Welcome everyone. Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the country upon which each of us stands today. I myself stand upon my Bunuba land here in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. I acknowledge and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging across all the lands and waters of this nation.
Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I would like to thank LexisNexis and the staff who worked with my team to arrange today, in particular Rebecca Moore and Myfanwy Wallwork. And I would also like to say a special thank you to LexisNexis for its ongoing support to the Human Rights Commission. Your support helps the Commission to continue its work of advocating the human rights of people across the globe.
For those of you who don’t know, LexisNexis and the Australian Human Rights Commission have partnered several times. One of our more prominent collaborations launched the Vietnamese version of the RightsApp. The development of RightsApp was a collaboration between both our organisations, and has won multiple prestigious awards in both business and social justice categories. This is what can happen when the right partners come together and drive a shared vision.
I know LexisNexis has the kind of corporate culture that values the ideals of collective and individual responsibility and I wanted to commend the work you do to create a workplace and a workplace culture that advocates for the pursuit of basic human rights of all global citizens.
When I was appointed to this position in 2017, I knew that as the first female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I could elevate the strengths and courage of First Nations Women across this nation. So, I spent a significant amount of my term creating the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voice’s) Report to look at the rights and aspirations of First Nations women.
Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) represents the collective voice of First Nations women and girls across Australia. It is the first of its kind since the Women’s business report in 1986. Throughout this national level engagement project – women and girls provided their wisdom about what it will take to bring about a fair and just society for all.
Today, I would like to amplify those voices and the voices of many others. To share with you, the opportunities and challenges in fully realising our right to self-determination and why self-determination for First Nations people is the future of our country.
In 2017, First Nations Elders and respected leaders gathered in Alice Springs. With care, purpose, and dedication they crafted the - Uluru Statement From the Heart. At its core, this document speaks to our truths, to our history and to the pain of our lived experiences. The Uluru Statement reads:
“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness”.
Our powerlessness is the lack of agency we have, individually and collectively, over our destiny. Stripped of our right to freely determine our political status and freely pursue our economic, social and cultural development. We work to make and remake choices within systems and structures not of our own making. Within systems and structures that -¬historically¬¬- were built specifically to exclude us. These structures, not only deny our fundamental differences but also deny our inherent human rights as First Nations Peoples.
For us, many complex cultures have no choice but to live within the context of a dominant colonial society. We are afforded only formal equality under Australian law, not substantive equality. Our distinct rights as First Nations peoples are too often ignored and our dispossession remains largely unaddressed.
We know that current systems and structures are unable to respond to our distinct and complex needs that in many cases these systems are actually doing damage in and to First Nations families and communities. We know we need to embed new structures, new ways of engagement, and give value to First Nations ways of doing, being and belonging.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls want to live in strong, healthy, and vibrant families and communities. They value inclusiveness, care and respect - But they need systems grounded in their right to self-determination. Systems which respect their rights as First Nations people and that enable them to make positive, informed choices. This is why systems reform, based on the principle of self-determination, is a key focus of my work. We have to decolonise, not just our minds, but the systems and structures that are meant to serve us all.
Self-determination is not just an abstract idea that we talk about in a rights-based framework. For First Nations peoples, it represents what could be, rather than what is. For First Nations people, it’s not just a right, it’s the primary mechanism that enables us to take control of our lives; to determine the outcomes of our futures; to make heard the voices of those in our communities who are the most vulnerable and marginalised.
Self-determination is a process through which we can determine our life’s purpose, our shared hopes and dreams and actively pursue them. Our right to self-determination can, and must, be fulfilled within a united Australian polity. However, it will require Australian governments to imagine a future outside of the bounds of rigid Western models.
From the colonial and assimilationist eras to the present day, our worldviews have never been taken into consideration in a meaningful way. This is why attempts by governments to address our socio-economic outcomes have continued to fail. It is why our women are calling for a fundamental re-set of the relationship between First Nations people and Australian governments. The call for a National Treaty speaks to this¬¬- and shows us how- through a process of truth telling and structural reform we can build the kind of society all Australians deserve.
