Friday, March 11, 2016

Molly Hadfield Oration transcript - 10/03/16

By request, this is a copy of the keynote I delivered at the City of Darebin's Molly Hadfield Oration on the evening of the 10/3/16. Thanks to all who came, and I hope you enjoy the read! 

Before I begin I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we’re meeting tonight – the Wurrundjeri people of the Kulin Nation – and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, as well elders from other nations that may be present. I emphasise that these lands were never ceded, and the negotiation of a proper treaty between Original Peoples and the rest of Australia is overdue business. I also introduce myself as an Arrernte woman, whose traditional lands extend from Alice Springs covering vast regions of Central Australia. I have lived in Melbourne now for 24 years, having been born in Canberra the daughter of an Arrernte man and a Clifton Hill-born, Collingwood supporting woman, and I thank the Wurrundjeri for allowing me to share in these stunning lands for so long.

I wonder if, before I launch into the full purpose of my address tonight, the audience might indulge me for just a few minutes. When I was contacted by the City of Darebin asking if I would give the Molly Hadfield Social Justice Oration this year I was particularly pleased. I am, in fact, a long-term resident of Darebin and this area is incredibly special to me. I have, indeed, spent time living in Northcote, then Thornbury, then I moved out to Reservoir, then finally, I moved to Preston. So I feel like I’ve covered a fair chunk of Darebin and I have utterly no plans of moving anywhere else. In Melbourne, the suburbs making up Darebin are the only places I have truly felt at home.

I first moved over this way to attend university. I was 18 years old and when my family had moved from Canberra to Melbourne 5 years prior, we had settled in the outer south eastern beachside suburb of Chelsea. I loathed it out that way. I don’t mean to bag out an entire area where people make their homes, but for me, it was a suffocating environment. For starters, I’m not much of a swimmer and even if I were, the beach is a bay beach with little personality, so I rarely went there except to have the odd high school night of debauchery. But it was also so far from the city, and that Frankston line train just seemed to take forever. I think the most telling part though was that for all I had heard about the multicultural nature of Melbourne growing up, the south eastern beachside areas are an area which this cultural phenomenon has never really touched.

Sure, there were people of other cultural backgrounds at my school, but the majority of the students were overwhelmingly working class white Australian people. I was the only identifying Aboriginal student in the school for most of my time there. I was not actually the only Aboriginal student there, just the only one who did not hide it. The only time this wasn’t the case was for a brief period in year 8 where there were suddenly three of us in the one form room. The message I got from this was that Aboriginality was something to be ashamed of, to be hidden, and as there was no way I could just pretend to be a white Australian with a great tan, I did get targeted due to both race and gender on a regular basis.

So part of my reasoning for applying to La Trobe University, apart from knowing that at that stage (mid-90s), it was a highly progressive institution with a number of cutting edge academics working at it, was that I wanted to get the hell out of the South Eastern beachside. I also wanted to leave home, and therefore applied to live in Chisholm College. I think that year, I was one of only 19 Aboriginal students across the entire state to go straight from high school to University, though I could be mistaken. Anyway, on moving into Chisholm College and not receiving Abstudy allowance, I had to get a job to support myself pretty quickly. Three weeks in, I was successful at picking up work at Baker’s Delight in Northland.

I cannot tell you what it is like to go from a monocultural area like the beachside suburbs where the only other Aboriginal faces you are likely to see are members of your family to then suddenly start working at Northland. I nearly fell over the bread counter with excitement the first time a local aunty came up to order bread from me, and then followed that up nearly ten more times during my first shift. It was literally, the first time in Melbourne, I had ever run into another Aboriginal person undertaking the incredibly menial task of grocery shopping. This is not to say that there are no Aboriginal people in the area I grew up, but rather the contrast between that area and working in the local government area with one of the highest Indigenous populations in the state was marked. It went beyond that though: we’d have elderly women come up and order bread completely in Italian, I got used to seeing hijabi women regularly, I was overwhelmed with the cultural diversity of food thanks to the many ethnic groups represented in this area. It was nearly impossible to get a bad feed anywhere even if paying peanuts. To me, this area was, and still very much is, precisely the place they’re describing when they refer to “multicultural Melbourne” and I feel very fortunate to see this multiculturalism playing out constantly: in the festivals we have here, in the services available branded in every script imaginable, in the 1:30pm Saturday scrum at the Preston Market.

