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Towards a reconciled Australia: National Press Club speech (2010)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Towards a reconciled Australia

Mick Gooda
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

National Press Club,

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

With respect and gratitude I acknowledge that we sit on the lands of the Ngunnawal peoples and I thank the Traditional Owners for allowing us to do so.

My people are the Ghangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland.

On behalf of my Elders I also salute your Elders, both past and present, for their continued struggle for their country and their culture here in the national capital.

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

I welcome you all here to the National Press Club today and I thank you for coming.

This afternoon I want to declare my priorities for my five year term as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

I’ve thought long and hard and consulted widely about how I can best use my term as Commissioner so I can assure you that the priorities I’ll outline today are more than just a glib list.

The priorities I’ll outline for you today are underpinned by two unshakeable and personal commitments: the first one is my commitment to addressing the disadvantages still faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today and the second is my commitment to doing all in my power to achieve a truly reconciled Australia.

I am driven by the possibilities of change and at its core of the change needed is people and their relationships. Any change rests with the capability of people to realise their potential and building this capability means building our human capital.

It’s now just over nine months since I took up this position.

In mid December last year, when I was first told by the Attorney General, the Hon Robert McClelland, that I had been endorsed by Cabinet, I confess to mixed emotions. I was proud and at the same time humbled, scared but resolute, daunted and, at the same time, excited.

My first thoughts were of Mum and Dad, Frank and Shirley Gooda, and how proud they would be that one of the Gooda kids had been chosen for such responsibility a world away from Baralaba and Woorabinda in rural Central Queensland where they were born.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I’ll be trying to fill big shoes. I acknowledge with affection and respect my predecessors, Dr Tom Calma, Dr Bill Jonas and Professor Mick Dodson. I also acknowledge Ms Zita Antonios who stood in this position for a period in 98 / 99.

I am also grateful to Katie Kiss, the Director of the Social Justice Unit and my colleague, Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex and Age Discrimination Commissioner, both of whom encouraged, supported and advised me to listen and learn as I go.

Many people are uncertain of what the role of the Commissioner is.

Briefly, I’m required to provide to the Australian Parliament a Social Justice Report and I also provide a report on Native Title. I’m also required to:

  • review the impact of laws and policies with regard to Indigenous peoples
  • promote an Indigenous perspective on issues and
  • monitor the enjoyment and exercise of human rights of Indigenous Australians

In a real sense, I’m handed these general directions and it’s up to me to sort out my priorities in terms of how I do what the legislation requires of me.

As Social Justice Commissioner I have six staff. I quickly realised that I can’t pick even one of the myriad of challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - housing, health, education etc - and expect to fix it by 2015.

I believe that fixing these issues will require the intergenerational commitment of the whole nation.

But there is a way to reframe this approach: by shifting our focus to those issues that are foundational to an agenda of hope.

An agenda which at its core, aims to unleash the potential of Indigenous Australians.

An agenda that maximises the capabilities of each and every Indigenous Australian.

An agenda that tackles the root causes of Indigenous health and social inequality.

This requires a nation-building exercise. One which builds the healthy relationships necessary for this agenda of hope.

So, at the centre of my priorities is the belief that we need to firstly develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australia.

Secondly, we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all levels of government.

And, perhaps even more importantly, we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Relationships are built on understanding, dialogue, tolerance, acceptance, respect, trust and reciprocated affection.

Relationships are destroyed by misunderstanding, intolerance, a lack of acceptance, a lack of dialogue, mistrust and a lack of respect.

So let’s start with relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australia.

A non-Indigenous mate of mine hadn’t ever had very much to do with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. In 2008 he found himself working for the Anangu board of an organisation based in Alice Springs for 8 months. Both he and the Anangu approached 8 or 9 months of what was going to be a working relationship with open minds and open hearts but there was, understandably, some stand-offishness on both sides.

The Anangu mob offered their traditionally soft handshakes with averted eyes. My mate offered his firm handshake, puzzled at the averted eyes. Gradually though, after some weeks of working together and learning a bit about each other’s cultures and ways of going about things, eyes met, smiles crept onto faces, names were remembered, jokes were shared - tentatively at first - then they got more robust! Tucker was shared, families were introduced, and invitations were extended.

