I thank you, Madam President. It is a delight to stand up for the first time and not have to preface anything by saying that this is not my first speech. On this occasion I can say it is my first speech. I think it is appropriate to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal people, and their special relationship with this place. I also take the opportunity to thank the Ngunnawal people and most particularly Matilda House and the elders for their blessings and welcome ceremony some weeks ago. It is my sincere hope that this becomes a regular feature of protocol for all Australians in our promise to achieve national reconciliation.
It is also appropriate on this occasion to acknowledge the elders of my people, the Gumbayynggir, and on their behalf reciprocate their blessings to the Ngunnawal people. On this special occasion, I make my presence known as an Aborigine and to this chamber I say, perhaps for the first time: Nyandi baaliga Jaingatti. Nyandi mimiga Gumbayynggir. Nya jawgar yaam Gumbayynggir. Translated, it means: My father is Dhunghutti. My mother is Gumbayynggir. And, therefore, I am Gumbayynggir.
Many people come to this place not as politicians but as farmers, as miners, as teachers and so on. I come to this place as a Gumbayynggir Goori but also as a reconciliationist. Every one of us arrives with our own interests and every one of us departs with a whole set of new interests, and on this occasion nothing should be different.
I have been given a unique opportunity where the people of New South Wales have placed a political trust and confidence in my ability to deliver. However, I do not wish to disguise the intense focus which I feel on this occasion because indigenous eyes are upon me.
I have known for some time that the challenge in being elected would arise in being Aboriginal and being Australian. I am not here for popular interest but for the interests of my country and to further the interests of indigenous Australians. So in that regard I must show leadership that contains the sentiment of impartial leadership that has no contradiction by combining the attributes of being both Aboriginal and Australian.
To begin, let me state that the indigenous grievance is deeper than mere questions of party consideration. I want to first touch upon the matter of the preamble and my apparent discord with other indigenous leaders. It must be stated from the outset that Patrick Dodson is truly the father of reconciliation, but I am not Patrick nor am I Gatjil Djerrkura. If I could have that same time over again, I would probably do the same because I am simply me. I want to strongly impress upon this gathering that there exists no discord but everlasting respect where every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle but a different expression of the same intent. I believe that in the spirit of reconciliation there is goodwill to achieve the same thing.
Reconciliation is perceived as a simple and easy thing. On the contrary, it is difficult because it challenges the things about this nation which prevented our proper recognition and being. If reconciliation is to challenge, then it must remove the obstacles of exclusion and provide the very vehicle by which we achieve proper recognition and national social cohesion.
It is unquestionable that the wheels of reconciliation have stalled, but that ought not prevent the breaking of the wedge to allow those wheels to freely turn. Whilst others may not agree on wording, there should be no confusion of any intent. We must get the wheels of reconciliation turning again. We must bulldoze every obstacle to the inclusion of Australia's indigenous people in national life. The preamble decision was not an act of arrogance but an act of national interest. It sought to remove the biggest obstacle to exclusion—our recognition in the national Constitution—but most importantly it needed to be done to provide the means by which reconciliation can now proceed.
The biggest obstacle to reconciliation is fear, and every reconciliationist has a higher responsibility to remove white fear in the interests of achieving permanent reconciliation. I see at this moment an entire nation grappling with all the oppressions of Australia's indigenous peoples. I see a nation crippled by racial resentment, disabled in its capacity to do good and prevented in courage to stop further wrongs from being done.
There can be no question that any recognition deferred in the preamble could only enhance the price of purchasing future reconciliation. Hence my conviction that the inevitable product of such a plan would, in time, outweigh any perceived losses. The preamble does not diminish reconciliation but enhances it, and it is now our responsibility to build on that step by establishing a proper relationship between the preamble, other Australians and the broader process of reconciliation.
In two centuries, it is true to speak of colonies and a nation as being less than half-perfect in its dealings with Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. It is also true that, in return, Australia's indigenous peoples have reciprocated only half an affection. As a nation, we were committed without our consent to another man's cause for assimilation, a cause that reason could not defend. There is no question of a past relationship that is of both goodwill and bad intentions, but we should not be so guarded in our past memories that they prevent us from straddling the divide of achieving a consenting reconciliation.
