House debates

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Indigenous Affairs

3:31 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | Hansard source

I recognise that we are on Ngunawal country and, as I am sure the vast majority of people in this place know, next week is in fact NAIDOC Week. NAIDOC Week is celebrated in mid-July each year, and this year it will run from 7 to 14 July. The theme for NAIDOC Week this year is 'Voice. Treaty. Truth. Let's work together for a shared future'. NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country. It is an incredibly proud time for everyone and an important part of our national calendar—even more so because much of the discussion and debate around First Nations affairs is focused on injustice and disadvantage. We do need to hear the positive stories as well. NAIDOC celebrations take place in communities right across this country—schools, towns, organisations and governments. Each year at the national level, there is a city of focus. This year it is Canberra, where the National NAIDOC Awards will take place on Saturday night. I look forward to joining the member for Hasluck in presenting some of those awards.

The history of NAIDOC is an amazing one, and it fits rightly into the theme for today's MPI. Of course, there is a long and significant history, and it stretches back more than most Australians would realise. It is a history born out of protest and a desire to celebrate culture and to improve the circumstances of First Nations people. Boycotts of Australia Day by Aboriginal groups have a long history in Australia, going back to before the 1920s, but a lack of acknowledgement and understanding and action by the police meant that these protests did not gain wide acknowledgement.

In an effort to give Aboriginal Australians a voice among the powerful, William Cooper, after whom the electorate of Cooper is named, wrote to King George V. He petitioned the King for special Aboriginal electorates in the Australian parliament way back then. At the time, the government simply dismissed the idea, saying it fell outside its constitutional responsibilities. Of course, Aboriginal people were not recognised as citizens in those times. It was the 1967 referendum that fixed those two issues.

On Australia Day in 1938, protesters marched through the streets of Sydney. This was followed by a congress of over 1,000 people. It was known as the Day of Mourning and was one of the first major civil rights gatherings anywhere in the world. Following this congress, William Cooper and others presented the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, with a proposed national policy for Aboriginal people. This was again rejected, because the Constitution still did not recognise Aboriginal people as citizens of Australia. In 1939, William Cooper wrote to the national missionary council to seek their support to make the protests an annual event. They agreed, and the day of mourning was held from 1940 to 1955 on the Sunday before Australia Day and was known as Aborigines Day. In 1955 Aborigines Day was moved to the first Sunday in July and became a celebration of culture, not only a day of protest. From there it grew into NAIDOC Week. It was expanded to include Torres Strait Islanders in 1991. Today, a national NAIDOC committee makes decisions on national celebrations and awards each year.

I want to go to the topic that we are having this MPI about and an amazing book I've just finished reading. I recommend it to every single person in this parliament. It's called Dark Emu and is written by Bruce Pascoe, who has traditional links to the Yuin of the South Coast of New South Wales and also to Tasmania. The book turns on its head the widely held view that Aboriginal people were hunter and gatherer societies. Pascoe uses the actual diaries and documents of the early colonists to advance a truer picture of Aboriginal society and the land. He speaks of permanent dwellings; aquaculture like the Brewarrina fish traps; farming, of daisy yam in this part of the world, for example; and the use of fire to look after country. He speaks of the pure ingenuity of the harvesting of birds and insects like the bogong moths that we are so familiar with around here. He speaks of how the economy worked based on culture, kinship ties and reciprocity. One aspect that really resonated with me because of my Wiradjuri ties was the wide open plains that early settlers described as perfect for sheep and cattle grazing. Those open plains had been made by Aboriginal people and were destroyed very quickly by hard-hoofed animals devastating country, food supply and economy. Pascoe also advances the theory that there was no need for fences, because there was no dispute about who belonged to what parts of the country. That is something we could all learn from today.

In my closing remarks, can I say on the issue of improving services being provided to Aboriginal people, there could be no more urgent action that we could undertake. We heard today in question time the Prime Minister speak about the level of youth suicide. We know what the incarceration rates are. We know what the removal rates of children are. We know what their health outcomes are. We know that we are not meeting the Closing the Gap targets. These are issues that I know people take very seriously, and we will hear shortly from the shadow minister for health on some of those issues in the health space.

The philosophy that needs to go forward, and I'm sure will go forward, is that the day has gone when Aboriginal people are told how to conduct themselves and the way in which organisations are run is determined by others. It is time for proper codesign. It is absolutely time to make sure that what we do in the Aboriginal affairs space is directed and supported, particularly by local Aboriginal communities. The Aboriginal population is a growing population but in reverse to the general population. The bulk of Aboriginal people are young people, under the age of 25. That presents particular policy issues for those of us who are responsible for developing policy. The level of domestic violence and of abuse in Aboriginal communities is a national shame. There are many Aboriginal communities across this country that do not have clean water, where people are living in the shells of cars. That is unimaginable for most people, who can go and turn on a tap and get clean water, who can flush the toilet and who have a comfortable, safe and secure home to sleep in—these are simply not the case for so many of our people. We cannot but think about that and factor it into what we do in this place with policy development. We've got to remind ourselves of the history of the incredible effect of intergenerational trauma from things like the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. That may have happened a few generations ago but it happened for a long time, and young Aboriginal boys and girls still feel the trauma of that today. It is carried with them. Those are the issues that we need to understand, absolutely. I know that the member for Hasluck has a personal story along that theme. Those are the things that we need to understand.

If a community is burying two or three young people a week, if a community is in permanent grief and people are related to each other in that small community it is impossible to function normally. These are the really important issues that must be understood by all of us in this place and by those who make policy decisions around Aboriginal people.

I commit myself to a bipartisan approach on this, and we will work collaboratively everywhere possible with the government. I know that my colleagues are supportive of that. But I say this very strongly: bipartisanship cannot be a race to the bottom. Bipartisanship has to be about achieving the highest outcomes. If bipartisanship is a race to the bottom, then it is not worth doing. I have seen in so many instances over my career where bipartisanship ends up being what you can actually agree on, and sometimes that's not very much. I know that that's not what we're talking about in this particular space.

In closing, I commend this MPI to the House and recognise the speakers who will follow me.

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