It’s now almost three years since they worked together but the friendships remain. The Anangu mob would ring him when they came to Adelaide. Eyes light up when they meet – there’s laughter and smiles and shared stories and tucker and beer.

My mate travelled up to one of the remote communities to attend the funeral of one the Board members’ wives. He was invited to speak. He was welcomed into the mob in a way he could never have imagined. He reckons his time with the Anangu mob was one of the joys of his life and the friendships survive to this day.

I read somewhere the following observation which has stayed with me for a lot longer than the name of the person who made it. It’s this.

Sometimes our closest friend is the one who has travelled the greatest distance to be our friend.

So it was with my mate from Adelaide.

So it will be with regard to the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the Australian people.

When the National Apology was made in February 2008 I believed Australia was ready for a new, stronger, deeper relationship. On that day there was a palpable sense of us coming together as a nation for the first time. Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians sat together, held each other and cried together. The nation took a great leap forward together - but somehow we lost momentum soon after.

Despite much goodwill on both sides of the paddock, there are several tough issues we all have to confront as a nation if we are going to reset this relationship.

Recent surveys conducted among 12,000 people found that about 80% of Australians consider that racial prejudice is still a problem.[1] Three thousand respondents expressed some sort of prejudice themselves against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in particular.[2] Other national research reveals that about 20% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults report regular experiences of racism.[3]

Racism – defined as the hatred or intolerance of another race or other races - results in much more than humiliation, embarrassment and hurt feelings.

Racism has serious health, social and economic consequences for individuals, communities and societies. It’s been associated with depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, smoking, alcohol and substance abuse as well as poor employment and educational outcomes.[4]

Racism has the potential to do plenty of damage regardless of who perpetrates it.

So it’s for these reasons, among others, that I’ve decided to focus on re-establishing trust and building positive relationships.

We can’t go about re-setting these relationships without a clear focus on the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country.

Human rights are not just abstract concepts that exist in documents such as treaties, conventions and declarations alone.

And we are advised to remember this: human rights only become meaningful when they are able to be exercised.

Bishop Desmond Tutu once said ‘I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights’.[5]

We have available to us in Australia one of the most important documents that sets out our human rights as Indigenous peoples – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[6]

I will use the Declaration to guide my work during my term. And I am committed to working with Government to ensure that the full implementation of both the spirit and intent of the Declaration is achieved in Australia.

In my view, it should form the platform upon which a truly reconciled Australia is built.

When it comes to human rights in Australia - and the denial of them which, as Professor Mick Dodson points out, is where the real harm is done - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most vulnerable group in this country.

A few examples:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not counted as citizens of Australia until 1967.

We do not enjoy the same standards of education. In 2008, only 63% of year 5 Indigenous students achieved the national minimum standard for reading compared with 93% of non-Indigenous students - a gap of 30 %.

As a result of the Northern Territory Intervention, the very instrument which is supposed to protect the most vulnerable in our society, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) was suspended in 73 communities.

This is more than painfully ironic. In this country’s history the Racial Discrimination Act has been compromised on only three occasions. Each time it has involved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

While it’s easy to litanise the disadvantages, the injustices, the denial of rights and the oppressions, we must not forget the progress. In 1967, 90 percent of Australians voted to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as Australians. It was a time when the goodwill and innate decency of the Australian people triumphed.

We’ve had a 20 year reconciliation process; the Royal Commission in to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody; and the findings of Bringing them Home just to name a few.

In 1992, the High Court Decision on Native Title, the Mabo Decision, finally put to rest the myth of ‘terra nullius’.

But I believe that now is the time for that recognition to go further.

I firmly believe the time is right, here and now for the Australian people to formalise at least the recognition of the special and unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our nation, in our Constitution.

During the federal election campaign, Labor, the Coalition and the Greens, committed to a referendum to facilitate such recognition.