There’s one other huge part of this puzzle though, regarding my love affair with Darebin that I feel is absolutely integral for setting the scene of this oration: the City of Darebin is an extraordinarily significant site when it comes to the continuing activities of the Indigenous rights’ movement. Indeed, when it comes to Melbourne, I am hard pressed to come up with another area where there are as many reflections of this movement. I think most people here are so used to them being a part of the Darebin landscape, they don’t always notice these things. Yet I went from just hearing about the long fight to maintain Northland Secondary College – a school which was then noted for its Indigenous-inclusive approach to both education and community engagement, as well as having a high proportion of Aboriginal students - back in the early 1990s under Jeff Kennett’s reign when I myself was still in high school, to working nextdoor to this very site of struggle.

Each morning on the way into work, my tram passes the Aboriginal Advancement League. Thousands of Darebinites probably pass this exact same site every day yet beyond the incredibly recognisable mural, they may not know what the importance of it is. For those who don’t know, the League is the oldest Indigenous organisation in the country. It drew from two existing organisations in its formation. The first was the Australian Aborigines League which had been formed in 1934 by Yorta Yorta man William Cooper, along with Margaret Tucker, Shadrach James and others – most of whom had left missions; forcibly or otherwise; and moved into the city. The Australian Aborigines League engaged in many actions, such as getting a petition together for King George V demanding the equal treatment of Aboriginal people on a number of fronts, joining with the Aborigines Progressive Association in Sydney to stage the 1938 Day of Mourning during the 150 year celebrations of Australia, and marching with a delegation to the German consulate to deliver a petition against the "cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany” following the Kristallnacht pogrom. For this last act, William Cooper has been much recognised by the Jewish community both here and overseas and he has been commemorated both in the Holocaust museum and the Forest of Martyrs for his leading the only private protest which happened in the wake of Kristallnacht. I just wish to add to this that Margaret Tucker is also a reasonably well-known name around here and through years of activism, she went on to form the United Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women as well as sit on the Aboriginal Welfare Board. She was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1968 for recognition of her service to Aboriginal people. She wrote an autobiography called “If Anybody Cared” and a hostel in Fairfield for teenage Aboriginal girls is named after her.

The other organisation involved in the formation of the eventual Aboriginal Advancement League was the “Save the Aborigines Committee”. This committee had formed following an enquiry into the living conditions on two Aboriginal missions commissioned by the Victorian Government: Lake Tyers out in East Gippsland and Framlingham out near Portland. The recommendations of the enquiry was that Aboriginal people of mixed heritage be removed from the missions and assimilated. Naturally, there was strong objection to the proposed forcible removal of people and splitting up of families, and the Lake Tyers community set up the Save the Aborigines Committee to fight this and resist all attempts to close their community. The Aborigines Advancement League therefore was formed out of this resistance and the existing Australian Aborigines League which had been reinvigorated post-World War 2 by Pastor Doug Nicholls along with Bill Onus – a man who, among other things, was responsible for telling the City of Melbourne that “Moomba” means “celebration by the river” when it really doesn’t… He was an Indigenous trade unionist after all ;)

So right here within the boundaries of Darebin, we have an incredibly significant site of resistance, of self-determination and of Survival. In my lifetime it has also been where I went to vote for the ATSIC elections, where my work team was presented with a Wurrecker Award for our work supporting Indigenous students at the Victorian College of the Arts, where I watched the National Apology delivered by Kevin Rudd (though I should note, we turned the sound down during the response by Brendan Nelson because it was so terribly offensive). The League is where I attended the funeral of dear friend and unbeknownst mentor Lisa Bellear, one of the most important grass roots activists, poets and community photographers in Melbourne in recent times who is still sorely missed to this day. It’s where I attended the opening ceremony of the World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference of Education and saw performances from Indigenous groups from around the world all in this one space. In short, it’s been a pretty important place in my life as well.