There is some truth in the sentiment that, in a 200-year struggle, the past has nothing to apologise for. It is argued by some that the decision made for my people was one of goodness, not of persecution; of assimilation, not of genocide; and in honesty, for their own good. As my colleagues and friends would attest, we are reviled for our protests and branded un-Australian when we take our case abroad. Our complaint is not so much about our condition or that we have no recognition like our brothers and sisters in other places. Our complaint is that we have no recognition from the other people in this country.
Mabo should never have been a cause for outrage at indigenous success. It was simply the victory of belated justice over others' discontent, and it should have given us the opportunity for talk on the higher ideals of justice rather than on the mere question of property.
The errors of the past are not there to imply guilt, but they are instructions of the things we must avoid repeating in the future. No-one should suggest that what I contemplate is the domination of one or the other—it is the struggle for recognition of rights and equality of opportunity. My commitment to my country is equalled by my commitment to reconciliation. It is a commitment which does not exist in blindness to the nation's faults, in deafness to the nation's racial discord or in the perpetuation of legal wrongs.
In reconciliation no new idea is contemplated within the law, and if law were our guarantee the idea of progress could not be right. For the law governs progress, it does not fixate; it provides genuineness in its capacity to embrace every illegality of reconciliation. This is not a difficult idea, just an idea made difficult by men with false ideals.
Our laws have created a tragedy among many of my people, and the beauty and splendour of this country conceal the legacies of the policies and the symptoms of rottenness, decay and idleness. I too hear talk of reciprocity, but it would be wrong to suggest that the moral evil of our condition has its origin with ourselves. This is wrong, and it fails to understand the cause of idleness. Indigenous Australians are not responsible for failing government policy, nor is there a conspiracy in the bush to be sick, unemployed or in gaol. These are the legacies of the shameful past that continues to manifest itself in the present. So our focus must be on the evil of that idleness, and not on the victims of indiscriminate laws. The legitimate source of idleness and the consequences of its miseries rest within the laws of this country.
I speak first of an honest claim to the right to fish by Torres Strait Islanders and the story of Mr Benjamin `Ali' Nona, of the Mabo-made-famous island of Mer. The Torres Strait Treaty recognises and protects the traditional fishing rights and the way of life of Islanders. It does this in a way which also accommodates commercial fishing and a gentlemen's understanding that allows no commercial fishing within a 10-mile zone of each of the islands. In May of last year while turtle hunting, `Ali' and his friends sighted dinghies nearby containing commercial fishermen, presumed to be within the off-limits area. The Islanders approached the fishermen and in strong terms informed them to leave the area. `Ali' apparently seized the commercial catch by pointing a crayfish spear at the fishermen, and from there `Ali' and his two colleagues were served with indictments alleging theft of fish with violence—something almost equivalent to armed robbery.
That particular case was heard, and the judge noted that similar incidents had happened previously and gone unchecked by the Commonwealth government, the Queensland government and the joint management authority that was established to implement that very treaty. His Honour made the point that the authority as the representative of the Crown was duty-bound to protect the fishing rights and the way of life of the Torres Strait Islanders. What is noteworthy in this case is the existence of a treaty not applied elsewhere in the country, operating on the principle of coexistence but allowing for Islander commercial activity.
The judge was right in his decision, but the real victims of the law were the Islanders and the commercial fishermen, one because they held a real expectation that government would honour the treaty, and the others because of the failings of government to enforce the meaning of the treaty so that they understood what they could do. Despite the judge's finding, this matter has not ended, and it is highly likely that the Queensland government will press for further criminal charges to be laid against `Ali' and his other friends. Sometimes governments inspire contempt by their stupidity. If the Queensland government pursues this matter, it has no right to complain of grievances it does not suffer nor to use this case to promote self-interest rather than to highlight its own failings.
So none of us is justified on any grounds in supporting the idleness which I am prepared to fight. None of us is justified in supporting the laws and the practices which encourage this idleness. None of us is justified in supporting a false view of black Australians which creates that idleness. Black Australians do not labour under an incapacity to become Australian but under an incapacity of other Australians to recognise black capacity and worth. If we are to find a way forward, we must first recognise that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders are more aware of the needs and desires of their communities than governments, and they should have primary responsibility for meeting those needs.
It is also fundamentally important that the federal government move away from the surrogate role which undermines the achievement of self-sufficiency. The economies of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders are extremely depressed, with unemployment rates amongst the highest in the country. The development of local and regional economies therefore must become the No. 1 priority of this government, which will lead to jobs and the generation of revenue for community services.