There’s also been a great level of support from the Independents since the election so, in all likelihood, there’ll be a referendum within the next three years.

The prospect of this referendum recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution will provide us all with a great opportunity to reframe and reset our relationship as a nation.

It’s been said to me that such an initiative – a referendum to change the Constitution - will suck up a lot of oxygen and resources and perhaps even goodwill. These resources and goodwill could be put to be better use closing the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australia.

Maybe that’s true.

Certainly, we can’t underestimate the immensity of such a challenge. Because of the double majority needed - an overall majority yes vote, and a yes vote from majority of people in a majority of the States - only eight out of 44 referenda have been passed in Australia’s history.

We also know that bipartisan support at the political level will be absolutely essential and we know just how easy it is to get politicians to agree, especially if either side reckons there’s a possible wedge in there somewhere.

But to those who doubt the importance of what amounts to a form of words, I say this.

This process will give this generation of Australians the opportunity to say ‘yes’ - an opportunity to demonstrate goodwill and innate decency, just like 90% of Australians did in 1967.

In real terms this means we need between 12-13 million voters on our side.

Yes, there will be debates, speeches, opinion pieces in the press, people prowling the parliamentary corridors, Constitutional lawyers at 10 paces, yea and nay sayers, documentaries, panel discussions, arguments at dinner parties, barbecues and in front bars – all of these things.

And it’s precisely all of these things that will build awareness, focus minds and hearts and help move us all forward as a nation.

By finally and formally settling and affirming the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation, all of us grow in stature.

During the next three years, I commit myself to working closely with our political leaders and, more importantly, the people of Australia to achieve a successful referendum in 2013.

This will be a long hard journey. But it’s the journey that will mark our maturity as a nation, not just the destination - as important as it might be.

This referendum about a change to our Constitution is not just about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It’s not about looking back.

It’s about looking forward and moving forward as one, united nation.

One mob under the Southern Cross.

I now turn my attention to the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments at all levels.
I’ve travelled pretty widely. I’ve listened and I’ve learned.

I know from my conversations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around the country that there’s hurt in our communities and the relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and governments are not good.

There are lots of reasons for this. A lot of them stem from the treatment of Aboriginal people in those 73 communities that bare the brunt of the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

There is always a sense of solidarity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - and that sense of solidarity “arcs up” when some of us are subjected to injustice and denied the rights that all other Australians enjoy.

The Intervention and the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act affected us all deeply regardless of where we actually live.

It triggered in our collective memories all the past injustices that we experienced in our communities and in our families.
Not for one minute will I argue that the situation in the Northern Territory didn’t demand action. I’m on the record as saying action needed to be taken and the great majority of Aboriginal people I know agreed with me.

However, that action should have been taken on case by case basis. Painting everyone in a community with the same brush is neither helpful, nor fair - particularly to those many people doing the right thing.

Each of the Intervention communities had big blue signs erected outside them which, amongst other things, loudly proclaimed restrictions on alcohol and pornography - as if everyone living behind those signs are alcoholic, perverts and perpetrators!.

I invite the residents of Yarralumla, Redhill, Woollara, Mosman and Toorak, to name just a few well-known, middle-class suburbs, to contemplate how they would feel with similar signs erected at the entrance to their communities.

These signs continue to diminish the people living behind them and they diminish us as a nation.

It gives me absolutely no pleasure to say that I fear the relationships between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been badly damaged by the Intervention particularly.
So let’s not mince words here: it’s going to take a lot of work to overcome the hurt and to fix the relationships that have broken down as a result.

Now that’s been said, I happily acknowledge that the Australian Government has recently made significant commitments to addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage – particularly through its Closing the Gap Agenda that arose out of the Close the Gap Campaign begun by my predecessor, Tom Calma in 2005.

In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) - set specific and ambitious targets for Closing the Gap. I endorse these targets and now call for the development of a national plan to implement them.

Nevertheless, these targets, however worthy, will not be achieved if we don’t have a foundation of respectful and trusting relationships upon which to build.