Darebin is a potent area for Indigenous activity. We can see this all around us. Services such as the Yappera Children’s Centre, the Aboriginal Legal Service, Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated, 3 Kool ‘n’ Deadly radio, the Family Counselling Service – all of these and more are a part of Darebin. They have mainly come about due to Aboriginal community activism and to cater for our unique circumstances as Original peoples, and they show a vibrant and engaged local community. Due to all this, I am proud to be a part of the Aboriginal community in Darebin, and I am proud that we additionally live in one of the most culturally potent and diverse parts of Melbourne. I firmly believe that when people talk about “multicultural Melbourne”, they are in fact talking about Darebin and a few of our neighbours because as someone who grew up elsewhere in this city, I don’t believe I am being harsh in stating that the melting pot we take for granted here is not a universal Melbourne experience. Anyway, I’ve digressed long enough, but through this I hoped to show how living in this area has very much fuelled my work.

Nearly four years ago, I started my blog “Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist”. I had just finished a Graduate Diploma at the University of Melbourne, and I found my brain fuelled and wanting to engage more with all the ideas I had accumulated undertaking a vast variety of political science subjects. I have been an identifying Indigenous feminist for about ever as in my world, it was impossible to separate the issues I face as an Indigenous person from the issues I face as a woman in a society which continually centralises the experiences of white, middle class men. Due to the fact, the two movements have always ran parallel in my world. I was also always going to be a unionist because I came from enough of a working class background that I knew the protections we take for granted in this country – weekends, sick leave, annual leave, 8 hour days – are actually all rights that were hard fought for, and as rights, they are always in danger of being taken away unless we continue fighting for them. Think for example what is happening right now with regards to the threat on penalty rates. Penalty rates were negotiated as a compensation for people giving up time which is otherwise recognised as personal or family time in order to keep our world ticking over. Penalty rates have, in particular, been integral in supporting people like university students who are working their way through courses and who do not have access to most fulltime employment opportunities while gaining their qualifications. That this compensation is continually argued as a “privilege” rather than a right, and seems to be used as a political football rather that being seen as a great hallmark of a fair and equitable society is, I think, telling with regards to how precarious our rights can be and how expendable workers are seen as being.

When I started my blog; buoyed following encouragement from a couple of older Aboriginal women; I was pretty convinced that no one would read it – some other Aboriginal women if I was lucky, but I had no expectations. That a Fairfax editor read it six weeks after I started it and wanted to publish one of my pieces on Daily Life leading to this ongoing career as one of the busiest freelance Aboriginal Feminist Unionists ever was unexpected. You see, my whole idea what that starting a blog was about me providing an “anti-media” space. The likes of me; an avowed hard left Aboriginal feminist; was not a voice seen in the mainstream media which continues to be dominated by white, financially-privileged men. Yet here I am, now a columnist for Daily Life and now bringing those exact same political standpoints to a mainstream audience who, for better or worse, read them. It’s meant that certain ideas which I know are the ideas of a marginalised community and indeed, a specific group within that marginalised community, are more and more making their way out there into the minds of the rest of Australia. And that truly is a change from recent times where the only Indigenous voices we would see within the mainstream media were the voices of Aboriginal people who best reflected the ideologies of the status quo: generally conservative Aboriginal men. Diversity has, for a couple of decades now, pretty much been another word for assimilation – we will have the different backgrounds, faces and experiences as long as they don’t rock the boat too much.

I still blame John Howard for this, because his continual branding of the Indigenous experience and history as “black armband” views meant that our realities were continually framed as mistruths designed to make people feel bad about this country, rather than being integral to understanding this place and how it comes to be in the position which it is right now. Not that long ago, I was at the big protest against Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots’ Front and their inherent racism. One of the Reclaim lads was almost crying out there on the line because, in his very articulate reckoning, “Vegemite is now f**ken Halal-certified”. I think he actually believed that this was an indication Islam was taking over the country. When I informed him that Vegemite has been broadly owned by an American company for several years, he became a bit confused. He became even more confused when he started talking about how we need to reclaim Australia back from these hordes and I asked him whether he had ever heard of the Mabo ruling and the false doctrine of terra nullius and what it was he thought he could reclaim?

Which leads me to the notion of “unfinished business”. One of my earliest recollections of political activism growing up in Canberra; apart from the fact that we had that great big white building they were constructing up on a hill; were the land rights protests. My childhood is dotted with memories of the Tent Embassy – a protest site which only a couple of years ago celebrated its 40th birthday – as well as marches during the bicentennial year. The current parliament house was opened in May of 1988 and this day saw one of the largest convergences of Aboriginal protesters arguing against the celebration of the Bicentenary and calling for Land Rights. Indeed, it marked a day where my parents were more than happy for us kids to join in the chants of “land rights now! Bicentennial bullshit” and felt proud we were out there swearing with so many other Aboriginal people.

Alongside these marches though was the actual Indigenous community which had sprung up in Canberra as a result of the establishment of governmental departments such as ATSIC. The 70s and 80s saw an influx of Aboriginal people from all over the country, including many of my own relations from the desert regions. I therefore have many memories of being over at Uncle Charlie Perkins’s place – a place infamous because it had a flag pole with a Aboriginal flag right out the front – swimming in the pool while a bunch of always seemingly angry black men discussing the issues around a table. If it was not Uncle Charlie’s place, it seemed to be Uncle Kwementyaye Randall (and I’ve used Kwementyaye because he passed away just last year) where the guitar would be out and if it wasn’t Charley Pride or Bob Dylan, then Uncle would be singing the song which made him famous and became an anthem for the Stolen Generations “brown skin baby”.

Yet where were the women in amongst this mix? I think one of the things I would continually see back then was that while the women in these circles; black and white; were strong and opinionated women not afraid of a good discussion, they were expected to be the “backbone” of the movement. Women were expected to support men, to nurture both men and children, but not necessarily to lead anything. And I’d see it play out even in those Canberran suburban environments: the intersection between Aboriginality and gender provided the limited promotion of some while pushing others back.

It’s no surprise to me that while Aboriginal women are community organisers and agitators of incredible skill, on numerous occasions their views are seen as secondary and marginal. I’ve already mentioned Margaret Tucker and her activism around Aboriginal girls and women. Not that long ago, Black Panther Woman – a documentary about Marlene Cummins – came out speaking of the sorts of abuses she and other Aboriginal women experienced within the Australian Black Panther movement during the early 1970s. There is one scene in particular which has continued to stick in my head ever since I first saw the film nearly two years ago. It’s a piece of archival footage in which a group of Aboriginal women are having an argument with white feminists who are trying to engage the Black Panther women in their struggle. In one part Aunty Isobel Coe, I believe, points out to the feminists that splitting the Indigenous rights movement was not an option on the basis of gender because there was a need to walk together, and while women had experienced issues within this movement, the feminist movement was not a safe space either because it erased Aboriginal experience. Another Aboriginal woman in the group said that she believed that the place of Aboriginal women was behind their men, supporting them. Yet while women are supporting men and children and community, who ends up looking out for the women?

