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ANU First Nations Governance Forum: Chancellor's Welcome

Welcoming Remarks to ANU First Nations Governance Forum, Old Parliament House, Canberra, 2 July 2018

Good evening and welcome on behalf of The Australian National University to this opening Dinner of the First Nations Governance Forum. I acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and pay my respect to the elders of these lands past, present and emerging.

I particularly would like to welcome the very large number of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people from around the country who join us for this memorable event, including Tanya Hosch from the AFL who delivered the Welcome to Country and who will guide us through the evening; Professor Mick Dodson, who will be addressing us later this evening; Forum Host Stan Grant; Ken Wyatt MP, the Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health and Member for Hasluck; Senator Patrick Dodson from WA; Linda Burney MP, Member for Barton; Ngaree Ah Kit, Member for Karama in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, and ANU Council member Peter Yu.

I warmly welcome also our cast of wonderful international guests, including Dr Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues; Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and the first nation representatives from New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Canada and the United States who will all be addressing and inspiring us during the course of the Forum.

And from the home team I particularly welcome ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt; Mark Dreyfus MP, Shadow Attorney General; the sponsors of the event – the Museum of Australian Democracy, from whose Director, Ms Daryl Karp, we will also hear this evening, and AccorHotels; and the ANU staff, led by NCIS Director Asmi Wood, Tjabal Centre Director Anne Martin, Policy Hub Director Sean Innis and Marian Irvine who have worked so hard to bring us all together.

Of all the many issues that are now preoccupying Australia’s policymakers none to me is more important than completing the task of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians – a journey which took far too many decades to get started but 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 made some progress, starting with the 1967 referendum, which at least acknowledged Indigenous Australians as both human and Australians, but didn't do any more than that to deliver real equality. There was the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act which at least made a start in that respect. There was the legislation of 1983 and 1984 to protect sites of cultural significance to Indigenous people.

There was, with the historic Mabo Case in 1992 the demolition at last of the utterly indefensible notion that this land was terra nullius, which the Government of which I was part followed up with Native Title legislation which has made, and continues to make, it possible to reunite Indigenous Australians with their traditional lands. The passage of that legislation through the Senate late at night just before Christmas in 1993 – after 52 hours of intense debate, with every clause contested, the longest time until then ever taken to deal with a single bill – with the galleries packed to the rafters, as many of you here will remember because you were there, and everyone cheering and stamping and whistling in a totally undignified parliamentary scene that I don’t think has ever been repeated before or since, remains the proudest and most exhilarating moment of my entire parliamentary career.

An then there were those two great prime ministerial speeches – of unprecedented gravity, majesty and impact – with the leaders in each case speaking not for themselves, or their party, but for their office and the country.

First, there was Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in 1992, launching the International Year of Indigenous Peoples, which confronted squarely the legacy of the past and the absolute need now for, as he put it, an ‘act of recognition’:

Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

Kevin Rudd took that recognition a memorable step further forward in 2008 in delivering, as his first act on the first day of the newly elected Parliament, a deeply moving apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples:

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants, and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

But while we have as a nation done all these things, and done them well, on so much else at the national policy level we continue to fail. As Peter Yu put it so directly and lucidly in his Reconciliation Lecture at ANU 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, last year’s Uluru Statement from the Heart has fallen on profoundly deaf government ears, and consensus on meaningful constitutional change – change which is not just symbolic but substantive, which does provide a positive place for Indigenous people in or alongside Australia’s decision-making institutions – seems in some ways as far away as ever.

Which is why, in the hope we can create some new momentum for change, ANU is hosting this 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 do enable a serious participatory role, indeed a genuine leadership role, for Indigenous people in the governance of their affairs.

