Yumalundi means hello in the Ngunnawal language. Across Australia, our traditional owners hail from different countries - from approximately 250 different countries. Most with different languages, practices, traditions and stories. I’m from Western Australia, and live on the lands of the Whadjuk Noongar people. In Noongar language, the word kaya means hello.
As members of the Commonwealth, many of the nations and peoples we represent have suffered at the hands of colonisation and its legacies. Australia is not immune from this experience. First Nations children are incarcerated or detained at 17 times the rate of a non-First Nations child despite making up less than 6% of the population. First Nations people face many issues that others in Australia do not: shorter life expectancy, lower levels of education and employment, inter-generational trauma, high imprisonment rates, substance abuse and lack of political representation – all a direct result of the legacy of colonialism in Australia.
As a Presiding Officer, and as a government, I believe it is our duty to work towards closing the gap, apologising, and healing the intergenerational trauma experienced by our First Nations people. When Australia was colonised, British explorers deemed this country to be terra nullius. This means ‘nobody’s land’. Except, this was somebody’s land. For at least 60,000 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on these lands. These are the lands of the oldest living culture in the world. The lands of great song lines and storytelling. The lands of immense beauty and culture. These are Aboriginal lands.
To give a history of the Parliament’s journey towards reconciliation would be amiss without mentioning the Mabo decision. The Mabo decision was the first doctrine of native title into Australian law. The High Court decision recognised that Aboriginal land belongs to Aboriginal people. Eddie Mabo began legal proceedings in 1982, where an action was brought claiming native title to the Murray Islands. The existing legal understanding in Australia operated on the assumption that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had no concept of land ownership before colonisation, and that sovereignty delivered complete ownership of all land in the new colony to the Crown, abolishing any rights that may have existed previously. This case changed the legal and national perspectives on land rights across Australia. After a decade of struggle, the Mabo case recognised the land rights of the Meriam people, the traditional owners of the Murray Islands, and overturned the belief that at the time of colonisation, these lands were terra nullius. As a result of 10 years of hard work within a system specifically curated to marginalise and silence Aboriginal people, the Australian courts recognised that indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their lands. One year later, the Native Title Act of 1993 was passed by our legendary Labor Prime Minister, Hon. Paul Keating.
It was only one year before the Native Title Act was passed and six months after the High Court’s Mabo decision that Paul Keating gave the Redfern speech – one of the most powerful speeches in Australian history. The location of the address, Redfern Park in Sydney, was significant. Redfern was the heart of First Nations, and more specifically Koori, culture and activism. This speech addressed the challenges that First Nations people faced and recognised the detrimental impact that colonisation has had on First Nations people and cultures. It is important to note that the Redfern speech was the first time any Australian Prime Minister had publicly acknowledged the harm that European settlers were responsible for.
15 years later, the Labor Prime Minister, Hon. Kevin Rudd, gave a National Apology to First Nations people, particularly to the Stolen Generations, for historic laws, policies and practices that have contributed to the intergenerational trauma that still exists today. The journey to this historic National Apology had its inception with the ‘Bringing them Home’ report into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that were forcibly removed from their families by our federal and state governments and church missions are known as the Stolen Generations. Not only were many of the children abused – psychologically, physically or sexually – after being removed and while living in group homes or adoptive families, but they were also deprived of their culture alongside their families.
The inquiry that led to the ‘Bringing them Home’ Report heard from 535 First Nations Peoples. One witness, Rose, said to the inquiry: “After about 14 years my eldest brother came to live with us. One sister found us through the Salvation Army about 16 years later. Then my baby brother … who died last year … was caught up in the system, was like a lost street kid and was bashed by the police in Melbourne a couple of years ago. He ended up with a tumour on the brain and was never the same again. My second sister … my family didn’t see for 27 years. What could anyone do now to make up for those 27 years of not having their sister a part of their life? It’s a terrible big hole in my heart that will never be filled. We all are in contact with each other now and we try to make up for all those lost years. But something’s missing.”
I have a copy of the National Apology framed in my office as a reminder of the journey our nation has walked together to reconcile the legacies of colonisation, and I know that many of my parliamentary colleagues have also done the same.
We are still working towards this reconciliation. In the Parliament of Australia, we now include an Acknowledgement of Country in both chambers, at the start of every sitting day. My government rallied to have the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags proudly on display in both chambers and we are taking innovative steps to enshrine a First Nations voice to Parliament.
When we speak of parliamentary innovation, we are not referring to technological innovation. We speak of ways in which we can make this country better. We speak of ways in which we can reform our practices to bring them into the modern day, and ways in which we can create a better future for all citizens. Parliaments are changing institutions. The rules, conventions and the constitution that governs the way in which we as Parliamentarians and Presiding Officers can best serve our nations can be changed for the better. We cannot do this without changing our Constitution. In May 2017, a series of dialogues were held across Australia leading up to the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru. Over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates participated in 12 dialogues and one regional meeting, resulting in the most significant consultation of First Nations peoples in Australia’s history. These 250 delegates met in the shadow of Uluru and signed the historic statement – the Uluru Statement from The Heart.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for constitutional change and meaningful, structural reforms based on justice and self-determination for First Nations peoples. It calls for a First Nations voice to Parliament enshrined in the constitution, and a Makarrata commission to supervise processes of agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and truth-telling about our history.
The sequential reforms of Voice, Treaty and Truth are a necessary in making practical steps to reconciliation. As a 122-year-old Federation, and 234-year-old migrant-settler history in Australia – the time is now!
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a generous invitation to the Australian people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to walk in a movement for a better future for all. The goal is to make a difference for all Australians and to be proud of the fact that we share this continent with the oldest continuous culture on earth.
The Australian Government has committed to holding a referendum in late 2023. A ‘Voice to Parliament’ will encourage direct consultation where matters affect First Nations people, be it their education, health, housing, incarceration rates and justice issues. These are all issues that we need to make progress on, and I believe Australians are ready to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution.
This type of innovation is the work of many leaders before us, and I will work with my government and the community to work towards reconciliation both within Parliament House, and across the country.
This article is based on a speech given at the 26th Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth (CSPOC) which took place from 3 to 6 January 2023 in Canberra, Australia. CSPOC is a separate independent organisation, although many of its participants are also members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. More information can be found at www.cspoc.org.