Last year, feminists across this country borrowed from a feminist campaign set up in the UK and as a way of drawing attention to the women victims of violence, they started “Counting Dead Women”. I watched these counts intensely, and in particular, there were two counts I was keeping an eye on. The first was from an online lobby group set up in the wake of offensive comments shock jock Alan Jones had made in reference to then Prime Minister Julia Gillard about how women “destroy the joint”. They took their name “Destroy the Joint” from these comments and their “Counting Dead Women” tally included all women who were victims of violence against women. This means that as well as counting women murdered by men, they also included women murdered by other women arguing that this was a form of lateral violence (or “sideways violence” where you attack your competing peers rather than your oppressors) which in itself is a product of the patriarchy. The second count I was watching was conducted by radical feminist collective “Real for Women”. Their tally was entitled “Man Murders Woman 2015” and as the name suggests, it focussed on female victims of male violence only, in line with the original tally from the UK. By the end of the year, the Destroy the Joint count sat on 79, while the Real for Women count sat on 71. I’m hoping that in 2016, we don’t see similar levels of carnage.

Yet early on, while watching these counts, a pattern I could not ignore emerged. Aboriginal women were representing in high numbers in the statistics. Indeed, I identified that the numbers of Aboriginal women reached by April represented what a parity rate would be if the list continued to grow at the same rate for the rest of the year with no more Indigenous additions. Of course, the lists did continue to grow, and by the end of the year, Aboriginal women were making up over a fifth of them, or 7 times population parity. We are roughly three percent of the women in this country yet we were 21% of the Destroy the Joint tally. I repeat: 3% were making up 21%. And while Real for Women most certainly took an interest in these numbers I was drawing out of their figures, for most others, this went unnoticed because the broader program of highlighting the full issue was of more urgency. Yet I couldn’t pass it over. While it might not have been as apparent to other women reading these lists, to me it was glaring. I knew what to look for. In the reports, if it wasn’t an area well-populated by Aboriginal people, I was looking for those who weren’t named while also mentioning a member of the family being taken in for questioning. Sometimes it was the nature of the crime itself. In any case, most times these reports jumped out at me and I recorded them on my blog.

Time and time again, we see these inflated statistics when it comes to Aboriginal women and if we are not highlighting them and drawing attention to them, it continues the thought that Aboriginal women are expendable. In Australia, women are already considered secondary. We are always cast in the supporting role while the lives of white men are centralised. We don’t see women’s sport on TV, we consider the opinions of women to be marginal and biased whereas white men are cast as expert and objective (and strangely, this seems to include the likes of Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and other such commentators who have made a living off taking controversial stances). A gender pay gap still exists and a reasonable portion of this is because work seen as “women’s work” is continuously undervalued even when it requires similar amounts of education and qualification in order to be eligible to enter the field. We still have to raise awareness of domestic violence because it is still seen as a “private” issue and the idea that it is statistically safer for a woman to walk the streets by herself at night with headphones on than it is to be at home is yet to permeate mainstream thought. Women are under-represented in leadership, in politics and in so many other areas. So if women are seen as secondary, imagine how a woman who is from a racially-marginalised background is seen.

This is reflected so often in the way that we talk about issues effecting Aboriginal women. Victim blame is frequent and analysis of structural oppression goes out the window. It’s easier to point the finger at alcohol consumption, poverty, drugs, remoteness and lack of education than admit that all these things are symptoms rather than root causes. If we successfully eradicated all of these things tomorrow, the rates at which Aboriginal women experience violence would not disappear, indeed it may just simply decrease slightly because we have not, as a society, dealt with gendered or race-based oppression openly and thoroughly. As it stands right now, Aboriginal women are 38 times more likely to be hospitalised due to domestic and family violence than other women in this country. We are 3 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence. We are 70 times more likely to receive an acquired brain injury requiring hospitalisation due to domestic violence. Always, the policy and media responses to these things seem to focus around heavy-handed approaches: removing things from the community like the ability to purchase alcohol, the right to spend one’s money as they please, the micro-management of lives, while at the same time, they defund shelters, women’s groups, legal services and health services. They remove the very things which enable women to seek assistance, become independent and pursue justice. As I said last year when talking at the “Putting Gender on the Agenda” conference in Alice Springs, the last thing Aboriginal women need is to be further structurally disempowered.