One of the key elements in the Uluru Statement we will no doubt be addressing, and one that has always intrigued me since I was a member, back in 1983, of the Senate Committee which recommended it, is to give constitutional recognition to the idea of a Makarrata – a negotiated reconciliatory compact between Indigenous and other Australians, either as a single overall national enterprise, or on a state or more local basis (as has now happened in Victoria) but under a national framework umbrella. The fact that this has from the outset been slammed, in the Murdoch press in particular (always a badge of honour), as unworkable, unacceptable in principle, and counterproductive, should give us all confidence that this really is an idea whose time has come.

The other key element in the Uluru Statement which will no doubt feature prominently in our debates this week is the simple and modest, but hugely compelling, one of giving a formal voice to our First Nations peoples in the decision-making processes of the Australian Parliament when issues affecting Indigenous people are being debated. Not a decisive voice – not a power to block measures or initiate measures, just a voice. But a formal voice, one that could not be easily silenced, and one which would enable meaningful and respectful engagement.

When I first heard that this was the direction in which the consultations leading up to Uluru was going I have to confess that I was one of those who thought that this might be too modest an aspiration: that surely we needed more than just another talk-forum. But one of the things that one learns very quickly in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – that I think I really did learn right from the outset of my own first engagement on land rights and legal service issues nearly fifty years ago – is that there is enormous wisdom in the conclusions that emerge from the kind of genuine, grassroots consultative processes that produced this centrepiece of the Uluru Statement, and that the rest of us ignore or reject that wisdom at the peril of getting things fundamentally wrong. It was shameful of the Government to dismiss the First Nations Voice proposal so cavalierly and abruptly, and I hope that the voices gathered here this week will make that clear.

All that said, I hope our First Nations people don't rest content with just achieving constitutional recognition for the Voice and Makarrata Commission, as formidable an achievement as that would undoubtedly be in the present political environment. There are still shamefully racist clauses buried away in the text of our Constitution which should and must be removed. And I have always thought, while it is not a substitute for more specific action-oriented measures like the Voice and Makarrata, there really is something to be said for adding an essentially symbolic new Preamble to the Constitution. Not in itself justiciable – having some executive effect – but capturing some core Australian values and including an appropriately respectful acknowledgment of the identity and role of our first Australians. This idea suffered a serious setback when John Howard decided to go it alone in 1999 with a catastrophically tin-eared draft which inspired or satisfied no one. Feeling the need to put my money where my critical mouth was at the time, I drafted a text of my own:

Having come together in 1901 as a Federation under the Crown
And the Commonwealth of Australia being now a sovereign democracy,
Our people drawn from many nations
We the people of Australia
Proud of our diversity
Celebrating our unity
Loving our unique and ancient land
Recognising Indigenous Australians as the original occupants and custodians of our land
Believing in freedom and equality, and
Embracing democracy and the rule of law
Commit ourselves to this our Constitution

This language was taken up as a joint submission to the Government by the ALP, Democrats and Greens, and quite well received wider afield (though one colleague was reported as saying ‘Who would have thought Gareth could produce an 83-word history of Australia? He usually takes that long just to clear his throat’). But it found no favour with Mr Howard and his wordsmiths, continuing my conspicuous record of failure, despite many different efforts over the years as Attorney-General and in other roles, to make any mark at all on the text of the Constitution.

With that personal record of failure I don't dare to offer any more suggestions as to how we might now best proceed. But such now is the store of general goodwill in the wider Australian community on Indigenous issues, that I do remain optimistic that the necessary consensus is achievable, even though it is going to take time and patience.

What I do hope and believe is that some creative, constructive ideas on both substance and process will emerge from this Forum, bringing together as it does so much expertise, experience and wisdom not only from around Australia but around the world.

Hosting this Forum is something the ANU, as Australia’s national university is very proud to do. 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– to lead research and public policy on social issues, including inequality and discrimination.

We at ANU 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 absolutely equal relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australian. We have been a long time getting there, and have some distance to go. But I believe we will this week take a big step forward, with a fantastically productive set of deliberations for which I wish all of us well.