towards Social Justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Australian Human Rights Commission
Notre Dame University
4 July 2011
It is with respect and gratitude I acknowledge that we sit on the lands of the Nyoonga People and I thank the Traditional Owners for allowing us to do so.
My people are the Gangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland.
On behalf of my Elders I salute the Nyoonga Elders, both past and present, for their continued struggle for country and culture here in the place where our colonisation began.
I also acknowledge my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, who are here today.
I believe it is important for all of us to pay this tribute to the people on whose land we may find ourselves when the opportunity arises for us to leave our own country. For me it that opportunity has lasted 20 years during which time I have been fortunate to stand side by side with brothers and sisters from other parts of Queensland, Victoria, the ACT, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and now New South Wales.
My older daughter Peta was born and raised in Rockhampton the biggest city closest to Gangulu land but has more recently has lived in Perth in Nyoongar country. The young one Paris, now eleven years old, first went to Rockhampton for her grandmother’s funeral when she was about 9 months old and has spent the majority of her life also in Nyoongar country. I must acknowledge and thank the Nyoongar people for allowing us this time on their land.
But they will both be told the stories of the Gangulu and will grow to be proud Gangulu women.
I tell you this because this is the way it is with us mob, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first peoples of this country, because this is our tradition, the way in which we come to someone else’s country and acknowledge their culture and their welcome.
I want to talk to you about traditions. I have a friend who has written that there is no such thing as traditional and non-traditional people. That as first peoples we all maintain our traditions but some of us are fortunate that they speak their language , live on country and maintain ceremony.
Then there are others whose grandfathers and grandmothers were put in chains and taken to jail for speaking their language and as such have lost that part of us. But my friend hypotheses that even though we have suffered these losses and the living of our traditions have changed, we are traditional nonetheless.
As an aside he also argues that classing us as traditional and non-traditional people is a device to divide us into a construct in which some of us are more Aboriginal than others. I don’t feel any need to fit the classic notion of the noble savage of the romantics to be Aboriginal. It is in my blood and in my heart.
While the living of traditions may change the values remain the same. I care for my family, I still feel and value my connection to my country, I pay respect to those whose country I may be on from time to time. Traditions like most things are dynamic and does change but the underlying values remain.
For instance, at my most recent job before taking up this position, the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, we prided ourselves on challenging some traditions in research.
We challenged the notion that it is only those with a piece of paper from a university can carry out research of any worth. We challenged the notion that researchers, because of this piece of paper will intrinsically know what’s best for us and therefore what research should be done to make us all better.
We challenged the notion ‘that because you don’t have that piece of paper’ you cannot be acknowledged as a researcher but should be classed as a lesser being such as a research assistant and if they really like you maybe even a research officer.
We called this the Tensing approach. You know how we all learned at school that Sir Edmund Hillary was the first person to climb Mount Everest and that he just happened to be accompanied by his trusty bearer Sherpa Tensing. We argue that Tensing Norgay was a mountaineer not a bearer or assistant or even an officer but a mountaineer, because even Sir Edmund acknowledges he would not have made it to the summit without him.
Similarly the CRCAH always insisted that Aboriginal people involved in our projects will always be acknowledged properly and appropriately and not just as a footnote in the reports because they don’t have that piece of paper.
Does this mean we don’t place a high value on getting that piece of paper.
No of course it doesn’t.
We had a well structured approach within our capacity development strategy that ensured our people do complete the post graduate studies necessary to gain the recognition from academia and were thrilled for our first PhD, Dr Yin Paradis, to not only gain that academic recognition but to also be named the NAIDOC Scholar of the Year recently by our mob.
Does this approach mean that we didn’t place a high value making sure our research is of the highest quality and integrity.
No of course it didn’t.
We insisted that our research met the highest standards and we argued that the involvement of our people at every level of our research protocols would enhance its quality and integrity rather than detract from it.
