Reconciliation WA Speech

Release Date: 
31 May 2019
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In Noongar language, I say kaya wangju – hello and welcome.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we’re meeting today, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, and pay my respects to our Elders past, present and emerging.

I also acknowledge:

  • The Governor of WA, Kim Beazley
  • Minister Simone McGurck
  • Police Commissioner Chris Dawson
  • Carol Innes and Gary Smith (Co-Chairs of Reconciliation WA)
  • Karen Mundine (CEO of Reconciliation Australia)
  • Glenn Kelly (on Board of Reconciliation Australia)
  • Former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Fred Chaney
  • Russell Gibbs (Chairman of the West Coast Eagles and Chief Executive of Hawaiian)
  • Edgar Basto (BHP Billiton’s Asset President, WA Iron Ore)
  • Zara Fisher (Vice President of HSE Group in Iron Ore)
  • Nolan Hunter (CEO Kimberley Land Council)
  • And all distinguished guests joining us today.

What an amazing gathering – it warms my heart to see more than 1300 people together here this morning, to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and contributions.

To celebrate our deep past and enduring presence, across this great state and our vast country.

What a privilege that I have been made the first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians, during National Reconciliation Week.

This morning I want to reflect on how far we’ve come on the journey of Reconciliation - how I got here, with a bit of my story - and how far we’ve come as a nation.

Any of us who are old enough to remember the 50s and 60s will tell you it’s a long, long way.

I was born in 1952 and raised on Roelands Mission, the eldest of 10 kids. My dad was a railway ganger. My mum was a member of the Stolen Generations.

In those days, they had to get permission to marry. Permission to travel. They could be arrested if they were out after 6pm.

If the Department of Native Welfare came around and thought you weren’t providing good care, they could take your children away.

We then lived in a tiny place called Nannine, just south of Meekatharra. My schooling at first was by correspondence – working a radio with a foot pedal, like an old sewing machine, for two hours at a time.

Soon afterwards, my parents moved down to Corrigin. At that point, my life changed.

It’s no exaggeration to say I’m standing here today because of my parents’ dedication to our family and their commitment to going to school and getting an education – and that started with my Year One teacher, Mrs Abernethy.

She saw that I was behind the other kids, so she got me to come to school half an hour early every day. When I was home with whooping cough, she came over every afternoon.

She believed in me, supported me, never gave up on me. And fifty years later, she even campaigned for me in the seat of Hasluck!

While she was building my confidence – and my vocabulary – there was a petition circling to get the Aboriginal families kicked out of Corrigin.

It failed. The townspeople wanted us to stay.

Just a few years later, Australia voted overwhelmingly for inclusion in the 1967 Referendum.

I was in high school in Perth, and Fremantle had the second highest ‘Yes’ vote in the nation.

Things were changing. We were making progress. For the first time, we had a sense that as Australians we were indeed walking together.

Four years later, Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal person in parliament as a Senator for Queensland.

The next year, 1972, saw the creation of the first Department of Aboriginal Affairs - the precursor to the new Agency I will now lead.

In the mid-70s we got the Racial Discrimination Act and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

These were landmark reforms that opened the way for every move toward rights and equality that have followed.

In fact, between the 1960s and the 1990s, the law of the land changed so much.

And in the decades since then, I know we’ve seen a big cultural shift.

The Reconciliation movement, and the work Senator Pat Dodson did all those years ago, has driven a great deal of that change.

It started small, but its ripple effect outwards has been tremendous.

It’s had an incredible impact not only at the local level, but in the way big corporates have embraced it, and undertaken commitments in Reconciliation Action Plans that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago.

I believe it’s been one of the major social reforms in Australia.

Its impact shows up in Reconciliation Australia’s recurring study.

Every two years since 2008, the Australian Reconciliation Barometer has measured attitudes and perceptions towards reconciliation on five overlapping dimensions: Race Relations, Equality and Equity, Institutional Integrity, Unity, and Historical Acceptance.