But that’s not all. According to Sisters Inside, incarceration rates for Aboriginal Women have grown 86% in the past decade, yet for non-Indigenous men, it’s only grown 3%. In Victoria, while making up 0.7% of the overall population, Aboriginal people make up 7.7 per cent of the prison population with the incarceration rates of Aboriginal women the fastest growing. I’ve always found living in Victoria and coming from a Northern Territory background an interesting mix. People are always quick to tell me how racist Alice Springs is, and the Northern Territory in general, because they’ve seen the news reports, they’ve heard about the crimes and displacements, or they’ve visited there and seen blatant racism play out right in front of their eyes as a part of an ordinary day. Yet while that blatant racism is confronting, it’s the systemic racism – the racism which is a part of our governance, our policy, our culture – which is harder to confront yet plays such a big part in the situation in Victoria. There seems to be an assumption in Victoria that because people are living in more strongly colonised areas with more urban lifestyles, everything is okay. Yet the statistics state otherwise. Last year, when it was reported that Aboriginal women are 11 times more likely to die at the hands of their partner in Victoria, it was additionally reported by Aboriginal Housing Victoria that where Aboriginal women are victims of domestic violence, they are significantly less likely to report it to the authorities. A huge part of this is that while the Stolen Generations are thought to be a horrific historical blemish for which there has since been a national apology, Aboriginal children are currently being taken away from their families at rates higher than they were back then. In addition, if women do seek assistance, some fear retribution from families due to the intricate networks of connection here. One story I heard was of a woman who tried to seek assistance and incarceration was offered to her because apparently being in jail is a safe alternative. As if our women need to be jailed more.

I do, though, wish to acknowledge some of the amazing work that happens in Victoria with regards to the rights of Aboriginal women. TheAboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service, for example, has been continuously working to highlight these issues and support the community. They also run a programme called “Sisters Day Out” which is a one day workshop geared around empowering and building resilience in Aboriginal women. If anyone has some spare change, I’d urge them to consider donating to this programme as it needs funds to continue. I also do want to acknowledge the amount of younger women activists I have seen around the traps leading the charge for change. I don’t know how many people are aware of this, but when it came to the incredibly successful rallies held in Melbourne last year against the proposed forced closures of Aboriginal communities, the majority of the people who organised these were Aboriginal activists under the age of 30; a significant proportion of which were women. They led the charge, gave the speeches, dealt with the hostile media and were successful in rallying thousands of people for Aboriginal rights. Some of the work our younger women are doing right now is inspiring, and it has been an absolute pleasure doing what I can through the media to assist in drawing attention to this.

Which leads me to my final point for this evening. Of the many things I have written about over my unionist, freelancing, blogging and columnist career, it’s consistently been the articles I have written around the topic of the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution which has drawn the most enquiry. Only a few weeks ago, the Victorian State Government held a public forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around the topics of self-determination and constitutional recognition. This meeting was historic for a couple of reasons. The first reason being that it was the first such forum the state government had held in over 20 years and it was attended by about 500 community members throughout the day. The community members present were from all across the state, along with interstate mobs who have made Victoria their home over the years. Elders all the way to young people were present. The second reason this meeting was historic was because a motion was passed unanimously rejecting constitutional recognition. An additional two motions were passed, each recording one dissenting vote. The first called upon the government to investigate and resource a treaty process and the second called upon a council of elders to be established.

