[Introduction in Bunuba]

Jalangurru lanygu wiyi yani gurama 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.

What an occasion to speak on. This is our week, our year to celebrate all of who we are. It is a celebration of our existence. Happy NAIDOC week everyone! Because of her, we can! Because of all of you, we can and we do. I want to thank from the outset the three fabulous women who have put this conference together – Christine Ross, Sharon Kinchela and Chris Figg.

In celebrating the here and now it is important for us to reflect on ‘her’ – she who has given us the strength and tenacity to be all of who we are today.

I want to begin with a line of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, a woman who moulded our wisdom, rights and struggles in to poetry, she wrote, and I quote ‘let no one say the past is dead. The past is all about us and within.’ End quote.

‘her’ – ‘she’, is all our women who have been before us, they are the past that remains within us, their lives and spirits are why we are here. ‘She’ – our founding mothers, the first women who have walked this land for millennia, and have birthed and nurtured centuries of our people into existence.

‘She’, who has carried our stories and knowledge, so we hold in our hands today our societal values of intergenerational learning, care and responsibility for our land, our families and communities. Embedded within these values are intrinsic lessons of our complex kinship structures and cultural practices. These teach us of collective leadership, collaborative and inclusive decision-making, negotiation and cooperation, the reciprocal sharing of resources, life-long education and the foundational understanding that an individual’s health and wellbeing is intimately attached to the health of our country, our surrounding environments, and our families and communities.

‘She’, has always known that our children, whether they are hers or someone else’s are our future, the carriers of these lessons which enable our society to thrive from one generation to the next.

It is because of her that when we had to defend our society against all the odds, giants of our time, such as Truganini, Tarenorerer and Barangaroo fought for our existence on the colonial frontier. It is because of her that Faith Bandler, Evelyn Scott, and Mum Shirl asserted our civil, and political rights in the face of grave injustices.        

It is because of her that today our women succeed across all sectors and arenas of public life, while still defending our unique rights and interests so our political and institutional structures will reflect and realise all of who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Women like Linda Burney, Marcia Langton, Cathy Freeman, Pat O’shane, Jackie Huggins, Magnolia Maymuru, Anita Heiss, Larissa Behrendt, Pat Anderson, Lowitja O’Donoghue and many more.

And most recently the death of the last remaining sister who walked home along the Rabbit Poof  fence from the Moore River institution brought to global attention our women’s unyielding resilience and determination. We will never let go of our intimate connection to family, country, and kin even when the nation attempts to erase our existence.  

As the first woman to be the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I stand here with the spirits of these fiercely intelligent, strong and caring women.  Like all of you, we are, I am because of her. And in this position, I speak with their voices and yours to defend and assert our human rights, so we can all realise our potential for the greater good of this nation.

This year the theme of NAIDOC delivers a vital message to us all. It says: we have always been here, and this year we are claiming our rightful place in this nation, today and for all generations to come.

The speakers at this conference all of whom are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is testament to the fact that our strengths and inherent values have reached forward into the present, as always intended by our forebears. The great breadth of topics covered here from entrepreneurship and technology to art and fashion, politics, social justice and health have been informed with discussions about our traditional knowledge and ways of being.

The topics are evidence of the array of positions we hold across Australian society and the vital perspectives we bring to them as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. There is so much potential for our past to influence contemporary Australia in dynamic and innovative ways.

In all the roles we occupy from the mother, and grandmother to the carers of our families and communities to the CEO, artist, activist, scientist and doctor, we have many gifts, talents and so much to contribute. Each one of us has a right to our distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. As Indigenous women we should feel confident to be all of who we are in Australia today, while remaining secure in our identities. We should not be coerced, and never feel the need to assimilate to be successful. It seems obvious that our nation would embrace us with pride and celebration, encouraging us to be within every institution and at every decision-making table, knowing that we bring exceptional intercultural knowledge and skills to work spaces, communities and to broader Australian society. 

But, today too many of our women’s voices are still not heard or recognised. The truth being that our nation has not embraced all of who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. For too long our policy-makers, legislators and institutional bodies have been deaf to our voices. Those who have written our history have either ignored us, failed to consider us, or refused to include our names, stories and actions in the deep history of this continent, and the making of the Australian nation. There is no excuse for our absence when we know our women are always present. We have never been, and we are not invisible or silent.