What the latest study shows is that the overwhelming majority of Australians believe that the linkages between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are important, and that knowing our history and truth-telling are vital to this relationship.

80 per cent of Australians support formal truth-telling processes, and 86 per cent believe it’s important to learn our shared history.

Still more encouragingly, 95 per cent of people agree it’s important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a say in matters that affect them.

This echoes the ‘Yes’ of 1967. And it resonates with my appointment as Minister for Indigenous Australians.

The days of complete control by the police or the bureaucracy over Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives are long gone.

Since those days we’ve travelled more or less steadily towards greater freedom, autonomy, and equality.

And, crucially, we’ve travelled together.

As I said after my swearing-in this week, policy won’t be made in my office. It will be made in conjunction with Indigenous Australians.

I firmly believe it’s only through genuine partnership, through walking together, that we will solve our problems.

We need to jettison forever – as it seems the broader population has already jettisoned – the historic mindset of our people as passive recipients of services and programs.

We need instead partnerships based on mutual respect, mutual resolve - and mutual responsibility. Indigenous Australians must be truly regarded as equal and active partners, involved and informed.

One of my priorities in this role is working on a refreshed Closing the Gap framework.

As the Prime Minister said earlier this year, the original Closing the Gap process was good-hearted and well-intentioned, but it took a top-down approach, not one based on true partnership. It failed on its own tests.

In refreshing that approach, we now have an opportunity to do things differently. To do things in partnership.

We’ve set up a partnership with a coalition of peak organisations, and a Joint Council through COAG.

But of course the key is partnering with people on the ground, so that they can drive local, community-led solutions.

And though the approach has changed, the heart and soul of Closing the Gap has not.

We want to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids getting the best start in life, the same opportunities, schooling, healthcare, and life outcomes as their peers.

As well as Closing the Gap, we remain committed to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution.

We will continue to work with Indigenous communities to design a model for constitutional change that suits their needs and aspirations, and we will hold a referendum once we’ve settled on the right model.

This is a long-term process. We want to get it right. If we don’t, we risk putting this issue on hold for another 30 or 40 years.

In keeping with the ARB finding that a majority of Australians support learning about the past and undertaking a formal truth-telling process, we have committed to work on that with Indigenous communities.

And as part of that process, we will support the establishment of a National Resting Place.

For more than 150 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains were removed from Country and placed in museums, universities and private collections in Australia and overseas.

The National Resting Place will be a central place for commemoration, reflection and healing. A place for ancestral remains to rest in honour and peace, where all Australians can celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. 

In all this work, we will be partners, walking together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Looking back across this shared journey - my own and the much larger story of reconciliation - I can see the progress we’ve made.

Now, I could have told you some other stories today.

The primary teacher who told me I should leave school and get a job, because nobody would employ me as an adult.

The birthday party where half the kids invited didn’t show up because I was invited too.

The comments and emails I got when I was running in Hasluck – just 10 years ago, not back in the 1950s.

But those aren’t the stories that have shaped my life.

Those things scar you. Of course they do.

But they don’t define you.

I apply the same lens to our larger journey of reconciliation. Yes, we acknowledge the suffering and the wounds. Indeed we can’t go forward unless we tell the truth about the past.

But every step we take, every progression we make, is because of hope.

It’s because of optimism - because we choose trust over distrust, and courage over fear. 

As I said at the beginning of this Reconciliation Week – we must ensure the greatness of our many nations is reflected in the greatness of our Australian nation, now and forever.

I believe with all my heart that the only way forward is together. I’ve seen the power and strength of sitting together, of listening and talking together, and of walking and working together.  Grounded in truth. Walking with courage.

As we say in the traditional Noongar of the country on which we’re meeting:

“Ngyung moort ngarla moort, ngyung boodja ngarla boodja.”

Meaning: “My people our people, my country our country.”

That’s the reason we’ve come so far.


That’s the force that will take us forward.

Thank you.