Trust enables governments and Indigenous Australians to work together to tackle the challenges of implementing change whether this be through new programs, tackling the lifestyle changes needed for health, addressing poverty or addressing the problems within governments systems.

If there were one thing that I heard over and over in the early days in this job – and I continue to hear - is that our relationship with all governments must improve.

The Little Children are Sacred Report, the Report of the Review of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, the report of the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues, James Anaya and the Coordinator General for Remote Indigenous Services, Brian Gleeson all speak of the necessity to build relationships between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples which are based on trust and mutual respect.

I draw your attention to part of the first recommendation of The Little Children are Sacred Report which says:

It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.[7]

Sadly, the people who used that Report to justify and design the Intervention must have overlooked this part of the Report.

As well as governments, government agencies need to have a good, hard look at themselves. These agencies must try to develop a sensible, cooperative, and culturally appropriate interface with communities. There is no place and no time for the sort of bureaucratic territorialism that, sadly, still marks much inter-departmental and community engagement.

Governments have a responsibility to ensure that society's structures, laws and processes facilitate a full and open engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens. Consciously or unconsciously, structures and processes that allow our people to be treated less equally than other Australians are simply unacceptable.

I encourage you all to look at the work that has been done in the Fitzroy Valley. It’s living proof that hard work and time can achieve effective community development.

The Fitzroy Valley approach requires coordination, goodwill and mutual respect at both the community and at the all levels of government. And progress like this doesn’t happen overnight. For the Fitzroy Valley, it’s been a 10 year journey.

Our new national organisation, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, will also be a crucial part of building and strengthening relationships between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I look forward to working closely with it as it develops over the next few years.

I am advised that former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was eager for every Government agency with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander responsibility, however slight, to develop an engagement strategy with the Congress. That sort of top-down commitment, from the very pinnacle of the administrative food-chain is a great start and one we should applaud.

As Social Justice Commissioner, it will be my job to facilitate real communication between governments and Indigenous communities. And by this I don’t mean glib exchanges in which each side says what it thinks the other side wants to hear.

Truth is a critical element in all good relationships. I’ll work hard to build a framework for engagement that’s predicated on truthful, respectful exchanges where we, as Indigenous people, participate as equals.

I’ll also work with Governments to develop legislation, policies and practices that will improve rather than burden the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

And through my Social Justice and Native Title Reports, I will monitor the effectiveness of these mechanisms frankly and fearlessly.
The third set of relationships on my priority list are the relationships we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have with each other: at the community, family, organisation and individual level.

Just as it is vital to prevent the harms caused us by the racism of others, it is also imperative that we create the enabling and nurturing relationships within our communities that are so pivotal to the agenda of hope that I wish to champion.

In the preceding remarks I’ve been pretty brutal about the dysfunctional relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, governments and the rest of the Australian people. And I’ve been pretty upfront about where I think the faults lie.

Well, it’s now time for me to be brutal and upfront about the relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Sometimes these relationships are not good and unfortunately, at times, we can be our own worst enemies.

I’ve been working in Indigenous affairs for nearly 30 years. I am not, nor should anyone else be, surprised when there are disagreements. They are a natural part of relationships.

However, at times these disagreements can get very personal and very hurtful. And the hurt can end up affecting the whole community.

One of my non-Indigenous mates said me to that, with the best will in the world, working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs can be very bruising.

Some people will argue that they are so committed to fixing things that the conflicts that wound us are easily justified as collateral damage.

They’ll say it’s but a small price to pay for changing the status quo.

Anyone who has anything to do with native title work in communities will relate to this.

Anyone who has attended a contentious AGM of an Indigenous organisation will relate to this.

Recent research conducted by the Office of the Registrar for Aboriginal Corporations found that internal disputes are the third most prevalent cause of Indigenous corporate failure.[8]

In 2006, I came across a concept the Canadian First Nation peoples call Lateral Violence.

It’s the name given to this behaviour of bullying, harassing and intimidating among ourselves.

It’s a well argued phenomenon around the world that oppressed people will eventually internalise this oppression and turn on each other.