So, it is with great purpose and hope that I think about the work that my team and I are doing this year at the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, meaning Women’s Voices in my language Bunuba, is travelling to communities in remote and urban Australia to hear directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.

It is the first time in 32 years that our voices have been heard as a collective. In 2018, in the year of ‘because of her, we can’, the Government is prepared to listen again to our strengths, issues, solutions and the future we want.

When I sit with groups of women and girls the first question I ask them is: What makes you strong as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman? What are your internal resources, unique skills and capabilities that keep you going?

After listening to well over 1,000 women and girls so far on our travels from Tasmania to Queensland, WA, APY lands and Victoria, this is what I know for certain: Women are by far our most undervalued and essential resource. Women are the pillars of our society, often occupying multiple worlds and roles at any one time. Most of the work they do, which is foundational to making our societal infrastructure function, is never attributed a monetary value. I have heard the statistics that in the economically developed world, women on average do two hours more work than men a day.  I wonder how much more work we do on average than all Australian society?

As women tell me of their strengths, they also tell me that they are exhausted. In a society that does not recognise our tireless work, it is unsurprising that the system continues to fail and undermine us. The denial of our voices is a denial of our rights. While we are not heard, structural racism pervades our institutions and public spaces. This racism intersects with multiple forms of discrimination, further entrenching intergenerational trauma. This has a disproportional impact on our women. When our work should be celebrated and applauded, we are too often exposed to punitive legal and welfare systems that diminish who we are, and consequently curtail all our people’s rights and freedoms.

The statistics of rising incarceration rates are evidence of punitive policies at work, entrenching cycles of poverty and abuse. There is a direct connection between our women being imprisoned – many of whom are mothers – our children being removed, increasing psychological stress, and a lack of stable and secure housing.

A system that should be enabling us to be all of who we are is either blocking us from achieving, or perpetrating injustices against us at every turn.

This narrow frame of deficit and victimhood does not tell our story, it tells a story of a nation that has failed to include our voices in the decisions that affect our lives. Make no mistake, we are not to blame for this. When women’s positions are undermined continuously, the entire social fabric of life begins to unravel. A system which does not value the incredible worth and consequence of women’s actions is a broken system. And it is that system that breaks families and communities.

That is why, this year, our year, I am determined to make what we say count. We have a right to speak, a right to act on our intentions and realise our aspirations, not just for us but for our society. It is the obligation of other Australians, of our Australian Government and all states and territories, to listen and respond to us, and to put the structures in place to realise our rights, make our solutions a reality and let us be all of who we are.

To do this effectively we must do what women are telling me: We must be making the decisions that determine our futures.

All the women I am talking to have deeply considered solutions and ideas to change ineffective systems and disadvantaged circumstances. Investing in our voices, is an investment in a strong and vibrant social infrastructure that would revitalise the health, wellbeing and success of our communities.  For our systems to reflect the strength of our women, and to uphold our inherent values of intergenerational care and responsibility, our voices need to be at the front and centre of policy planning, design and implementation. Any less is not good enough.

To be the change-makers that we are, to insist on being at the decision-making table, we must do this together. It is clear to me that there is more that unites us in our common values than divides or fractures us. When I hear all our women speak of our deeply held cultural values, strengths and convictions, I know why we have not fallen under the weight of oppression, or relinquished any aspect of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander womanhood. Our diversity is great and wonderful, but whether we are in urban or remote Australia, we share a vibrant and living history that means we have a powerful collective voice. And look around you - that power resides in rooms like this today, never underestimate who we are. We rise with a voice that comes from the ground we stand on, full and rich with the wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors, connecting us all from one far reach of this continent to the other. 

Again, with the words of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, ‘let no one say that the past is dead. The past is all around us and within us’, and it is with this strength that resides in us all, the strength of our ever-present ancestors, that we rise up. Together we will elevate our voices and knowledge from the ground to the attention of the public and the Australian Parliament, so future policies and legislation which affect us, will be designed by us, and for us. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women we have a right to be all of who we are. Let us not change for this world, but let the world change for us, and I guarantee it will be the better for it.   

Because of her, because of our women who were uncompromising in being themselves, we continue to be who we are today. And what we do in this moment as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women will define our future. This is our time to act and shape the world that our children will inherit. Our time is now, to be unshakable in our resolve to be all of who we are. It is our moment to rise and say, we can! and together we will bring forth the society that is rightfully ours. In generations to come, our people will look back and say: because of her, we can and we always will!

Thank you