So we placed a high significance on the traditions of these classic research values but have a different interpretation of how we get to them. Because we would never compromise on quality and always insisted that our mob are deserving of the best and brightest research and researchers that are available.
Similarly, our traditional healing is based on a set of values that recognise the holistic approach of being at one with the land and our spirits. It is more that knowing what plants to crush up and apply to which parts of the body, it is more than knowing what to eat and not to eat out there in the bush, it is more than knowing the survival techniques if you happen to find yourself injured and a million miles from the nearest medical post.
These things are, of course, very important. They are part of our Aboriginal knowledge base and more and more they are being recognised within the western model of care and healing. And we know how important that we strive to continue to maintain that knowledge base.
The more western medicine recognises that all of the answers don’t reside in laboratories and with people in white coats the more value will be placed on our knowledge of such things.
But these things are only part of the equation to attaining wellbeing. The underlying values of being at one with the land, of ensuring our spiritual wellbeing is as important as our physical wellbeing, that our emotional wellbeing is just as important as all these other things. We also know that all of the answers aren’t in the berries and plants but in our wholeness, our spiritual, emotional, physical, cultural and environmental wellbeing.
My mind turns then to how the people in Redfern over 30 years ago, when establishing our first Aboriginal Medical Services, people like Naomi Mayers also realised that answers to our health issues was more than just what happens in a doctors surgery.
They knew then that the answers to our ill health cannot be confined to the health system. If our housing wasn’t right, if our education wasn’t right and if our community wasn’t right then our health cannot be right.
I reckon this was the germination of the Comprehensive Primary Health Care model and I would put to you that this model is our way of fitting our traditional healing into the western paradigm. We have adapted and taken what we want out of the western system and used it a way that is appropriate and works for us.
We have taken a system that has worked for over 40,000 years and melded it with a system that is a few hundred years old and come up with a model that is dynamic and given time will deliver that results we all want.
I think we have shown the appropriate respect to this new system and have admitted there are things that we can learn from this new system. We now want that respect to be reciprocated.
Because across many measures of disadvantage, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples fair about the same as people living in developing countries. For example, the ABS estimates life expectancy for Aboriginal men at 67.2yrs. This is about the same as Bangladesh (66.9yrs). And Bangladesh is quite crudely categorised by the UN Development Program as a ‘Low Human Development’ country and ranked 129th – Australia overall is ranked 2nd.
It is simply unacceptable that Australia’s First peoples are the most vulnerable of our healthy, prosperous nation.
And so, on the back of NAIDOC Week which celebrates the rich culture and history of the First Australians, it is also timely to pause and think about what we are currently doing in this country to turn around the disadvantage experienced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In February 2010, I began my five year term as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
In the following months I travelled around Australia, meeting with remote, regional and urban communities.
I heard many stories and witnessed many things that are heartbreaking and disturbing, particularly given that we live in one of the richest, successful liberal democracies in the world.
I believe we need to ask the question: can we ever be truly reconciled while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to live in such relative disadvantage and continue to remain on the margins of our society?
But...I have also been humbled by the many stories of resilience and hope. I have witnessed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities working hard to raise the bar and not accept the status quo.
I have also met with many non-Indigenous people and organisations, who are behind us all the way – people who want to walk with us and work with us to improve the life chances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia.
So, for my tenure as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I decided to focus on issues that are foundational to an agenda of hope. An agenda which aims to unleash the potential of Indigenous Australians, maximise the capabilities of each and every Indigenous Australian, and tackle the root causes of Indigenous health and social inequality.
I believe that at the core of this agenda of hope are people and their relationships.
I believe that:
- we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australia
- we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all levels of government
These relationships are central to reconciliation.
But we also need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
This need, for stronger and deeper relationships at each of these levels, frames the issues that I have focused on as priorities.
Today, I want to talk about my priorities. Priorities that I hope resonates with the work you all do here at Notre Dame.
I want to discuss the need to take concrete action on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how it can improve relationships and engagement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments. And in so doing, advance reconciliation.
