Tuesday, 14 February 2023
National Apology to the Stolen Generations: 15th Anniversary
Monday marked 15 years since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued the apology to the stolen generations. It's 15 years since the nation offered a formal apology to our First Nations peoples, which acknowledged the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments had resulted in the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, and 'inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians'. It was a profound moment for this place, and for our nation. It was a moment where, as a nation, we could collectively acknowledge the wrongdoings of our predecessors and start to look together towards the future. It was a moment where, collectively, we told the truth.
The apology 15 years ago was just a step on the path of reconciliation. As the Prime Minister has said, one of the greatest achievements of the apology was to:
… keep alive the faith in decency and the hope for reconciliation that illuminate the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
It paved the way for the next steps on our national journey of reconciliation—voice, treaty and truth.
I want to say a few words about this anniversary in my role as Australia's Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. This journey, this national journey of reconciliation, frames the way that the world sees Australia. And in framing the way that the rest of the world sees Australia, it underlies and underpins our influence internationally. Gough Whitlam recognised this as Prime Minister when, in 1972, he said in a significant foreign policy speech:
More than any foreign aid program, more than any international obligation which we meet or forfeit, more than any part we may play in any treaty or agreement or alliance, Australia's treatment of her aboriginal people will be the thing upon which the rest of the world will judge—
it. Whitlam was right.
As Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs I can see how other nations with similar histories to ours, similar colonial pasts, are further along this path of national reconciliation with their first nations people, particularly when it comes to constitutional recognition. New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Norway—all democracies comparable to our own—all have structures in place to represent first nations people. In comparison, Australia is an outlier. We sit alone, without a formalised recognition of First Nations people. So it's no surprise, in this context, that the Albanese government's commitment to the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, our work to enshrine both constitutional recognition of our First Nations people and a First Nations voice to parliament, has not been lost on our international counterparts. The Albanese government understands that we need to incorporate the 60,000 years of Indigenous wisdom present in our nation, a gift that all of us have inherited, when we engage with our international partners.
That's why we're progressing a First Nations foreign policy, centring Indigenous perspectives, voices and practices in the way that we engage with the rest of the world. As part of this, we're appointing an ambassador for First Nations peoples. I've seen how this isn't just a 'nice to do' thing; it's not a piece of PR. It's really deepened our engagement with other countries, and the First Nations peoples in other countries, and it's really shaping the way that those countries view Australia.
We know that we need to harness the knowledge of the world's oldest continuing culture when we engage with the world. But some nations that we compete with, in our region, like to portray Australia as a colonial outpost, out of place in our own region. The process of constitutional recognition of First Nations Australia, the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament, puts paid to this lie. It shows the ability of our nation, of our political system, to change, to grow, to become a greater nation tomorrow than we were yesterday, to recognise and address the mistakes of our past.
This process of national growth and evolution is a living demonstration of the strength of our nation as an evolving society and country and of the strength of our political system. It's a comparative advantage of our democracy to be able to recognise mistakes and to change course, to set off on a more positive, inclusive course.
I have seen the enormous interest in Australia's process of Indigenous, First Nations, constitutional recognition, firsthand, in my travels as Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, particularly in regions like Africa and South America, that there's substantial interest in our process to appoint a voice to parliament.
I think this is important because, among the many reasons for the Voice, constitutional recognition is fundamental to ensuring our international counterparts see us for who we are: a proud and diverse country that lays claim to over 300 different ethnicities, a country that embodies what Noel Pearson has described as the three stories that make us one as Australians—the tens of thousands of years of continuous Indigenous culture, the Westminster traditions that followed and the multicultural migration that has enriched our society in recent decades. You cannot tell the one story of Australia without telling these three stories. As Noel Pearson has said, together these three stories tell an epic. Our job as parliamentarians is to bring these three stories together into the one national story.
The process of the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, particularly the referendum that we will hold this year to enshrine the Voice to Parliament in our Constitution, is an important moment to bring together these three stories of Australia. It is an important moment of nation-building. It's a great obligation on our part. I see it as part of the continuum from the apology that we saw 15 years ago, in this building, to the implementation of the Voice to Parliament.
It's important that we trace the history of the Voice to Parliament. When the constitutional recognition committee, Indigenous Australians, got together to consider how they wanted to be recognised in our Constitution, how they wanted to be recognised in the birth certificate of our nation, they did not want a mere symbolic recognition. They didn't want to be simply included in the preamble of our Constitution; they didn't want a tick-a-box exercise. They wanted something substantive. The consensus ask they came up with was the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament. It's a great gift that we have been given—a gift that is an opportunity for nation building.
In my community in Melbourne's west we are very proud to be the home of that wonderful, outstanding Indigenous leader William Cooper, who lived in Footscray. His magnificent moustachioed visage is visible from the Footscray train station to everyone commuting into the CBD. William Cooper wasn't just a trade unionist; he wasn't just a pastor. He was an advocate before his time. His ideas were before their time. In the 1930s he called for land rights, but he also called for direct representation of Indigenous voices representing Indigenous peoples in Parliament House—in the 1930s. He included that in a petition to the Prime Minister and later to the King. And we can clearly see the echoes in that petition—that desire for an Indigenous voice, a First Nations voice in our Constitution, in our parliament—in William Cooper's advocacy in the 1930s.
This is part of Noel Pearson's story of the great epic of Australia. But it's incumbent on us to take it forward. I would suggest to colleagues that while the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament are a great opportunity to tell that epic story of Australia to the rest of the world—to grow our reputation, to show the ability of our country to grow and become ever greater—there's also a risk. If we fail to grasp this moment—if, as a nation and if, as parliamentarians, we fail to rise to meet this moment, to seize this opportunity for nation building—then we will be judged very harshly in the eyes of the international community who are watching our journey.
I think it's incumbent on all of us to realise the scale of the opportunity before us and the gravity of it and to put aside the petty things that sometimes dominate the discussion in this building—to take the guidance of the Apology 15 years ago, that very significant moment, and to take that shared unity of purpose together towards the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament.