Empowered Communities

Garma Festival

2015 August, 4

Empowered Communities

Thank you to Yothu Yindi Foundation for once again giving us the privilege of talking about our agenda for empowered communities.

You'll recall we launched this in Garma 2013 with Jenny Macklin sponsoring us to get the policy thinking started, and last year we were able to give an update on our work and we're very pleased today that Andrea and Sean have outlined the framework that we've come up with for empowered communities.

But, before I proceed further I want to acknowledge the Gumatj and the very kind words of my son here, Gabirri, a Yalanji boy from Eastern Cape York. I was about his age or a bit older when I was introduced to the leadership of his father and his uncles and I've been a great beneficiary of their guidance and their spiritual succour over the last three decades. I come with a very heavy heart in the winter of his leadership. He's been ever present as a guide in my heart for the struggle of our people.

Let me say that this week I've had a great sense of discombobulation at events down south. I've had a great sense of fear and anger and trouble in my heart and I have sought to avert those two numbers - 3, 7 - because I feel like many of us don't know if we know our fellow Australians. And I feel like many of us, we think we know them too well, and I just want to offer some thoughts - I don't have my thinking entirely clear about this. But, those two thoughts may be too strong, they may not be entirely right. But, I have to say I veer between those two. We don't know if we know our fellow Australians.

I thought I know them. I thought I knew them and I'm doubting as to whether I do. On the other hand, my angry default position is I think I know them too well, and I want to make an argument this morning here that perhaps those thoughts are too strong. Because we have a choice of either leap looking into the abyss of despair, not just for ourselves but for our nation. If we look too far into the abyss of despair we will see no hope. If we think after 200-plus years this is as far as we can take it, it will be the abyss that consumes us.

So, we got to look forward to the blue horizons of hope. We've got to believe in the better angels of our nature. We’ve got to believe that we can summon up a better Australia than the one we too often show ourselves to be.

So, I want to make the case in my short remarks here this morning for hope. I want to make the case that we can rise above our anger and fear. I am as consumed with anger as any of our black Australians. Whenever my eyes have turned on the media coverage and the social media commentary, I've been consumed with rage.

But we have to believe that the horizons of hope are more enduring than the abyss of the past. We’ve got to believe that the future can finally emerge someday for this country.

I've been reading the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and trying to find some common ground with traditional conservative thinking on the part of white fellas with our own tradition. And of course, English conservatism is concerned at its heart with respect for the dead. At the heart of English political conservatism is this idea of respect for the past and for the dead.

And that is the common ground we share with them. At the core of our indigenous sovereignty are the bones and dust of our ancestors in this ancient soil. We come from this soil. We remain attached at all times to it and one day as the Western Sahara judge said, ‘we will return thither to be reunited with our ancestors’. Judge Ammoun said that was the basis of our sovereignty. That linkage with the soil and with the bones of our ancestors therein.

I said, not entirely in jest, or in fact if I be truthful not at all in jest - I said in response to the rhetorical question of Andrew Bolt that he is indigenous too is he not, I said yes. Because the white Australians are slowly accumulating the dust and bones of their ancestors in this country. But, the question I sought to put to him and I put to all Australians who have come over the seas to this country to make this place their home, the question I put to him is - that if you have something up to 200 years of your ancestors bones in this country, consider the fact that my brother Galarrwuy has 50,000 plus years of such relationship.

Could we not just pause as a country and acknowledge that the spirit of the ancestors of the original peoples outnumbers that of the new Australians by incomprehensible millennia.

I want to say that our only hope is that our love for our country and our love for our people will transcend fear, anger, and hatred. It is easy for me to say that because I am the least practitioner of patience and forgiveness. I can only urge better angels to emerge in the hearts of our indigenous brethren, sisters, fellow Australians than lurk in my own heart.

There's not a night when I don't feel the splinters in my mind about our predicament. That Galarrwuy spoke so movingly about in his essay for The Monthly. When I read that phrase the splinters in my mind are never assuaged. We could all feel those of us who work in these too often stony feels of despair and marginalisation and struggle. We all know what he means when he said that. And I hope that in the next three decades I might be able to provide to my son, Galarrwuy’s boy, the kind of succour his father provided to me in the enthusiasms of my youth.

I want to say in relation to our empowerment agenda that one way to think about it is that empowerment and recognition are complementary. The empowerment of our people and the recognition of our identity and our culture are a complimentary agenda. And perhaps one way of articulating what that policy might fundamentally be is that empowerment plus recognition equals reconciliation.

We have to recognise the culture of our people, the languages of our people, the history and truth of this nation, in order to move ahead. And at the same time we must answer the practical agenda of empowerment of self-determination of the right to development. And the right of our people to seize our own destiny.

Eleanor Roosevelt said it so plainly many years ago that the government can never do anything that we ourselves are unwilling to do for ourselves. There's nothing that the government can change for the better for us that we ourselves are unwilling to do. And our empowerment agenda is really a rearticulation of an old agenda of our indigenous cause. There is nothing in this agenda that earlier generations of indigenous leaders and advocates have not been calling for. We want self-determination. We want to chart our own destiny. We want self-management of our own affairs. And we want to empower the first nations of Australia to take charge of their children's futures.

Let me close by saying what I think the vision is. It is again shared with a kind of Judeo-Christian idea as well that I think has ancient indigenous resonance. And it is the idea that what we seek is that the First Nations of this country shall continue to live long on the earth. That's our vision. We want the Wik peoples to live long on the earth. We want the Yalanji to live long on the earth. We want the Yorta Yorta to live long on the earth. And I think we've got something to show the rest of Australia about how it is that you live long on the earth. I think our great love for each other and our country is something we can show the rest of Australia and the rest of the world that we know something about living long on the earth.

So, I again thank the organisers of this conference for once again giving us this very great privilege of coming to Gumatj country again and for sharing in this fellowship with our brothers and sisters from around the country. I think that there are big reasons to look up to the horizon of hope and not be consumed too much with our fears about the abyss.

Thank you.