A Treaty does not relate to the creation of a new country, or a cessation from the laws and governments of this one. Broadly, Treaties establish 3 key concepts –
First, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the original occupants of the lands and seas; and that during the colonisation process First Nations People faced grave injustices and atrocities and which still manifest in contemporary Australian society.
The second is that to create a treaty First Nations people and governments must come together to negotiate.
The third, is that any Treaty embeds legal rights to protect Indigenous peoples. A Treaty provides the framework for Governments and First Nations people to negotiate equally, ensuring we each come to the table with a certain amount of power, agency and responsibility. That is the living expression of self-determination.
We are - as First Nations People - all too familiar with the exclusion of our voice where it matters. Our national narrative is built on harmful myths and half-truths. Imagine having an open and honest conversation about the dual meanings of January 26 and then working towards a shared date. Imagine exploring the Australian Black Lives Matter movement and understanding that it is in response to systemic discrimination and systems that we know cannot deliver justice.
A national Treaty which acknowledges our rights as the original occupants of the lands and seas and recognises the current manifestations of injustices. Injustices such as the overrepresentation of First Nations People in the justice system. That is why a Treaty holds so much significance. Without one, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can only expect more of the same, and we deserve better and demand more.
Let me be clear, we have failed to provide First Nations peoples with the kind of structures and mechanisms that allow us to stand in our agency and fully participate as equal citizens. We know we have failed because First Nations Australians, are the most incarcerated people in the world, yet we make up less than five percent of the Australian population. We have failed because, out of home care rates for Indigenous children are ten times higher than non-Indigenous children. We know we have failed because the Indigenous child mortality rate is, twice that of non-Indigenous children.
I have no desire to speak in deficits—for far too long this is the lens through which we have been spoken about, the brush we have been tainted with. But we owe it to ourselves to be honest in our relationships with one another. And the truth is, these outcomes are borne out of a misunderstanding and devaluing of First Nations people’s rights, cultures, experiences and expertise. They are the product of systems that are built to marginalise, harm and entrench inequality. And they are exacerbated by unchecked forms of racism. This is why structural reform, based on the principle of self-determination, must be pursued.
To create systems change, multiple actors must have shared responsibility and accountability, from First Nations women and girls, to communities, Indigenous organisations, governments and non-government organisations. Whether you are in an organisation like LexisNexis or thinking about your own contribution. It is our collective responsibility to build a nation state that is fair, equal and just. To do this effectively we have to understand our national history and how, to this day, it shapes, not only our relations with one another but also the institutions, structures and mechanisms that determine our life outcomes.
Across the globe we have seen marginalised people rise up and call for change. To reject the politics of division and call for a world that respects people’s histories, their place in it and embrace those histories through unified global nations. It is no different here. So, we must ask ourselves, how can we meet the times, how can we build the kind of nation that reflects and respects all of our truths, all of our histories and is stronger and better for it? This is our work. To acknowledge where we are and to have the courage and conviction to build something different.
I have seen First Nations women and girls carry the trauma, the neglect, the entrenched poverty with each step they take. Any yet, with the very next step, they have carried the hopes, the dreams and the love of their families, their culture and their collective futures. This is what we must act on and invest in, the potential, the desire, the hope and knowledge that their lived experiences could be positively different. Wiyi Yani U Thangani gives us a blueprint and the tools to bring that strength and those aspirations to life. On their own terms, women and girls, defined and explained their challenges and priorities. But most importantly they described their strengths and abilities; and the type of society, economy and political system they need to live and thrive within.
I believe Wiyi Yani u Thangani is one of the most significant documents we have in Australia right now. It sits alongside the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the calls for a national Treaty. Each of these is grounded in the principle of self-determination and has the potential to progress real political and social change. They are a guide to systems reform. Reform that could not only significantly reset the relationship between First Nations peoples and all Australian governments; but build a truly fair and just nation for all Australians. We each can use Wiyi Yani U Thangani as a framework to think about the kind of systems change we could create.
If you haven’t already, read Wiyi Yani U Thangani, immerse yourself in our women’s stories, centre their resilience in your heart. And when you have, come back to me and - together - we’ll work to build the kind of Nation we all deserve.
Thank you for your time today.