I wasn’t there on the day as while I have made Melbourne my home now for 24 years, as an Arrernte woman I wanted to stand back and let the Vic mobs say their piece as the peoples of here. I was, though, watching the livestream of this event and when I saw that they had rejected constitutional recognition outright as sovereign peoples, I don’t think I have ever been prouder to live in this state with such a staunch community. To provide a little bit of background for those who don’t know: the articles I have written have mainly been on dissenting Indigenous views on the Federal Government’s proposal to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution. I have felt it has been incredibly important to write on this as not only have the government funded the Recognise campaign in order to educate the broader public on this proposed referendum for recognition, but they and the media have continuously stated that this is what Indigenous people want; that it’s time; that it’s the right thing to do. Conversely, the main oppositional opinions represented within the media have been from conservative white male commentators and their ploy has been to paint any recognition of Indigenous people as “racist” because it apparently separates us as a nation. To be frank, I haven’t much cared to hear their arguments, and as someone who also holds oppositional views but from an Indigenous perspective, and someone who knows several other Aboriginal people who also hold oppositional views, I felt it was inherently more important to try and raise public awareness of the actual debates that we are having within the Indigenous community on this topic. This is a proposed referendum about us and our rights and therefore our views should be centralised and not the views of those who are really not going to be affected at all either way.

When it comes to the call for a treaty, this is nothing new. Indeed, Australia is the only commonwealth country which does not have a treaty with the Indigenous peoples. Back in 1988, the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised that there would be a treaty following the government receiving the Barunga statement. This promise was reneged upon due to both non-Indigenous lobby group pressure, and internal Labor Party politics, as Hawke himself recently outlined. Yet just a few years after this, in 1992, the Mabo ruling was handed down from the High Court of Australia.  One of the key points of interest of this ruling was the rejection of the doctrine of Terra Nullius – land belonging to no one – which was what was deemed when Captain Cook landed here, and was the very notion under which this land was settled or invaded (depending on how you view it). This meant that the idea that Indigenous people had no concept of land ownership or belonging was inherently false.

This was not news to Indigenous people though it itself caused panic over a potential constitutional crisis for if Terra Nullius was a legal fiction then what happens to a constitution which was drafted under that very basis? Yet the notion of Indigenous sovereignty and land rights is yet to be reconciled in this country and it won’t go away until it is. For how much of this ignoring of our past as a country factors into the psyche of people today? How does this continued social ignorance permeate the very structures which exclude, which discriminate and which disenfranchise thus contributing to the sorts of statistics I have highlighted here tonight? How can this truly be the “lucky country” for all when we cannot own our own history and grow from it in unity?

I am often asked what I think a treaty would entail, and like a good trade unionist I tend to reply “the coming together as equals around a table to bargain for a fair outcome”. I feel it has the opportunity to ensure that the most basic of services like housing, water, food, health care and education are no longer things which are treated as rewards for compliance in some of our most disadvantaged Indigenous communities in this country. These are basic human rights and equal access should be a given. I feel that the notion of land rights would be discussed in this context, with recognition and reparation part of the deal. Speaking of reparation, I would like to see this for the Stolen Generations and also for the Stolen Wages (or the many generations of Aboriginal people who undertook forced labour while their wages were held in a trust never to be seen by the workers). Most of all though, it would contain the right to self-determination: for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have the right to make their own decisions about their lives and their communities and have the governmental support to do so rather than continually just being victims of imposed governmental policy set up to fail. A treaty would contain obligations the government would need to adhere to and therefore provide a blueprint for a fairer country into the future.

And at the end of the day, that’s what I want. I believe that we can do so much better when it comes to the rights of Indigenous peoples in this country, and I wholeheartedly believe it is for the betterment of everyone living here today if we do. For without this, we are continuing to live on a legacy which lacks truth, understanding and equality. We perpetuate this, generation after generation and then wonder why the disparities remain; why cycles continue; why we still need to protest. More than anything though, through my years out there protesting on the streets and seeing the numbers expand as more and more people from all walks of life take a stand for what’s right, I know we can do this. For there are many compassionate people in this country who want a fairer future too and are willing to walk alongside us to make that happen. And this truly is a wonderful thing which our country should be proud of. Thank you.

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