Lowitja Speech

Release Date: 
19 June 2019


I begin by acknowledging the Larrakia people and their lands, their waters and their Elders, past present and emerging.

I acknowledge the many people in this room who I began a journey with when we were in our 20s - when we fought many battles on many fronts to effect the changes that we've seen realised.

When I worked with Oriel green and Isabel Adams in Aboriginal education and we talked about what we thought should be the future. But none of us ever considered that one of us would end up in Cabinet.

And when you take those journeys you make some tough decisions but you retain the integrity of who you are and the way in which you engage and the way in which you listen.

What's important is seeing. Many of you take a journey in life that has impacted on outcomes for our people, and it doesn't matter where they live. But we still have much to do.

I will share with you about the Sunday that Prime Minister Scott Morrison rang me. My wife and I were looking at a photograph that Ben Wyatt had posted about his father, and he’d made a comment on there about his Dad and the Stolen Generation. It was a really nice photo with a nice comment because I know that Ben has been tracing back his dad's history and learning, what Cedric did. And I talked about that because my mother was a member of the Stolen Generations.

And then at some point my wife said to me go and hang out the washing. So I went outside and she said take your phone with you in case the PM rang and the PM rang. And he said to me: Mate - and at this point I was thinking I've got aged care and Indigenous health I'm going to continue the work that I've started - but he said you've done a great job.

I want to give you a different challenge. He said you've got a good heart and I’m going to make you the Minister for Indigenous Australians, not the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. He said Indigenous Australians. It took me about two and a half minutes to respond, because having had that discussion and knowing what I had as a journey, those emotions all sort of welled up and I struggled to answer him.

And he said: I take it by your silence that is a yes. And I managed to then get out the yes but the most important thing was it wasn't Indigenous affairs it was Indigenous Australians because he wanted to make it about the people of this nation, and he is committed.

But the awesome thing was when I sat at the Cabinet table for the first time. I was sitting with a group of people who make the decisions for this nation, and now I have the opportunity of sitting at that table.

But what heightens my optimism is that in the last Federal election over 20 Indigenous Australians stood for seats, a tremendous change to what was. Before I went into the House we had Neville Bonner who I greatly admired and respected and Aden Ridgeway, and then I was the first in the House of Representatives.

And then Labor through Julia Gillard appointed Nova Peris and now it’s swelled to five of us in there. We have the capability and we've always had the capacity to do the things that are important to us.

I was reminiscing with Pat Anderson just a short while ago about the journey that she and I have had, just in education alone. In those days we were probably seen as ratbags because we challenged the status quo, to effect change.

I want to acknowledge every one of you for the contribution that you make to the lives of our people through the way in which you deliver either frontline services that are absolutely critical, through to those who are doing the research to identify what are the important elements that we have to address.

Firstly, as Indigenous Australians, in terms of owning our destiny - but more importantly, affecting the professions that provide the services to do with our social and emotional wellbeing.

When you consider 1972 - when Gough Whitlam established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs – that was the embryonic stage of government commitment in a more significant way than we'd ever seen.

I think of the first Aboriginal doctor who I had the privilege of meeting not long after she graduated (although I knew her family) and that was Sandra Eades – and of the number of doctors who have followed. What I'm hoping is that when I finish my time there'll be more who will step in and take on the roles that are important.

And it's an honour to be in the same Chamber as Linda Burney. Linda, as many of you know was heavily involved in the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group structures of New South Wales and was a significant leader in that area. To have a colleague like that across the Chamber means you've got a soul mate who you can talk to, who understands the challenges.

With Senator Patrick Dodson and Senator Malarndirri and now with Jacqui Lambie coming back, there are five of us, and we meet. I want to share with you that Warren Snowdon and Patrick and I used to meet once a fortnight and I would brief them on what I was doing in Aboriginal health because I want to have a bipartisan approach to the directions that we need to walk as members of the Australian Parliament.

I'm on a journey now to speak to all of the Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs to look at shared understandings and shared directions, regardless of our political stance.

I want to encourage people in politics to listen much more than what they do, to sit with our people and to have the conversations that are real and meaningful.

But it is a privilege to be in the position that I am but I will use that opportunity to walk with all of you. I cannot do it alone.

What I need is our leadership and our communities to walk with me. We will have our debates, we will have our differences sometimes on some issues, but the important thing. Is that when you have strength of unity you can achieve significant outcomes in a way that is hard to challenge - and so I'm looking forward to my three years in office.

What I've really appreciated is the number of non-Indigenous Australians who have come up to me and just said: Here's my card, I'm prepared to walk with you.

Yesterday, a Minister in a State said: Just tell me what I need to do, I don't want you to fail. He said: I want you to be successful regardless of your politics. He said: The symbolism and the strength of what we can do together will make a difference. And so they are prepared to do that.

We have a unique opportunity and, in a sense, it's like being the conductor of a band. I have the opportunity to wave the baton but you can't have the music without the orchestra and all of you in that journey are members of that orchestra, for the changes that we need to seek and achieve.

So I wish you well in your deliberations. I'm here for two days in Darwin this is the first jurisdiction that I'm spending two days in, meeting a number of people. John Patterson has been fortunate enough to get two appointments with me. He wanted a third but I had to decline.

But look, enjoy your deliberations. It's really great catching up with a number of you who I've had the privilege to talk to. Never hesitate to come and say goodbye, it’s important.

Thank you all very much.


Watch the video of the speech on the Lowitja Institute YouTube channel.