Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Statements by Senators

Indigenous Affairs

1:23 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to acknowledge Minister Ken Vowles from the Northern Territory, who is in the gallery today. He is the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Minister for Primary Industry and Resources.

Today I would like to acknowledge a town in South Australia, to which I was introduced by my good friend and colleague Senator Alex Gallacher. I wish to state my deep and sincere respect for the people of Elliston and what the town of Elliston has done for the cause of national reconciliation and truth-telling. Senator Gallacher, for some months, has been saying to me that something good, something significant for the community, both First Nations and non-Indigenous peoples, has been happening in that part of the world.

I'm grateful to him for taking me out there. I met some very wonderful people in that community. He introduced me to the Wirangu reconciliation monument on the Elliston Coastal Trail. On the coastal trail, there's an award-winning monument. The monument commemorates historic, tragic and unutterably sad events. The Wirangu people and other First Nations people have always said on the frontier outposts of Waterloo Bay that there was a massacre. First Nations peoples were driven over the cliffs into the wild seas of the Southern Ocean that raged below. Some say hundreds died on that day—the exact number is unknown. The secret was also known to some of the descendants of pioneers from that area, but it was not spoken about—not out in the open anyway.

Now the people of the town have acknowledged and commemorated that event. The people and those associated with the community of Elliston have claimed their common space. They have owned this history and claimed it as part of their future. We were told of the efforts that went into making this commemoration happen. That in itself is a story of truth-telling and growth for people with very diverse views, people like council chairman Mr Kym Callaghan, who spoke of the ups and downs they faced—the challenges, arguments and disputes—but also the growth that took place in peoples' understandings and in their hearts. There are still some detractors, but the majority of the community has moved on.

Chairman Callaghan said he initially focused on the jetty as a unique part of the walking trail but changed his mind after reading Supreme Court documents about the tragic incident. After visiting the site with two Wirangu women, he said:

I turned around and Mrs Betts was standing there with tears streaming down her face and I thought—well this isn't just a sculpture for me, this is something very important to you and your people.

He himself was going through his own cathartic experience and, with an opening up of his own heart and mind, the pragmatism drove him to establish the heritage coastal trail.

Change is hard but necessary if we are going to move forward in this space of reconciliation. The Wirangu people know how hard it is to get truth accepted and owned, but they too were part of its transformative capacity. Kym Callaghan knows how hard it is to get his fellow community members to move beyond their fear and denial and to embrace hidden truths.

The people of Elliston went about the task of constructing a wonderful coastal walking trail and found themselves collectively celebrating a moment of truth. They did this together—not out of guilt, not out of shame and not out of despair. They did these things out of hope, out of courage and out of a joint purpose when it was not always clear where the path might lead. They reclaimed a common collective space in their local community for everyone to be a part of. No-one is late to this event. It is up to your own spirit of fairness. They worked together for a long time to make this happen, because it just didn't happen at once.

Awful atrocities like this have happened in many parts of Australia, and they too need to be recognised and commemorated. But the people of Elliston sent out a message of hope and, through their local leadership, they provided national encouragement.

The University of Newcastle has produced a disturbing map of massacre sites, although not yet for my own state of Western Australia. The many dots on the map show repeated and persistent patterns of callous disregard for the sanctity of human life but also fear—fear of settlers losing their grip on what they thought was theirs. First Nations peoples were seen as a threat in the eyes of the colonists and settlers, and they were to be removed and the secrets hidden. This no longer needs to be the case. Elliston has shown us that no-one is threatened.

In Elliston there is now a monument to remind us of the events of that cruel and sorrowful day back in May 1849. It also reminds us that honesty can be reclaimed and truth-telling can be restored to a rightful place in our intertwined history, and that acknowledgement is powerful, transformative and can make the place free for the spirits—not only the physical spirits but also the spiritual sense for the traditional owners to return. They can now come back to this part of the country to commemorate the past with honour and dignity. What a great thing this is. It's great for the families and great for the future.

The greater good can also be seen in the fact that the descendants of the settlers can be part of this pride as well. For generations they have all stayed true to what they were told. They have stayed true to what their elders experienced or knew. They have stayed true to what was needed to be made right again. In the pursuit of truth-telling, they have worked with each other to achieve it.

As I told the people of Elliston, through this moment for reconciliation, no-one is late. There is no discounting for coming to the party. It is in fact a credit and an acknowledgement of the courage, the growth and the integrity of working together and reaching a mutually agreeable outcome and understanding. In the national project of reconciliation in this nation, this is what we can do: we can find common ground; we can acknowledge truth; we can rebuild; we can restructure; we can reconnect; and we can work together for an better future which we can all celebrate.

At the ceremony, young dancers from Port Augusta, called the Dusty Feet Mob, danced on the clifftop. Their barefoot stomping feet kicked up the dust where the hard shod hooves of horses once chased families into the sea. We were all moved by these young dancers. They are the conduit through which history can be bridged. Who would not want to see a future for them free of ignorance, free of hatred and free of discrimination? We want such a future for our young people, black and white, in cities and towns and in the bush. We want to see a nation that has the courage to face the truth-telling, that can come together for reconciliation, that can commemorate the past and that can work to celebrate our joint future. When we reach that future, it will be in part because the people of Elliston have shown us the way to free ourselves from lies, from fear and from untruths.