And I want to draw your attention to the nation-building and reconciliation opportunity that is upon us, the move to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.
And I will discuss the Close the Gap Campaign and reflect on how far we’ve come and make some observations about the effort needed into the future on that generational campaign.
UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples
It is my belief that we need a framework or a lens through which to address disadvantage and advance reconciliation. Human rights provide such a framework.
Human rights are useful because they provide governments’ and the people a set of minimum legal standards which if applied to all people establishes a framework for a society to foster dignity and equality whilst celebrating difference.
All of the challenges confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; effective engagement, poverty, education, health, protection of culture and languages, incarceration rates, protection of women and children, are human rights issues.
We have a document that offers the ideal framework for working towards the realisation of these rights. This document is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In 2007, the governments of the world, through the General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the Declaration. At that time Australia, along with Canada, New Zealand and the United States was among only four States to vote against the Declaration. Fortunately, they have all have since reversed their position and now have given formal endorsement to it.
Australia changed its position on 3 April 2009. In doing so Minister Jenny Macklin said:
Today, Australia changes its position. Today, Australia gives our support to the Declaration. We do this in the spirit of re-setting the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and building trust... The Declaration gives us new impetus to work together in trust and good faith to advance human rights and close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
The link is clear in that statement – between reconciliation, effective engagement and human rights.
As the Declaration itself states, it contains the ‘minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world’.
It reaffirms that Indigenous people are entitled to all human rights recognised in international law without discrimination. But it also acknowledges that, without recognising the collective rights of Indigenous peoples and ensuring protection of our cultures, Indigenous people can never be truly free and equal.
I believe the Declaration provides the necessary guidance to government in the development of new narratives, practices, philosophies and opportunities – a new way of engaging with us.
I agree with Minister Macklin, the Declaration gives us ‘new impetus’ to work together. This is because the Declaration is about creating new relationships based on partnership, mutual respect and honesty.
The Declaration provides us with a roadmap to reconciliation.
However, since Australia’s formal endorsement over two years ago, progress has been slow.
It is my view that there is a lack of understanding about what implementation looks like and this is impeding action.
Now is the time to start serious thinking and serious planning to turn fine words into action.
We need to build the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, of governments and others (such as NGOs), on how to engage with and give full effect to the Declaration.
These groups need to familiarise themselves with the Declaration, use it in their everyday work, and work towards its ends.
I think we can use the learning’s from other areas of the human rights sphere to help us with this.
Of particular importance are the core principles in the Declaration such as the right to participate in decisions about our lives; self-determination; free, prior and informed consent and non-discrimination.
We need to use these principles as a guide for us and be central to the practices of government and others in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
To ground this in reality, it has to be understood that the relationship between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been badly damaged by the consistent imposition of policies and legislation that are designed and implemented with the objective of co-dependency and control - rather than our independence to determine our own destinies.
Governments and others should seek to empower us through effective participation to be the agents of our own change. We are an important part of the solution to our life situations.
The establishment of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which is about to have its first sitting, goes some way to developing a national mechanism for engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Beyond the Congress, it is essential that governments develop an effective framework for engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in order to generate positive relationships.
A framework for engagement needs to be mandated across all government departments developing and implementing policies and programs that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Crucially, the framework must be based on the key principles and objectives of the Declaration.
I don’t underestimate the challenge that effective participation, grounded in the Declaration poses for governments. It requires a true re-setting of the way governments have conducted business with us, and related to us, in the past. And changing the way governments do things is a big ship to turn around.
But the reconciliation agenda, along with being anchored to government implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, clearly also requires improvement to the relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian community.
When the National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples was made in February 2008, I believed Australia was ready for a new, stronger, deeper relationship with its first peoples.
On that day there was a palpable sense of us coming together as a nation. Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians sat together, held each other and cried together. The nation took a great leap forward together.
However, since that time we seem to have lost our way a little bit. It is my view that if we are to improve the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia we must build understanding of each other.
