On the eve of the millennium, Australians have developed through the course of the century a multicultural democracy which has been no mean achievement and which its people should value. The nation has transformed from an insular, monocultural community vehemently commitment to the racist concept of a White Australia, to a nation which has embraced diversity and has sought to come to terms with the racism of its heritage.
Australians do not quite appreciate the important things with which they have been blessed: the protection of the Rule of Law, a stable system of parliamentary democracy, resources sufficient to provide for all of its people, and the rich diversity of cultures that immigration has brought to the country. Immigrant Australians of various ethnic and national backgrounds live in a generally tolerant and inclusive society.
If multiculturalism has been a great achievement for Australia, the place of the original Australians in the life of the nation still remains its great shame and shortcoming. In perhaps the most well-endowed nation on the planet, the indigenous peoples of Australia are still amongst the most wretched of the earth. All indicators show time and time again that indigenous Australians have life chances comparable to the most afflicted groups on the planet.
The fundamental problem has been and still is racism. It was racism that threads the story of the colonial dispossession of the continent’s original inhabitants, and which underwrote the massacres, the poisonings and the dispersals. It was racism that underpinned what the recent Human Rights Commission described as the genocidal policy of removing hundreds and thousands of children from their families in a conscious policy of ethnic cleansing.
Australia has a troubled history in relation to race, and in particular concerning the treatment and position of the indigenous people throughout the colonial period and in its aftermath. It is a history causing a great contemporary moral turbulence.
Even in these last years of the twentieth century, the people of the country and its political leaders are engaged in convulsions concerning this history and its vigorous, living legacy in the present.
Racism remains the most debilitating ailment of black Australia and the most prodigious impediment to the inclusion of the original Australians into the life of a bountiful nation.
It was the High Court of Australia’s decision in the Mabo Case in 1992, which recognised under the country’s Rule of Law, the land rights of Aboriginal peoples to their traditional homelands, that provided for the first time the most comprehensive opportunity for a just settlement of these historic grievances.
Under the country’s Rule of Law we were finally given the opportunity to make peace and to reconcile. A once-in-nation’s-lifetime opportunity to settle a longstanding grievance.
But the tragedy is indigenous Australians are currently facing an attempt by the Federal Government of Australia to enact laws which would mostly destroy the rights of indigenous people as declared by the High Court. In order to extinguish indigenous land title the Federal Government will have to pass laws which discriminate against black Australians. It is this law which is presently before the Australian Parliament and is the subject of bitter controversy.
It is in the resistance to the Federal Government’s plans to extinguish native title through discrimination, that I have been involved, with the support of my people and the guidance of my elders. I am greatly humbled to have received the recognition of the Guezzen Resistance Foundation for my contributions. The truth is that I have only sought to advocate on behalf of the struggle and achievements of more important indigenous leaders of Australia who have fought longer and harder for the rights of our people.
Let me accept this award in honour of the late justice fighter, Eddie Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander from Murray Island in northern Australia - for it was his struggle and achievements that I have sought to continue. It was his struggle to find redemption under the country’s Rule of Law which was rewarded, and which has given Australians a great opportunity for reconciliation. It is this achievement that Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard and his Federal Government are at this very time, intent upon destroying.