hands, was launched at the
National Press Club in August of last year and the federal Government has
accepted the recommendations of this report.
This is a public document and you can get copies of the report on our website
or from the Australian Human Rights Commission office here in Sydney.
Alternatively you can obtain a copy of the community guide on the National
Congress from the desk at the back of the room.
The establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples
will mean that for the first time since the abolition of ATSIC more than five
years ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will have a national
representative voice that represents us on key national issues.
The model presented by the Steering Committee has been developed with the
inputs and guidance of all those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
across the country who participated in the community consultations, participated
in focus groups or made a written submission.
In particular, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people identified a
number of important roles and functions for the new national representative
- formulating policy and advising government
- reviewing government programs
- negotiating framework agreements with governments
- monitoring (rather than implementing) service delivery by governments
- conducting research and contributing to law reform processes, and
- representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the
The National Congress will provide a forum to set national policies
and directions for advocacy and lobbying in relation to policies underpinning
government service delivery to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
It will involve unprecedented channels for the participation of Indigenous
organisations, peak bodies and individuals.
While in its initial development phase, its independence from Government will
be promoted by the fact that it will be a private company limited by guarantee.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alone will be responsible for the
governance, decisions and conduct of the organisation – a first for a
national representative body in Australia but similar in structure to
representative bodies of indigenous peoples in other countries. Over time, it
will seek to grow investments so that it can be truly independent of
Fundamentally changing the national landscape for Indigenous affairs, the
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples will begin operating in
It is proposed that the National Representative Body have four main
- A National Executive – that will be the operational and governance
arm of the organisation;
- A National Congress – Initially comprised of a maximum of 128
delegates with voting rights, contributing to a national collective perspective
rather than to simply represent the organisation or state/ territory that has
nominated them. It will include a National Peak Bodies Chamber, a Sectoral
Peak Bodies/ Expert Chamber; and a chamber dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander organisations and individuals;
- An Ethics Council; and
- An Administrative or Executive Support Unit.
As many of you would be aware the membership of the inaugural
Ethics Council has been recently announced. The Ethics Council will be
comprised of six Indigenous people of high standing, with one chair, and a
gender balance among their members. The Council will initially serve a two year
term in order to bed down the processes for the new organisation. This will
mean it is in place for the initial two sessions of the organisation's National
The Ethics Council will be responsible for applying a merit-based process to
shortlist candidates for election as members of the National Executive and then
be responsible for ensuring the ethical conduct of representatives of the
I can safely and proudly say that the National Congress
represents a new way of thinking and a new manner of engagement between
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments.
It is about creating a genuine partnership with government and across
- With shared ambition, so we are all working towards the same goals
and not at cross purposes.
- With mutual respect, so we are part of the solutions to the needs of
our communities instead of being treated solely as the problem.
- With joint responsibility, so that we can proceed with an honesty and
an integrity where both governments and Indigenous people accept that we each
have a role to play, and where we each accept our responsibilities to achieve
the change needed to ensure that our children have an equal life chance to those
of other Australians.
- With respect for human rights, that affirms our basic dignity as
human beings and provides objective, transparent standards against which to
measure our joint efforts.
Let the new Representative Body set the vision for our
people’s future, provide the guidance to achieve this and advocate for
understanding for the consequences that flow from our status as the First
Peoples of this nation.
My hope is that a new National Representative Body will operate in such a way
as to inspire and support our people, while also holding governments accountable
for their efforts, so we may ultimately enjoy equal life chances to all other
The first step on this road is mutual respect and a partnership not just
between us, governments and the broader community – but also amongst
ourselves. A National Representative Body is an essential component to achieve
the long overdue commitments to “closing the gap.”
I have also been asked to provide some insight into what I think will be some
of the challenges that we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will
be faced with in the coming years.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that any of the highlights that I have talked
about here today will in themselves deliver overnight solutions. But they do
lay the foundations and form a strong framework to begin to work together to
address the unacceptable disparity in life chances, opportunities and outcomes
of the First Peoples of this land.
Just because we have received an Apology from the Australian Government for
their past abuses and violations of our human rights, this will not stop
systemic racism born into the attitudes of some in this country. Just because
we have the Close the Gap campaign, this will not provide overnight solutions to
the poverty we face as a result of the dispossession of our peoples from our
lands and waters and the denial of basic services and infrastructure in our
communities. And just because our government has offered its support for the
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not mean
that they have the understanding or the capacity to fully implement it in a
practical way that ensures our culture and identity are fully respected.
The right to participate in public life, the right to be involved in
decisions that affect us and our social, cultural and economic development
– our self determination – is central to the rights contained in
the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – but these rights
means nothing if we are not united in the struggle to achieve this and actively
and effectively engaged in opportunities to contribute to these debates. These
rights mean nothing if we are our own worst enemies.
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the First Peoples of this
land, who have been blessed with a legacy of determination, resilience and
survival, we have to come together, as those before us did when they fought for
our citizenship rights, our land rights, our human rights. And as we all know
– not everyone agreed with each other, different groups had different
priorities and different ways of doing business, as we do today. But when it
mattered they came together and fought together for the common elements of their
arguments – our basic human rights.
Not everyone is going to agree with the model developed for the new
representative body, nor are they going to agree with those who will be selected
in various roles. However, we all continue to fight for our basic human rights,
and unless we stand together on these fundamental basics that are exactly the
same for each and every one of us – a quality of life and respect for
our human rights – we will never overcome the challenges we face no
matter what they are. And the fight of those to date, including people like
Kevin Cook and many others over the past 220 plus years, will have been in vain.
We will have wasted those opportunities.
So I stand before you today as a proud Aboriginal man, with three days to go
until I complete my term as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Justice Commissioner. I want to thank every Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander person that I have had the priviledge to work with over the years, and
particularly those who each year have offered their contributions to the work of
the Australian Human Rights Commission and the annual Social Justice and Native
Title Reports. I have been humbled to serve you and to contribute to our
progress as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I leave you today
with an old saying that I’m sure many of you have heard me say many times.
From self respect comes dignity, and from dignity comes hope.