At its core this must be about recognising and embracing difference with mutual respect.
Human rights standards are useful here as they place people at the centre of any activity.
Of particular relevance here is preambular paragraph 2 of the Declaration which recognises Indigenous peoples rights to be different. Now what this means in practice is that it is not the responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to assimilate into the mainstream. Rather, it is a responsibility on all of us, black or white, governments, non-government, business, and private citizens to be inclusive and accommodate difference.
To do this we need develop ways of engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander views and perspectives into mainstream Australia.
And in moving towards full implementation of the Declaration in laws, policies and programs, we must also ensure Indigenous rights and interests are placed at the centre of Australian nationhood and embedded in the institutional fabric of the country – by recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.
I firmly believe this is the right time, right here and now for the Australian people to formally recognise in our Constitution, the special and unique place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold in our nation.
Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can be the vehicle to increasing and improving our:
- self worth
- our relationship with the broader Australian community
- our relationship with governments.
All of these things can lead us towards the goal of a reconciled nation.
That is why I welcome the commitments of Labor, the Coalition and the Greens, to a referendum to facilitate such recognition.
There’s also been a great level of support from the Independents since the 2010 Federal Election so, in all likelihood, there’ll be a referendum within the next couple of years.
Referendums are the rare moments in time when we, the people, rather than our elected representatives, have the opportunity to direct the transformation of the nation and its identity.
The prospect of this referendum will provide us all with a great opportunity to reframe and reset our relationship as a nation, and to establish new relationships that open our hearts and minds to new possibilities.
Australia is home to the oldest living cultures in the world and this is something that each and every Australian should be proud of - and be proud to assert as part of our national identity.
There is currently no mention of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples, or of the fact that the history of our country, as opposed to our nation, began many, many years before British colonisation.
The Attorney-General recently referred to the Constitution as ‘our nations Birth Certificate’. The current Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia has referred to it as ‘defining our legal universe’.
Our nation’s birth certificate should represent our full history, our diverse cultures, and the true spirit of our nation. It should reflect our complete genealogy – not just one part of the family tree.
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.
I made reference to the National Apology earlier, it was a reconciling moment. My predecessor Tom Calma described it as:
[A] day our leaders – across the political spectrum – have chosen dignity, hope and respect as the guiding principles for the relationship with our first nations’ peoples. Through one direct act, Parliament has acknowledged the existence and the impacts of the past policies and practices of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families... By acknowledging and paying respect, Parliament has now laid the foundations for healing to take place and for a reconciled Australia in which everyone belongs.
The National Apology marked an opportunity for Parliament to acknowledge the past and build towards a reconciled future in Australia.
I believe the current opportunity for constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of this nation, offers the Australian population the same opportunity.
As the debate around constitutional reform ramps up there will be more people saying that it is just a symbolic act when what we really need is practical action. I don’t believe that these are mutually exclusive- why can’t we have both?
Symbols are important for building-nations and for reconciliation. They are reminders of a collective past and guidance towards the future. They are things upon which practical actions should be built.
Larissa Behrendt clearly identifies the practical effect of symbols. She says:
Symbolic recognition that could alter the way Australians see their history will also affect their views on the kind of society they would like to become. It would alter the symbols and sentiments Australians use to express their identity and ideals. It would change the context in which debates about Indigenous issues and rights take place. It would alter the way the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia is conceptualised. These shifts will begin to permeate them. In this way, the long term effects of symbolic recognition could be quite substantial.
Similarly, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists considers that constitutional change would improve Indigenous mental health. According to the College President, Dr Maria Tomasic:
The lack of acknowledgement of a people’s existence in a country’s constitution has a major impact on their sense of identity, value within the community and perpetuates discrimination and prejudice which further erodes the hope of Indigenous people. There is an association with socioeconomic disadvantage and subsequent higher rates of mental illness, physical illness, and incarceration. Recognition in the Constitution would have a positive effect on the self esteem of Indigenous Australians and reinforce their pride in the value of their culture and history. It would make a real difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians
But, I also think constitutional reform and the journey to get there can be just as powerful in recognising our place in this nation.
The journey for constitutional recognition has well and truly begun and builds on the fight for equality over many years.
We are now engaged in a process towards a referendum in two years’ time.
In order to achieve a successful referendum, we have much to do.
To be successful a referendum requires a double majority. The majority of people in the majority of States must vote yes.
In the Creating a nation for all of us, I looked at the history of referendums and drawing on the work of constitutional expert George Williams, identified some critical factors that are essential for success including:
- bipartisan political support – while we have it at the moment – it will be critical to maintain bipartisan support up until the referendum - and we know just how hard it is to get politicians to agree, especially if either side thinks there’s a possible wedge in there somewhere.
- popular ownership of the referendum process – Australian’s historically will not vote yes for a proposal that has been foisted upon them – each and every Australian has the right to participate in this conversation.
- popular education about the Constitution and the proposed reform.
In order to progress this dialogue and increase understanding, the Australian Government has established an Expert Panel to report to it on options for constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples.
I am proud to be an ex officio member of the Expert Panel, and I will be urging the Panel to keep these factors at the front of our minds as we undertake the task given to us.
So over the next two years, there will be debates, speeches, opinion pieces in the press, bloggers responding to these articles, 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, just like all the work leading up to the National Apology, that will build awareness, focus minds and hearts and help move us all forward as a nation.
It is essential that we engage the entire nation in this debate. To inform and educate them on the Constitution, and that 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.
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.
But this is the type of exercise that builds the healthy relationships necessary for an agenda of hope.
Relationships that are built on understanding, dialogue, tolerance, acceptance, respect, trust and reciprocated affection. Not intolerance, a lack of acceptance, a lack of dialogue, mistrust and a lack of respect and understanding.
It is my view that we must grasp this opportunity to reset the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of Australia.
As I said at the outset I believe stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australia; between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all levels of government, and between ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are at the core of an agenda of hope.
Human rights provide the framework, the lens through which to build these relationships and address the many areas of disadvantage faced by us.
- Relationships where our rights are respected.
- Relationships where Governments and others work with us, not do things to us.
- And relationships where our place as the First Australians is acknowledged and celebrated.
To draw on the sentiment of one of our great
leaders Oodgeroo Nunukul, I want if I may to remember her words in two of her
poems, the first, Son of Mine was dedicated to her son Dennis and the concluding
verse of the second poem provides us in four lines acknowledgment of our past
and hope for our future. She was truely a woman ahead of her time.
Son of Mine
My son, your troubled eyes search mine
Hurt and puzzled by colour line
Your black skin soft as velevet shine
What can I tell you son of mine
I could tell you of heart break, of hatred blind
I could tell you of crimes that shame mankind
Of brutal wrongs and deeds malign
Of rape and murder son of mine
But instead I will tell you of brave and fine
Of when lives of black and white entwine
When men in brotherhood combine
This I would tell you son of mine
Song of Hope
To our father’s fathers
The pain, the sorrow
To our childrens children
A glad tomorrow
 Australian Bureau of
Statistics, The Health and Welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Peoples: Demographic, social and economic characteristics: life
expectancy , online:
 UNDP, International Human Development Index, (2010) Online: http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/BGD.html
J Macklin, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Statement on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Speech delivered at Parliament House, Canberra, 3 April 2009).
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Resolution 61/295 (Annex), UN Doc A/RES/61/295 (2007), art 43.
 L Behrendt, Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia’s Future (2003), pp 144-145.
 See The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists 2010, Constitution
changes would improve Indigenous mental health, media release, 12 October. Available at
<http://www.ranzcp.org/media/constitution-changes-would-improve-indigenou.... html> (viewed 24 November 2010)
 G Williams and D Hume, People Power: The History and Future of the Referendum in Australia (2010), ch 7.