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Sir Wallace Kyle Oration

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

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

It is wonderful to be here with you today on Noongar Boodja country. I would also like to acknowledge all the country from around this state and beyond that people may joining in from online.

My deepest respects to all our elders past, present and emerging.

I would like to express my thanks to Michelle Scott, Director at the McCusker Centre for Citizenship at the University of Western Australia, and to the Rotary Club of Perth for providing me with the opportunity to deliver this year’s Sir Wallace Kyle Oration.

What an audience, it is an absolute pleasure to be here tonight. 

The theme of this year’s oration is ‘Service above Self’ – no small idea to respond to! I’ll do my best.

The Oration is in honour of the late Sir Wallace Kyle, who I understand, throughout the Second World War and his entire life, fought valiantly to protect and uphold the structures and institutions that kept intact the values of democratic life.

He, like many others of his generation during a time when fascism threatened the world, dedicated his life to a cause beyond himself so future generations could enjoy the freedoms and rights of liberal democracies.    

On that note, in tackling a big theme, I want to explore tonight, what it is that causes a person, and society at large, to think and act beyond individual impulses and goals.

Over the last decade or so, citizens in states across the globe have been faced with increasing and compounding threats which one news headline after another have labelled ‘existential’—growing inequalities, financial meltdowns, the loss of secure jobs and impossibly high costs of living, climate change, entrenched forms of race and sex discrimination and, most recently, a global pandemic, a pronounced growth in populism and sectarian divisions within states, and war in Europe.

I am not suggesting that we rise above self only in times of crisis. We all experience a greater sense of existence in countless everyday moments, of dedication in our work, laughter with friends, awe at nature, shared cultural traditions and rituals, love for others.

There is no doubt, though, that global threats that impact each and every one of us do cause us to simultaneously consider our place within the immense sweep of history. They sharpen our collective thoughts about the type of structures needed which can reduce crises and safeguard, maintain and enhance the everyday moments of engagement which form healthy and connected societies. Ultimately, the type of engagements and opportunities which give meaning to our lives within the wonderment and power of existence.

Right now, it seems, the world over is asking the same big questions—who are we? Are the socio-economic and political structures that govern our lives the cause of our current predicaments? And what do we need to do to weather the storms and become the future we want?

Australia—our home, like those in countries abroad—wants the same things, answers and actions to these bold, emerging questions.

This was evident in the result of the May election when Federal Labor swept into power on a wave of urgent calls for change—their win taking shape within a fascinating 46th Parliament composed of Greens, Teals, women and 11 First Nations parliamentarians—the most we have ever seen in Australia’s history.

We should proudly celebrate the election of these diverse voices. They are all movers and shakers, speaking out and putting forward varied positions on how to achieve climate and gender justice, confront and overcome racism, strengthen institutional transparency and integrity, enhance public participation in our democracy and create economic opportunities and empowerment for all. There are, as always, a few voices rallying against these progressive propositions.

But the tussle between most, is not so much about where we are heading or what we are wanting the future state to be—most of us want less suffering and struggle, an end to discrimination, and guaranteed fairness and equality.

The dissent is about what should be done in policy and law and institutional arrangements to form these conditions. It is about the road we construct to take us there, and the practical steps for how change should take effect.   

To navigate these turbulent waters of reform, the Government of the day has sought to speak to our hearts, by placing at the centrepiece of its reform agenda, the Statement that has come from the very heart of our continent.

The Uluru Statement is a beacon to guide us all in these uncertain times. I believe, I know, that the Uluru Statement and its full implementation can unite all Australians, to rise above self, and make a commitment about who we want to be and are prepared to become—a generous, courageous and truthful nation. A nation where we embrace one another rejecting the fear and anger that festers along the lines of division, and together embark on this ever-evolving journey of nation-building.

Firstly, let me say, symbolically it matters to say yes to the Statement. Uluru—this fiery red beating centre that binds us together epitomises an Indigenous and non-indigenous shared love and commitment to Australia.

For the Anangu, the traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta, it is a deeply spiritual place, forged into being at the creation of time. It is to be honoured and respected—many of the stories and ceremonies that take place within the warmth of its walls are sacred and secret. What we do know is that Uluru and its surrounds have a powerful gravity—laced with song lines, many of which travel thousands of kilometres from other language groups to intersect and interact. These travelling songs of Australia, emanate from the land, so for all ready to listen and learn, they speak and teach about how to exist throughout this continent and to support and enable the flourishing of vibrant relationships between all human and non-human relatives.

They teach of all beings engaged in a reciprocal service to one another. Where the self always has a vital place in maintaining the whole.

And non-Indigenous Australians have and do feel Uluru’s energetic force—gradually gaining a mutual respect for its sacredness and are coming to appreciate the significant lessons it holds. It continues to be a site of pilgrimage, a once-in-a-life-time journey, for tens of thousands of Australians, its majesty commanding inspiration and contemplation of our common existence.

Uluru, rising dramatically from a plain of endless horizons, is the shared symbol we need—not borrowed but from here—recognition to the wealth of ancient and living knowledges that are the past, present and future foundations of this rich earth beneath our feet, which we have all come to call home.  

Secondly, saying yes to the Statement, and ensuring the full implementation of all elements—Voice, Treaty, Truth—matters to rectify past injustices and to become a stronger inclusive liberal democracy.

Australia as a political entity, in the grand scheme of things, is a young nation-state holding within its territorial boarders the oldest continuous living civilizations—60,000 years and counting of the development of one of the most remarkable sets of interconnected countries on earth. 

This youthful polity has struggled with how to allow for the co-existence of two very different conceptions of nationhood. With the inevitable contradictions and challenges that different forms of governing, thinking and being would bring, the fledgling Australian state did not deal with co-existence at all. At colonisation, at the formation of six British colonies, and then at federation, the legal fiction of Terra Nullius reigned supreme. Complete British dominion was favoured as Australia was conceived, at the total expense and attempted eradication of our Indigenous belonging, our distinct socio-economic, political, and spiritual systems and structures.

When the British first set foot on the lands of the Eora Nation a process of settlement should have taken shape, and agreement-making should have commenced, leading to the formation of treaties between the colonisers and Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.

Instead, encounter was brutal—there were fleeting moments of union—but overwhelmingly, violence erupted from a largely impoverished and often forcefully displaced or even transported population of British settlers who, I imagine, advanced hungry to have something long denied to them, land, wealth and power.

To maintain this prison colony transitioning toward a nation-state of free citizens, originally built on the principles of retribution and reform, the British transplanted their entire political and judicial Westminster system of governance, law and order.

The result was atrocities and massacres against our peoples which were tacitly, and at times overtly, condoned and then buried while institutional discrimination—racism and racialized sexism—was entrenched through legislation and policy. Our peoples were marginalised and disenfranchised by the structures of the new state, setting in motion cycles of disadvantage and intergenerational inequalities and trauma that persist well into the present.

Over the decades, and now centuries, the need for substantive recognition and equality, and the pursuit of self-determination, has taken on a new and—despite the horrors of the past—a generous desire and outreach from Indigenous peoples for truth-telling.

Truth, to remind us of our Indigenous and non-indigenous entwined histories in the shallow waters of our contemporary nation-state. Truth, to not let us forget so we can halt the perpetuation of injustices today, and to right the wrongs of the past by not proceeding as we have gone before. Truth, through serious dialogue and comprehensive reparations that acknowledge our spiritual and physical wounding and deep grief and loss, while investing in the ongoing restoration and maintenance of our societies, cultures and knowledge systems.           

In preparation for this oration, I have been thinking about this history and the genesis of our current Australian identities, our collective selves as the present citizens of this nation-state. In the late 19th century when my Bunuba homelands were invaded and our ancestors defended them, Australia was well on its way to being federated.

Political thinkers, leaders and reformists at the time—all white men—where debating the structures and contents of the constitution and forming the foundations of modern Australia. In doing so, unknown to my ancestors, they were creating our future selves. For me, meaning I would no longer be wholly Bunuba but also, collectively, Aboriginal, First Nations and Australian.

Written documents are always an artifact from the era they were created. Australia’s constitution has strong and robust democratic pillars and articles learnt from Britain and America that have withstood the test of time. But the constitution has maintained Australia’s greatest foundation myth, that our First Nations occupation of these lands pre-colonisation meant nothing and our existence had no bearing or consequence on the formation of the Commonwealth.

In fact, we were intentionally excluded from the Commonwealth and were left to the decision-making powers and brutally discriminatory laws and policies of the newly federated states—the old colonies.

The 1967 referendum righted some of this exclusion—it saw a huge majority of Australians embrace our peoples into the folds of the Commonwealth.

But, the Constitution, the law book of this nation, still does not recognise us and our tens of thousands of years of existence. In the years since 1967, without formal recognition and serious processes to adequately deal with the injustices of the past, of course, inequalities and discriminations have persisted. At the same time, laws and policies are made by others on our behalf, with minimal checks and balances of their efficacy. Constitutionally, almost anything can be done to us or for us, under the guise of advancement or for our own good, without our peoples’ abilities to intervene or stop it. Legislation has come and gone; we’ve had a representative body that was abolished with the stroke of a pen under a government that did not see its purpose.

The time of platitudes and the all-too-empty rhetoric that, ‘nothing will be done about us without us’ is over. Together, as a nation, we can ensure our Constitution substantively recognises the vibrancy of our First Nations living heritages and cultures and guarantees and protects our ongoing democratic engagement and rights in the Australian nation-state.

The Voice, as a first step, is not about weakening our democracy but about strengthening it through enhanced participation. We have a remarkable opportunity, as a citizenry, to amend the Constitution so it is reflective of our shared and connected histories and identities. We can move forward as a united nation, with our law and governance premised on inclusion, not exclusion and division.

We have a chance, with the Uluru Statement, to rectify our history of denial and become a nation that is ready to grow with the times and reflect who we have been and who we are becoming, with honesty and integrity. We co-exist in this nation-state, with our heritages wrapped together and our families increasingly proven to be connected.

When it comes time to vote in a referendum on the Voice, each of us will have a responsibility to rise above self and make our mark and ensure that our Constitution embodies the fact that Australia is our home, together.

Thirdly and lastly, saying ‘yes’ to the Statement is practically powerful, and each step can and will result in significant outcomes on the ground in our peoples’ daily lives, over the long-term. And, I have no doubt, if we get this right, we can break cycles of intergenerational marginalisation and trauma once and for all and finally reinvigorate cycles of intergenerational health and wellbeing.   

Enshrining the Voice in the constitution will not stop treaty and truth, it will pave the way. A permanent Voice will enable guidance and consistency for a national approach to settlement and then onto the makarrata process involving all Australians—rather than one which is patchwork and unequal. This process will support the coming together of our citizenry in dialogues of truth to learn about the places we all belong to. To settle past differences and realising that we are likely to have more in common than anything that keeps us apart. All of which will enable us to move beyond conflict and into a future we have envisioned together, free from denial.

I am under no illusion of how hard the road ahead will be to travel in getting us to this point of togetherness.

We all know the positions of disagreement with the Uluru Statement that are coming to the fore in these early stages of consideration, particularly from some First Nations parliamentarians and activists.

And we should hear their concerns without dismissing them—they can help us respond and construct the way forward. There is worry that the Voice will create another layer of bureaucracy; that our investment of energy into structural change is distracting from the pressing issues of poverty and family violence on the ground; that we should forget about constitutional change and move straight into treaty-making if we are to see real results.

That some hold these positions makes sense when we reflect on the history I have relayed tonight—of structural and institutional exclusion and deep-seated distrust of authority and decision-makers due to years of governmental broken promises, and ill-formed policy that has harmed lives on the ground.

Many of our people do not have trust in the structures that govern our lives, so why incorporate into them?

That is why the Uluru Statement and our approach to implementing it has to be understood as a national story that belongs to us all.

It is all our responsibilities to ensure it is implemented, that structures are effectively reformed and that we form a new foundation of trust where we all believe in the potential to evolve and shift with the times, because we engage in a process of active change-making.

To succeed at referendum and then after, the onus for change can in no way be placed solely on First Nations peoples, so much of it actually has to be up to the 97%—it is up to so many people in this room committing to the Uluru statement and driving the way forward.

I also want to be clear; I believe entirely in the importance of structural reform as inseparable from practical grounded action. The evidence is before us, it has been our exclusion and the absence of our voices, that have led to uninformed systems, policies and legislation causing some of the gravest challenges we face today.

This has not just been to our detriment. It has been to the detriment of the entire nation that has not been able to fully embrace, celebrate and incorporate into the structures and institutions of Australia our rich, diverse, knowledgeable and resilient societies and cultures.     

It is not just time that this happens, I am sure you all agree it is well overdue that we change the legal foundations and structures of Australia in order to effectively incorporate First Nations rights and self-determination into the fabric of the Australian nation.   

The Uluru Statement gives us the processes and scaffolding for change to take effect. And it is so significant that we have the permanent structures in place—as former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has recently stated, a Voice, successful at referendum, will be ‘politically powerful’, it will be a fixture of our nation’s democracy going forward. And, as noted by our new Prime minister, Anthony Albanese “it will be a very brave government [that rejects the advice of the Voice] on key issues impacting First Nations populations”.

As we go forward with campaign for a ‘yes’ at referendum, we will all need to engage in the dialogues about how the Voice will function, what it will be dealing with and providing significant advice on, and how it will look at challenges and our aspirations holistically and not in a piecemeal, sectored way.

I know if we all work hard to grasp the growing momentum for change and ensure Australians in every state and territory know that they Uluru Statement and its success, is the entire nations success, the Voice will happen. And once that happens, we will be catapulted into a new era of agreement-making, once again an era that will belong to us all.

In this current moment and for the future that is fast approaching it is vital that we listen to everyone and to our advocates with concerns – we do not want the Voice nor agreement-making to be another layer of cumbersome bureaucracy. We want the way ahead to resolve the over bureaucratisation of our lives and the carving up of issues into siloes that do not reflect our realities.

Rather than feeling confronted by disagreement and dismissive we have to see it as a healthy part of democratic life and part of a constructive process of dialogue.

We also have to continuously elevate, and build upon, the vital work already done and in place, as we put forward the evidence and substance for policy and legislative reform that are capable of enacting the changes, we all want to see.

We have hugely significant national inquiries and projects to draw on. The one I would like to draw attention to in the conclusion of this Oration is 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 over 2000 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 and aspirations. It goes far beyond siloed issues and delivers a striking and consistent message: that the overwhelming raft of issues experienced on the ground are due to intergenerational structural discrimination and inequalities.

A theme carried through our conversations, that the root causes to our current powerlessness—exclusion, dispossession, disempowerment—are the same root causes to the raft of issues women, children and families deal with on a daily basis, from family violence to poor housing, a lack of jobs, limited access to services and few economic opportunities.

To solve issues on the ground women wanted to be in positions of decision-making, and to inform and design better policy and legislation so systems were formed that meet their needs. Significantly, women wanted their inclusion to be guaranteed everywhere, not dependent on token gestures or the favour and interests of individual politicians – no significant and lasting change could happen this way.

Over and over women said we need self-determination over our lives and the places we live, driven by our cultural and societal principles and knowledges, maintained through being able to access and live on our traditional countries. And how do we achieve this? Women would always finish by saying to me, we need guaranteed mechanisms to ensure our voices are heard across all areas of our life – at the bottom of countless butchers papers and at the end of many presentations, the call rang out – Voice, treaty, truth!

I know through Wiyi Yani U Thangani how central our women’s voice and knowledges are to change. When 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 and the re-organisation of society and the economy around more caring, equitable and sustainable ways of being.

I also know that there are a multitude of diverse voices that are critical to substantive change. Voices and ideas that have been woven through frameworks and representative structures 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.

In the new era of agreement-making none of these voices will have to compete or be priorities they will all be part of the vibrant ecosystem foundational to forming a comprehensive settlement with the Australian nation-state.

And then of course there are so many of your voices—the ideas, thoughts and dreams of the 97%. Through a settlement process and truth-telling we will all be engaged in a learning journey, and an imagining and constructing of the future Australia we all belong to and call home.

Right now, as the world is witnessing a weakening of democracies, and an erosion in public trust of democratic institutions, in places we never thought possible—In Australia we have an opportunity, through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to strengthen our democracy, enhance participation and inclusion in decision-making processes and renew trust.

Together, and only together, can we do this. There has never been a more urgent moment to see ourselves within the making of history.

You, each and everyone of you can make your mark, can campaign, can vote ‘yes’ when the time comes and can take on the responsibility to have the conversations about why the Uluru Statement is a shared journey, which does not threaten our body politic in Australia but will strengthen it.

Together we can change the course for the betterment of us all.

 

 

Commission logo

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

Area:
Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice