House debates

Tuesday, 23 May 2023

Grievance Debate

First Nations Australians

7:00 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia has milestones in its relationships with First Nations people that we can be very proud of. On 27 May 1967, Australians voted to change the Constitution so that, like all other Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be counted as part of the population and the Commonwealth would be able to make laws on behalf of them. On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia recognised that a group of Torres Strait Islanders, led by Eddie Mabo, held ownership of Mer, Murray Island. In acknowledging the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their land, the court also heard that native title existed for all Indigenous people, paving the way for the Native Title Act and rendering as fiction the legal doctrine of terra nullius.

These are two of the most momentous developments in the advancement of First Nations people in the 20th century that reflect well on our nation, on our people and on our legal system. In both cases, the voices of First Nations people were heard and change was enacted. Today, these dates mark the commencement and conclusion of National Reconciliation Week each year. Since its origins in 1993, this week has provided an opportunity for all Australians to focus on the importance of building relationships and communities that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' histories, cultures and futures. Reconciliation is a living concept. It is something that we must all look to foster within ourselves and in each other, in hearts, minds and actions.

So often in the past, and today in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the anniversary of which we also celebrate on Friday this week, 26 May, it is our First Nations people extending the hand of reconciliation to all of us. Yet too often, as a society, we fail to play our part in reconciliation, and it is painful to see opportunities lost to strengthen our nation through respectful relationships between the community as a whole and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We love to celebrate the positives, but must also be frank in addressing the shortcomings of race relations in our country.

Like many, I enjoy the celebrations that accompany the Indigenous rounds of the Australian Football League and the NRL and congratulate the leagues and clubs for continuing to make the contributions of First Nations people to their games a centrepiece of their annual calendars. Watching the incredible players like the Bombers' Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Melbourne's Kysaiah Pickett, who absolutely tore Carlton to shreds, and of course Jesse Motlop, who is a proud member of the Navy Blues, will never get old. Recently we saw the Bulldogs' Jamarra Ugle-Hagan make a courageous stand against racism, following the example set 30 years ago by the great Nicky Winmar.

In the NRL there are also champions who are leading the way, representing their communities with dignity, power and grace. Nicho Hynes is making his Origin debut next week, and of course you've got champions like Josh Addo-Carr, who returned from injury recently. He, I think, even put down a try against the Bulldogs. More and more, Indigenous rounds are not only about recognising current and former players—and this year, in the AFL, even an umpire—but are also a celebration of Indigenous culture. Moving ceremonies take place before games and sides adopt First Nations names in place of those by which they are usually known.

I also want to note that both the AFL and the NRL, as well as Rugby Australia, Football Australia and Cricket Australia, have given public support for a yes vote in the referendum to create an Indigenous voice to parliament. In doing so it is clear that they are representing the views of their constituent clubs and, more importantly, the players in all four codes. In a country where sport plays such a big role in our national life, the leadership shown by the major sporting codes has set an example that others could well follow.

Sadly, the last week has not solely been about celebration of Indigenous achievement. Stan Grant, a pre-eminent figure in our national conversation, explained his decision to stand down from his high-profile role at the ABC as host of Q+A, as a result of unrelenting racism waged against him both on social media and in sections of the mainstream media. This controversy has exposed to public view the nasty barrage of racism that still disfigures public life in Australia and is regularly deployed against Indigenous leaders and commentators who dare to tell us the truth about Australia's past and seek a stronger and more united future.

Of course, being able to tell the truth about our past is an essential aspect of reconciliation. Makarrata, coming together after a struggle to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and truth-telling about our history, is one of the three pillars of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, along with voice and treaty. When Stan Grant spoke last night he, like so many other First Nations people, did so with a hand outstretched in generosity. He spoke of how those who came at him, and his people, with hate would be met with love. People who came at him with hate would be met with love. How is it that we deserve this generosity? Time and time again our First Nations people welcome us into their embrace, showing us the path towards reconciliation.

As members of parliament, as leaders in our community and in the nation, we must greet this embrace with reciprocal generosity and show the way through negativity, disinformation and flat-out racism. Along with others who have had the loudest voices in our nation, including the media, we must not only set the tone of debate but raise it. We must not miss the opportunity presented to us by Stan's bold and clear statement about the personal and collective effects of racism, to lift the standard once again. From now on, we have a moment to decide how we're going to behave. I hope we do better.

I'll conclude my remarks in the grievance debate tonight with some words Stan Grant uttered, which were pretty moving. They were profound. They were kind. They were generous. They were thoughtful. Stan said:

I am down right now, I am, but I will get back up and you can come at me again and I'll meet you with the love of my people. My people can teach the world to love. As Martin Luther King Junior said of his struggle, 'we will wear you down with our capacity to love.' Don't mistake our love for weakness, it is our strength. We have never stopped loving and fighting for justice and truth, the hard truths to speak in our land.