The notion of ‘lateral violence’ says said that this behaviour is often the result of disadvantage, discrimination and oppression and that it arises from working within a society that is not designed for our way of doing things.

But whether the lateral violence theory is sustainable or not, this is abuse and there’s no excuse for it. We must have a zero tolerance policy for any type of abuse.

Initially, I was concerned that a frank airing of this issue might well cause me some grief.

I was prepared that some would accuse me of airing our dirty laundry in public – saying that this is just the way things are done in the Indigenous world and that I’m just making another rod for our backs with which non-Indigenous people can beat us up.

However, I’ve been encouraged by the responses I have received when I have raised this issue with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

People recognise this is a real issue. And one we need to address.

Even in our communities there seems to be a considerable appetite to confront it and deal with it. I am immensely heartened by this.

For example, the work being done in places like Cairns and Yarrabah with the Family Wellbeing Empowerment Program - which is designed specifically to overcome community conflict through building support within families and communities - shows us that when given the right opportunities, people are prepared to challenge and defeat these behaviours.

Governments cannot and should not intervene to fix our internal relationships.

Frankly, governments have more than enough of their own relationship problems to contend with.

But governments can work with us and our communities as enablers and facilitators. They can also work to remove existing structural and systemic impediments to healthy relationships within our communities.

So sum up.

My priorities, until February 2015, will focus on strengthening relationships at three key levels.

To reset these relationships, I will:

  1. work with the Australian community to address racism in our country
  2. work towards a successful referendum that recognises the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our nation
  3. work to build proper and mutually respectful engagements between governments and Indigenous peoples
  4. work towards a zero tolerance policy with regard to any type of abuse within our communities – bullying, harassment, intimidation and violence.

But our work on building enabling relationships is driven by the fundamental purpose.

Our agenda of hope can only be sustained when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are able to achieve our potential - able to realise our personal and collective capabilities. Striving to reach this vision through our work, education or our commitments to our families and communities.

This work will be underpinned by a strong reliance on the values and standards derived from human rights frameworks, taking specific guidance from the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
These are my priorities.

But what does this mean for us as a nation?

My friend, Glenn Pearson, from Perth who, when asked what type of future he’d like to see for us, put it like this. It’s a vision that I share and I want to share it with you:

Glenn said:

“I want for me and my children – as I do for you and your children – to grow really, really old together – having led fantastic lives that have allowed us to make a lifetime contribution to the health and wellbeing of the broader community and our families.”

“I want to know that when we were tested by life’s challenges, that we pulled together to face them as a people; that we drew upon the best of what we had, to find positive solutions to the things that have tested us along the way.”

“I want to know that, purposively, we took on and changed those things that we felt do not reflect what we want in a fair, honest, respectful and harmonious society.”

“I want that we learn to hold and to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history as an essential part of the Australian story because we see ourselves as part of it – connected to it, proud of it and centred by it.”

I want a truly reconciled community: a truly reconciled Australia.

And I want that we all want it.

Today, here, at the National Press Club, I undertake to do all in my power to achieve it. I invite you to help me.

Thank you.

[1] Challenging racism: The anti-racism research project. Sydney: University of Western Sydney, 2009.
[2] Reconciliation Australia. Australian Reconciliation Barometer: Comparing the attitudes of indigenous people and Australians overall. 2009.
[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey Australia 2004-05. 2006.
[4] Larson A, Gilles M, Howard PJ, et al. 'it's enough to make you sick: The impact of racism on the health of aboriginal australians'. Aust NZ J Public Health 2007;31:322-9.
[5] D Tutu, If there is only one message of wisdom you could leave behind for humanity what would it be? , at: (viewed 1 November 2010).
[6]United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Resolution 61/295, UN Doc: A/61/L.67 (2007).
[7] Northern Territory Government, Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle: The Little Children are Sacred Report: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the
Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, 2007 p 82. At: (viewed 1 November 2010).
[8] Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, Analysing key characteristics in Indigenous corporate failure: Research Paper (2010), p 46. At (viewed, 1 November 2010).


Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner