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Chief Executive Women’s Annual Dinner 2017

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Jalangurru maningga balanggarri (good evening everyone).
Bilimi ingirranggu, ngindaji thangani ganinyi . I will share with you how I came to be here tonight.

Wendy McCarthy ingga ngayaginma jurali, wilawunbu ngindaji yani.
Gudu gudu limi nhi, nginyjaga bilimi biyirranggu?

Nhi ingga mi, buma biyirranggu nganggi, thangani, nganggi nhingi barrba, nganggi nhingi muwayi.

Wendy McCarthy asked me some time back to talk to this group- CEW. I in turn said to her ‘what should I say to them?’ She said to me, ‘just tell them your story, about your country, about your journey.

Matha wilinyagu, wambala thangani ngarragi nhingi barrba.
I will tell you a short story about my journey.

Wara ngira Eora yani-u muwayi jalangurru ngarri guda. Jalangurru wilalawarra. As I stand her on the lands of the Eora peoples, with good feeling, let us speak good words.Thank you Nicole and thank you to Chief Executive Women for inviting me to speak here tonight.

Thank you Linda for your Welcome to Country and acknowledgement.

I would like to acknowledge The Honourable Gladys Berejiklian, Premier of New South Wales, Honourable Linda Burney, Mrs Lucy Turnbull, Mr Phillip Lowe, Governor of the Reserve Bank, and Mr Martin Parkinson, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and the many other distinguished guests here tonight.

I especially wish to also acknowledge my Indigenous sisters here tonight, representing their corporations, communities and their ancestors.

Friends and colleagues.

It is a privilege and a pleasure to be here on the lands of the, Gadigal people of the Eora nation, in this beautiful city that has been my home for the last few months since taking up my position at the Australian Human Rights Commission, as the first female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

It could hardly be more different to my previous home, my true home, in the little outback town of Fitzroy Crossing, WA, in Bunuba Country.

I do realise that tonight’s audience is far broader than just women who have become chief executives, but tonight I would like to address my thoughts primarily to those of you who are, or are perhaps aspiring to achieve this.

And why do I say that? - I say it because as much as anything, I am about change and I am about empowerment, and you women out there know, as I know, that our female leaders are the greatest agents for change and empowerment in this country.

We have chosen to participate, to embrace life in the mainstream, and we have risen above the pettiness, the constraints and the conventions that would hold us back. We have shown that we can achieve. That in turn, I would argue, puts upon us a responsibility to cast our attention beyond our own company or organisation, and to lend our powers, our energies and our skills to improving the lives of our sisters, our community and our country.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Life is a complex affair. Indeed, that is one of the major themes that has been running through my mind as I’ve tried to shape this address; the complexity and the contrasts within the lives we lead, at home and at work.

My other theme is partnership. If we are to take on the challenges of change, of stepping outside of our comfort zones to deal with the hard issues, it is always better to do so in partnership with others. And it is always important to reach out beyond the familiar: to find, educate and learn from others, and make partners and collaborators of them.

I note that your speaker at last year’s dinner was the impressive Chua Sock Koong, the CEO of international telecommunications company SingTel, which includes Optus amongst its assets. Before becoming a Commissioner, I too was a CEO for twelve years, but my organisation, the Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre was as different from SingTel as Fitzroy Crossing is from Sydney or Singapore.

I was proud as the CEO to grow the organisation substantially during the time I was there. By the time I left we were employing over fifty full time staff, with a turnover in 2015/16 of over five million dollars, and a wide range of programs, including a women’s shelter, a family violence prevention legal service, a children and families early learning centre, a mobile playgroup, a social enterprise studio  and a community garden.

But we operated in a very particular context, and with a very particular philosophy.

Fitzroy Crossing is an open town, but very much an Aboriginal town. It is the centre of the Fitzroy Valley, a region with a population of 3,500 containing forty communities, and five major language groups. It is historically a centre of Aboriginal activism, Indigenous enterprise and inter-community collaboration. But it also suffers from all the scourges that afflict remote Indigenous Australia.

When I started at Marninwarntikura the Valley was experiencing an epidemic of funerals for people dying too young, and an awful spate of youth suicides. We were just starting to become aware of the scale of the Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) amongst our children, and to understand the pernicious, life-destroying effects of FASD on these kids and their families.

In 2007 at our annual bush meeting the women of the Valley made a momentous decision. We set out to have the sale of take away full strength alcohol banned in Fitzroy Crossing. As most of you probably know by now, we were successful. We were the first community led initiative to do so. Let me assure you it was not easy, but as women we stood strong in the face of threatening and abusive criticism towards our actions. We were forming the breathing space to free our children from harm. We sought to achieve a sense of relative social calm so we could begin to rethink the future.

Once the alcohol restrictions were in place we set about addressing the issue of FASD through the Lililwan Project. There is not the time tonight to talk at length about the nature of FASD, or about the details of the Lililwan Project. Let me just say that Lililwan – in Kriol it means ‘all the little ones’ – was a multi-faceted approach that included not just a detailed prevalence study, but extensive consultations and conversations with the community which led to a range of initiatives, including some of the Marninwarntikura programs that I mentioned, as we looked towards building a more positive future for our girls and young women. I would urge you to have a look at the website,, to learn more about this work.

I have said there is a particular philosophy behind all of this. My belief, the belief of the inspiring women who were my board members, co-workers and colleagues, is that community reconstruction– for that is what we are engaged in – must be led by the community and not imposed by government, and that the basis for successful and sustained outcomes is to build on the existing cultural and social capital and the resilience within the community.

And the key to how we have gone about doing it, every step of the way, is partnerships. With the WA Police from the Commissioner down to the local sergeant who were early and enthusiastic supporters. With researchers and experts from the University of Sydney who co-ordinated the Lililwan Project the Telethon Kids Institute with the George Institute for Global Health and the University of Washington state, our community organisations were supported to undertake this world first research project.

As we moved into the phase of implementing positive programs we began to move beyond the realm of public institutions to create partnerships with private sector organisations, such as the one with Goodstart Early Learning, Australia’s largest early learning provider. For two years now Goodstart has been running a secondment program whereby educators from their workforce spend extended periods working at our Baya Gawiy early Learning Centre. It is an absolute win, win arrangement that provides stability and support to this vital organisation, valuable experience and insight to Goodstart and its staff and early education for our children.

Marninwarntikura and the women of the Fitzroy Valley are now a decade into an exciting journey of achievement and empowerment. There is much to be proud of, and much to be optimistic about. Check out the strong young women modelling beautiful clothing out bush on the ‘Design Within Country’ tab of the website.

But it remains a fragile affair. Baya Gawiy limps from funding crisis to funding crisis, as indeed does Marninwarntikura itself. We are yet to find a way to break the curse of Indigenous organisations – dependence on the capriciousness of the bewildering array of government policies and programs.

And at a more fundamental level, whilst I truly believe the trend is upward, our communities remain mired in poverty and dependence with all the darkness that brings. It breaks my heart to again see the coroner in the Kimberley inquiring into youth suicides, a decade after a previous coroner did exactly the same thing. I have experienced loss through suicide of close members of my own family along with many other families.

THOSE OF YOU who don’t know much of my world, of Indigenous Australia could perhaps be forgiven for thinking it is a grim one of never ending horror and despair. Well yes, there are moments like that, but let me flip the coin, and show you something of the other side.

A couple of months ago we lost one of our national treasures, the great Jimmy Chi, the songwriter, musician and playwright from Broome. In his musical masterpiece Bran Nue Dae, there is one song in particular that makes us Indigenous mob smile. The happy, smiling, dancing chorus belts out the line, “There is nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine.” They are still smiling, still dancing, and still happy as they sing the kicker line; “And watch you take my precious land away.” It says so much about our lives in two short lines.

I have always been drawn to the arts, and to culture in both the traditional Aboriginal sense, and the broader sense. One of my first jobs was with Bunuba Productions Aboriginal Corporation, which has since morphed into Bunuba Cultural Enterprises. I was on the inaugural board of Broome based Magabala Books, Australia’s first Indigenous publishing house, and I have been a board member and a chairperson of the Kimberley Language Resource Centre, an organisation dedicated to preserving and promoting the amazing diversity of Indigenous languages spoken in the Kimberley.

At about the same time that Jimmy Chi imagined Bran Nue Dae, one of my uncles, old Adam Andrews, dreamed a junba. A junba is a song, and an accompanying dance, that tells a story. It always comes to the creator as a dream, a gift from the gods. The Yilimbirri Junba is a story of two Ungguds, the creator snakes of my country that live on, still in the land. As a younger woman I sang and danced the Yilimbirri Junba many a time around campfires in my home country.

I am looking forward to singing the Yilimbirri Junba with my sisters and countrymen at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Let me explain.

The Yilimbirri Junba also touches on the story of Jandamarra, the great Bunuba warrior hero of the 1890s. Now is not the time or place to tell this story. Suffice to say that he was both a warrior hero, and a Jalgangurru, a man of great spiritual powers. He not only held the settlers and a quarter of the colony’s police force at bay for three years; in our account he healed the land, he sung home the Yilimbirri Unggud, who had fled after his sacred resting place was desecrated by the newcomers.

When I took the job with Bunuba Productions, our aim was to make a feature film of his story. We have not been able to achieve this. However, as we morphed into BCE, a company owned by the Bunuba people, we entered into a partnership with the Black Swan State Theatre Company to mount the Jandamarra stage play at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2008. We then mounted in our own right a fully professional tour of the production that we presented to critical acclaim at four Kimberley venues in 2011, including the iconic Bandilngan – Windjana Gorge – in the heart of Bunuba Country. The singing of parts of the Yilimbirri Junba became a central part of these productions.

I was actively involved in this enterprise, as a translator, creating the Bunuba dialogue, and as a language coach for the Indigenous cast members. It was a thrilling and an uplifting experience to be a part of this creation, and to see members of my community emerging as amazingly talented actors and artists.

Then we were approached by Paul Stanhope, a composer who had been commissioned to create a new work for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Gondwana Choirs. The play was reimagined as Jandamarra, Ngalanyba Muwayi.u – Sing for the Country, a dramatic cantata with the Yilimbirri Junba again a thread around which Paul created his beautiful music. My older sister, Patsy Ngalu Bedford, who had become an actor in her 60s, in the role of Jini, Jandamarra’s mother, appeared on the Sydney Opera House stage with an ensemble of singers, dancers and actors from Fitzroy Crossing, the SSO and hundreds of young singers including the Gondwana Indigenous Choir from Cairns.

I couldn’t be there, but I’ve seen the video, and heard the stories. It was a beautiful thing.  Bunuba stories and language are now touring the world as part of the repertoire of the various Gondwana Choirs.

The clip you watched before I started is from this performance. The first song, The Dirrari Lament, is based on the melody of a song of mourning composed by one of my grannies, Molly Jalakbiya. The closing song, Ngindaji Yarrangi Muwayi, meaning This Is Our Home, uses lyrics that Ngalu and I created as a teaching aid for actors learning to perform in Bunuba. The whole project is a beautiful melding of Bunuba content and stories, with classical music forms.

The Conservatorium where Paul works is planning to undertake a recording of the cantata, and this time I plan on being a part of it.

A COUPLE OF points that flow from this story.

Firstly, partnerships. We could not have done these things on our own. Just as Marninwarntikura needed the Police Commissioner, and the Institutes, just as it needs to keep finding and building new partnerships such as the one we have with Goodstart, BCE needed friends and partners. Creative individuals like Paul Stanhope. Organisations like Black Swan, Gondwana and the SSO. We must always be reaching out, and we must always be open to listen and respond. And that applies to all of us.

Secondly, culture. For my mob, the Bunuba mob, the Kimberley mob, it is central, it is core, it is indispensable.

Myself, Ngalu, all of the ensemble of singers, dancers and actors that wowed the audience at the Opera House. Every one of us has been personally and deeply touched by the darkness of the downsides of Indigenous life. The FASD kids. The suicides. The lives ruined by grog and ganja. The horrific levels of violence in our communities. These things are part of the ongoing fabric of our lives.

But nor do they define or describe our lives. Our muwayi, our country, is more beautiful than you can imagine. It carries a law that is an intrinsic part of our lives. Our history is a source of enormous pride. Our elders we remember with love and respect.

To quote Jimmy Chi again, there is nothing we would rather be, than to be Aborigines, and in our particular case, Bunuba Aborigines.

Yes we want education and opportunities. We want the chance and the choice to embrace the wider world, as I have done with my move to Pyrmont. But I won’t grow old in Pyrmont, I promise you. I will return home to Bunuba Country.

To quote the song in Ngalanybarra Muwayi.u, “Bandilngan, cathedral like, your beauty unsurpassed. Cliffs so tall, shade so deep. River cool, a haven blessed.”

I have made it a habit of recent years to spend my birthday whenever I can with close friends at Bandilngan, in the months before it is opened to the tourists as Windjana Gorge. It is my special place. Unlike the towers of Barangaroo that I can see from my apartment, it gives solace to my soul.

We must have the right, the choice, the capacity to live on our country, with pride and with dignity. And the corollary to this, as I said in relation to the philosophy behind our work at Marninwarntikura, is that in rebuilding our communities, only measures which have been developed in partnership with the community will be successful. Indiscriminate or imposed measures will not provide ongoing solutions.

Do you want to know why?

It is because their authors only see the deficit, and they say ‘we will step in and fix it.’

We’ve had 200 plus years of that attitude, and of what seems to be an endless cycle of ‘oops, sorry, we got it wrong last time, but don’t worry, we know what we’re doing this time.’

They don’t hear Jimmy Chi’s song.

They don’t hear Uncle Adam’s junba, or see my sister Ngalu singing at the Opera House.

They don’t seriously acknowledge the complexities and contrasts of our lives, and the need to be empowered, not rescued.

We must embrace each other, not tell each other what to do.

We must build partnerships, not give directives.

And if we are to be serious, we must be in it for the long haul.

What makes a real difference is sustained engagement. That is one of the things I am particularly proud of from my time at Marninwarntikura, that we built partnerships with a range of institutions and corporations, from the WA Police Force to  Goodstart, that are not just mutually beneficial, mutually educational exchanges. They are deep, and they are, or have the potential to be enduring. They may not change the world in and of themselves. But they will change for the better individual lives, community organisations, companies and institutions.

So, to you chief executive women out there I would say, do not suspend your judgement, or the capacity for critical assessment that has got you to where you are, just because it is a black woman talking to you. My world has its share of humbug and rascals too. But be open. Seek out and listen to black women and black organisations for opportunities and partnerships that will make a difference, and have a real chance of enduring.

It will be good for you and your staff and your organisation if you do it right, as well as for your Indigenous partners.

I WAS SITTING in a paddock out the back of Rockhampton the other day, enjoying the greenness, the feeling of being back in the bush, and thinking about how to try to tie these ideas and themes and experiences together. It is not straightforward in this life of contradictions and contrasts.

One thing I have come to know. Life is complicated. Yes / no. Black / white. Either /or. Very rarely are these the right answers. We have to be more intelligent than that.

I am extremely conscious that I am now a Commissioner, not an advocate, and that puts some boundaries around what I can say, and how I can say it. But I would like to say this.

In my time as a CEO and community advocate, I don’t think anyone can accuse me of shying away from the hard issues. With the inspiring women of the Fitzroy Valley I was involved in an absolutely unique community led model to tackle alcohol abuse, and a world leading initiative to research and deal with the pernicious phenomenon of FASD.

I am all about empowering communities to find new, and, importantly, effective ways of confronting the issues that bedevil our lives.

Arguments about January 26th as our national day, or the technicalities of constitutional law are important issues, absolutely worthy of debate. I am the last person to deny the past, to neglect my history. We desperately need to also look forwards, to create a new debate, a new dynamic.

I was fortunate to attend and participate in the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru this May. Now is not the time for a detailed discussion or analysis of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but let me just say to you, read it, think about it. Absorb the rhetoric, which touches on many of the themes I have addressed tonight, but above all, try to grasp the sentiment at its core. Symbolism is important. Acknowledgement and remembrance are important. But they are not enough. If that is all that is on offer, the response from Indigenous Australia will be lukewarm.

Let me ask of you; embrace the true meaning of the Uluru Statement. Fine words are not enough. It is time to give us a real voice at the table. When we become stakeholders not recipients in the political realm, participants not mendicants, the game can change.

And I think we can all agree that the game does need to change.

Let us proceed as partners.


Thank you all.

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

See Also

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Inaugural National Indigenous Women’s Leadership Symposium

[Introduction in Bunuba] Jalangurru lanygu wiyi yani. I want to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, and to their elders both past and present. I also want to thank and congratulate the organisers of this event – everyone at...

Speech Icon
Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Inaugural National Indigenous Women’s Leadership Symposium

[Introduction in Bunuba] Jalangurru lanygu wiyi yani. I want to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, and to their elders both past and present. I also want to thank and congratulate the organisers of this event – everyone at...

Speech Icon