Wednesday, 28 February 2007
Matters of Public Interest
I was on Palm Island on Australia Day—which the Indigenous people refer to as Invasion Day. The highlight of the day was a performance by approximately 50 kids who, having been intensively tutored over the previous week by a marvellous woman from Sydney, presented themselves in front of the hundreds of people on the oval and performed the kangaroo dance. These kids put on an amazing display. The crowd burst into applause, and one little tot in front, who was emulating what the older ones were doing, stole the show. It was a moment of great pride, great happiness and a thrill for everybody on this very troubled island.
I have a tremendous affinity with police officers and have felt a great deal of anguish about the events on Palm Island and the pain and frustration that many police officers—not just in Queensland but elsewhere—must have felt at the time and since about the publicity over those events. On the other side, I saw members of the family of Mulrunji, the man who died in the police lockup two years ago, and heard the harrowing story of events that have unfurled since then: the loss of his own son to suicide; the suicide of another young Indigenous man who happened to be in the cells and witnessed events on that night; the death of the man’s mother, said to be from a broken heart; and the incarceration of another Indigenous mother who took part in the protests afterwards. I think that she may still be languishing in jail as a result of rapid justice catching up with her and putting her into jail, separating her from her four children—for, I am told, throwing rocks at the police station.
We have not given the honour, the pride and the happiness to the first Australians that we as a nation owe them. It is possible. It was there in the dance on that day; but hanging over it was the awesome progress of events in the history of Palm Island, which are a cameo of the wider history of events in this country. Until we recognise the first Australians in our Constitution, we are all simply the worse for the failed relationship with them, for the denial of what we owe them, what they give to us, and, indeed, for the pride we get from this marvellous ancient culture which is essential to our feeling of ourselves as Australians and the identification of our nation as different from the rest of the world. One only has to travel overseas to feel that.
I am again committing the Greens during our time in this place to working hard to address the wrongs and the obvious gaps that need fixing. One has only to look at the statistics of Indigenous mortality—I was looking at one survey a moment ago which shows that half of Indigenous deaths are due to alcohol related diseases or suicide—to see an appalling state of affairs in this country. That the first Australians die an average of 20 years younger than the rest of us is an indictment of the fact that we have taken rather than given and our failure to understand, to be compassionate, to be fair-minded and to be just as a society. This has not been addressed during this period of government. It has not been adequately addressed in any period of government in this country, and we have to work much harder to bring it out of the back of minds, to bring it out of the forgotten status it is in, and to put it back onto the frontburner of affairs of this great nation of ours.
It is one thing to extol the virtues of this country but it is another to ignore the blights. The Howard government’s and our Prime Minister’s reference to ‘black armband history’, dismissing both history and our obligation for reparation, is an indictment in the last 10 years of this country. I say again: the Greens are committed to pursuing the injustice and, in particular, to ensuring justice for the first Australians of this nation and recognising the debt we all owe to Indigenous people and our failure to pay that debt.
Senator Heffernan interjects. The difference is: he is in government, and I am talking about a failure of government precedent over the last 10 years. I recognise that Senator Heffernan has been outspoken on this issue, but it takes a collective role in government, and it takes tremendous goodwill and determination on behalf of the leadership in government, which has been absent from Australian affairs and which needs to be fixed if we are to do justice to first Australians as we should.