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ANU Reconciliation Week Lecture 2018: Chancellor's Introduction

Remarks to 2018 Reconciliation Week Lecture, Australian National University, Canberra, 25 May 2018

Of all the many issues that are now preoccupying our country’s policymakers, and the leaders of our most important institutions, including the nation’s universities, I don’t think any is more important than completing the task of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians – a journey which has begun, and one to which many people of great goodwill on all sides are committed, but which still has a very long way to go before any of us can regard it as completed.

At the national level we have done some of the big symbolic things:

  • PM Paul Keating’s Redfern address in 1992 acknowledging that it was we – non-Indigenous Australians – who did the dispossessing, committed the murders, practised the discrimination; that it ‘was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us’;
  • PM Kevin Rudd’s incredibly moving apology to the stolen generation in 2008: ‘for the pain, suffering and hurt …for the indignity and degradation [thus] inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry’;
  • We have seen off the indefensible notion that this land was terra nullius, and enacted native title legislation – the proudest moment of my own parliamentary career – which has made, and continues to make, it possible to reunite Indigenous Australians with their traditional lands.

But on so much else at the national policy level we continue to fail. As Peter Yu put it so directly and lucidly in his wonderful Reconciliation Lecture earlier this year, for all the rhetoric devoted to closing the socio-economic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the unhappy reality is one of ‘increasing imprisonment rates, appalling health outcomes, homelessness and overcrowded houses, and family and community violence’.

And for all the huge nationwide effort that has gone into finding a way forward on the issue of constitutional recognition and governance reform, the Uluru Statement has fallen on profoundly deaf government ears, and consensus on meaningful constitutional change seems as far away as ever.

It is in this context, as well as putting our own internal institutional house in order, that we at the ANU – Australia’s national university – have a particularly crucial role to play. We were established immediately after WWII by an act of Federal Parliament to provide the nation with a centre for research and knowledge that would guide our national future. For more than 70 years, we have been leading the nation, and often the world, in public policy focused research on important international and domestic issues.

We have a responsibility to continue to search for the truth, uphold academic rigour and share our findings with the world. And it is an indispensable part of that responsibility – fully recognized in our current Strategic Plan – to lead research and public policy on social issues, including inequality and discrimination.

We want to be not just passive bystanders or commentators, but to lead the nation in reigniting the debate and designing policies which remove discrimination and forge an equal relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australian.

And with that objective squarely in mind, over three days in July this year, ANU will be hosting a major First Nations Governance Forum, to share the experiences of Indigenous people and generate policy options for Australia, drawing on colonial settler state models elsewhere, that enable a leadership role for Indigenous people in the governance of their affairs. This Forum will have the support and participation of our own Federal Indigenous parliamentarians, Indigenous leaders, academics from around the country, government and leading international policy makers. We will be hosting seventeen leaders from across the world to discuss reconciliation and draw on their own experiences. I invite all of you to watch its proceedings via the livestream we will be setting up in Llewelyn Hall.

Of course we know that ANU cannot be a credible standard-bearer for national reconciliation unless our own reconciliation house is in order, and in that context – under the totally committed leadership of our Vice-Chancellor, and with immense support from across the campus – we have been trying very hard to make a difference. We are not yet where we want to be, but we are making steps in the right direction.

Earlier this year, the University also relaunched our Reconciliation Action Plan – which is not a timid document, and has many clearly defined and challenging and targets. The University’s vision for reconciliation is to be a place that facilitates learning that respects cultures and diversity: a place where people come together to engage with their chosen discipline, contextualised by an understanding of our shared history. We want to see ANU become the destination of choice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander intellectual leaders to undertake research and to contribute to policy making. And we want to see ANU become the destination of choice for Indigenous Australians to pursue higher education.

This year, ANU is looking to review and invigorate our Indigenous Studies degree. Drawing on experience and expertise from our academic and student community, along with consultation with local Aboriginal people, we will create a truly interdisciplinary degree. Our vision, in short, is for ANU to be the national home of Indigenous education, research and public policy development. We know that we can only advance that goal, and live with ourselves in the process, if we have the support and encouragement of our own local Aboriginal people, whose ancestors have been using this campus home of ours for thousands of years to meet and share ideas. So we were absolutely delighted in January this year, when representatives of the ACT’s four Aboriginal communities came together to present ANU, at a very moving ceremony in Llewellyn Hall, with a new name – one that means a place for learning and sharing ideas – for the university’s physical and cultural heart: Kambri. It will remind us, as long this university continues, of the debt we owe to our forebears on this land, and of the joy – for both sides – that comes with meaningful reconciliation with those that followed them.

It is now my great pleasure to introduce to you, to deliver our 2018 Reconciliation Week Lecture, an Indigenous Australian who embodies everything we are seeking to achieve in making the ANU the national home of Indigenous education, research and public policy development, Dr Virginia Marshall, recently announced as our Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow, working at the School of Regulation and Global Governance and the Fenner School of Environment and Society.

Virginia is a leading expert, in Australia and internationally, in Indigenous water law and governance, Indigenous traditional knowledge systems and the intersectionality of western intellectual property regimes and the Indigenous commercialisation of native foods and medicines. She is a practising lawyer and duty solicitor, a former associate & researcher with the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney and professional member of the NSW Law Society and Women Lawyers Association of NSW.

Please welcome, to give the 2018 Reconciliation Week lecture, Dr Virginia Marshall.