Whilst there has been limited improvement in the health of communities, there is a direct correlation between poor health and the lack of a job. For this reason alone, the government must immediately address the health crisis in communities across the country. The government must also develop a National Framework of Services and Self-sufficiency that provides the means by which rights arising under native title can be recognised and local and regional economies can be invigorated. It is vitally important to the concept of self-sufficiency that, in time, communities must reduce their dependence on government funds in exchange for increased economic and political rights.
In essence, communities must be given the tools to develop an economic base, to satisfy native title demands, to maintain cultural heritage and to promote economic self-sufficiency. It is unquestionable that indigenous people have had limited opportunities to invest in their own economies, because often there has been no established resource base for community investment and development. The creation of a resource base must arise from a partnership between Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, the business sector and the government. Only through that process can there be established a proper economy that provides benefits to the broader community as well as to indigenous peoples.
I want to move very quickly to another issue of concern to me: the issue of ATSIC itself. This government must respect a strong, national indigenous voice through the evolution of ATSIC. It must renew its commitment to the idea of communities having the capacity to determine for themselves. It must also establish a framework in which proper consideration can be given to traditional and customary rights and, most importantly, a renewal of a commitment to reconciliation. I say to Gatjil Djerkurra that I support with great confidence the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and I use this occasion to call on all governments to coordinate their well-intended work with the commission. The commission has continuously shown that it is prepared to work with those who are prepared to work in partnership with it. I am but one indigenous voice among many, but I believe that I am obliged to promote those other voices and to move this government to constructive concord with Australia's indigenous peoples. Everyone's effort is required if we are to achieve the nation's ambition of reconciliation.
Finally, I want to visit the matter of the Bringing them home report and the recommendation that the past be acknowledged and there be a gesture of atonement. I support the idea of an apology being given and I take great pride in knowing that every parliament in this nation has, in its own words, acknowledged the past and expressed sorrow about the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. These responses have been mixed, but their expression of acknowledgment, sorrow, regret, apology and reconciliation has been clear. By far the worst came from Queensland and by far the best came from Tasmania. If the sunshine state and the Apple Isle present the best litmus test for resolution of this issue, then I encourage this government to follow its most conservative Apple Isle colleagues by dealing with this matter with honesty, sincerity and decency.
In moving forward we must place an immeasurable space between what was and what could be, through the key factors to achieving reconciliation, namely: an acknowledgment of past practices and their consequences, an apology, and a renewed commitment to reconciliation. This has not been an easy issue to deal with, and over the past few days I have agonised over the heartfelt views of members of the stolen generation and their families for the consequences of an unjust past.
I am not a stolen generation member, but I am mindful of my duty as a human being to acknowledge their past, their hurt and the consequences of poor decisions which left scars in families and an indelible stain on the national character. These are the results of misguided past policy, but I am now mindful of a moral duty to acknowledge those miseries, to call upon conscience to put these matters to rest and, through reconciliation, to render justice for all. I now put on notice my intention to call upon this government to act above party consideration and to raise the country's pre-eminence in dealing with a matter of national interest by moral obligation. I call upon this government to renew its commitment to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, to reaffirm its commitment to addressing the economic and social disadvantage of indigenous Australians, and to express its deep and sincere regret for the hurt and the trauma that has been suffered by so many indigenous peoples.
In closing, I want to acknowledge the presence of so many people in the gallery. It is with their support that I am here today. To my Gumbayynggir Elders, I pay respect. I acknowledge my indigenous brothers and sisters for their journey to this place—Les, Geoff, Charles, Lowitja, Parry, and so on. I acknowledge members of reconciliation groups and supporters of indigenous struggle. Mrs O'Brien, I thank you for your particular effort. I acknowledge my friends, who are both black and white—some of them are farmers, some of them are lawyers, others are accountants. All of them good people. I particularly mention Anne Martin for her special efforts, my brother Stephen, who is unable to be here today, and my cousins and my other brother Lee. Finally I want to make particular mention of my mother, Mrs Colleen Ridgeway, my two sons, Jay and Liam Ridgeway, and my partner in life, Stephanie Sims. Thank you for your support, patience and enduring friendship. I now put this before the Senate.