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Reconciliation Week Seminar Series

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Presentation to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Reconciliation Week Seminar Series

Mick Gooda

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

28 May 2008


Good morning ladies and gentlemen, my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, distinguished guests.

I begin today by paying my respects to the Ngunnawal peoples, the peoples on whose land we come to celebrate Reconciliation week today. I am of the Gangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland and when I speak to my Elders, they ask me to pass on my salutations to the traditional owners of the land I visit, and thank them for their continued fight for their country and their culture. But today I also acknowledge their graciousness in sharing their lands and their culture with all those who live and visit here in the spirit of reconciliation.

I would also like to thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for inviting me to be a part of your Reconciliation week seminar series.

I note that you have been provided with a fact sheet on both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. Central to both are the people and the identities and unity they draw from their relationships with their lands and territories.

As you are aware the theme of Reconciliation Week this year is Reconciliation: Let’s see it through!

In reflecting on these words, the key to reconciliation is positive relationships – between each other as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and with non-Indigenous Australians. And what draws us together is our country – Australia.

While we can do many things to keep our relationships on track, there may be things along the way that strain our relationship. So seeing reconciliation through is an ongoing challenge, but one that doesn’t necessarily need to be a challenging experience.

A good starting point is building on the Governments commitment to resetting the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians.

As most of you are aware I am new to the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, although I have worked in Indigenous affairs for all of my professional life. When you work so close to the coalface, sometimes it is difficult to see how far we have actually come in our relationship as a nation. In this role, I have had an opportunity to take a step back and look at how far we have come.

For example:

  • yesterday marked 43 years since the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum in which more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to remove clauses from the Australian Constitution which discriminated against Indigenous Australians
  • June 3 marks the anniversary of the High Court's judgment in the 1992 Mabo case. The decision recognised the Native Title rights of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the original inhabitants of the continent and overturned the myth of terra nullius – the belief that the continent was an empty, un-owned land before the arrival of Europeans in 1788
  • it has now been 2 and a bit years since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples received an Apology from the Prime Minister for the laws and policies that enabled the forcible removal of our children and peoples from their lands, their families and their cultures
  • on 3 April last year, the Australia Government overturned its initial position to vote down the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations in 2007 and confirmed its support for the Declaration
  • and to fill the 5 year gap whereby Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been without a national representative body, this year we have seen the Government support the establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

All of these events contribute to reconciliation. And many of these milestones where unthinkable not so long ago.

However, they have all come to bear through the dedication and commitment of many, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The adoption of the Declaration by the UN in 2007, for example, marked the end of a 30 year struggle by Indigenous peoples worldwide in discussions with Governments seeking recognition of our fundamental human rights through the international  treaty body system. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were deeply involved in drafting and campaigning for the Declaration. Without the tenacity and belief of those people, including Mick Dodson, Les Malezer, Megan Davis, Lowitja O'Donoghue and many others, we would not have this Declaration. They were also supported in these aims by many non-Indigenous Australians including Darren Dick and Sarah Pritchard. This is a perfect example of Indigenous peoples taking control of our own destiny, and reconciliation in action – supporting each other to achieve positive change.

As this shows a key to resetting the relationship is proper engagement, and we still have not mastered this yet. Human rights standards provide clear guidelines about what is needed to constitute proper engagement with Indigenous peoples. Respecting self-determination and our right to give our free, prior and informed consent to decisions that affect us are a must. And Governments must recognise that to get reform right, you need to invest time into relationship-building. This means the full participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the development of all policies and laws that affect us. We must be equal partners and treated as such.

I believe there are two key priorities for our immediate future that will surely contribute to realising our goal of resetting the relationship and achieving true reconciliation based on partnership, trust, and mutual respect.

The first is to develop a co-ordinated approach to achieving the ends of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is not just a national goal, this is a goal for many Indigenous peoples and many Governments all over the world. And there is much discussion to be had about how we go about doing this – but this discussion must be had together in order for us to be successful.

The second and this will contribute to the first, is fulfilling the previous election commitment of both the current Government and the previous Howard Government, to provide for the Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia in the Australian Constitution. 

These two important steps will go a long way to providing a solid path forward as a reconciled nation. In the words of the Prime Minister, ‘First Australians alongside all Australians, towards a stronger and fairer Australian nation’. 

To conclude, I would also like to reflect on the humanity that is often displayed by all Australian’s in times of adversity and injustice. When our nation is in pain, we stand strong together and this was displayed most recently with the devastating bushfires in Victoria.

Australia has a painful history and there have been challenges for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians over the years, but we are all still here. Now that we, Australia, are no longer in denial about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history of this country, let us work and walk together on the path of reconciliation and justice to achieve a stronger and fairer nation.

I look forward to working with you all over the next five years to achieve this.

Thank you.