Thursday, 8 September 2022
Torres Strait Islander Council Conference Anniversary
A few weeks ago, on 23 August, Torres Strait Islander regional leaders came together on Masig Island to mark an important milestone, the 85th anniversary of the first ever Torres Strait Islander Council Conference. As a senator for Queensland, I feel lucky to serve such a culturally rich community. The Torres Strait is made up of hundreds of islands in the strait between Cape York and Papua New Guinea. There are 15 unique communities represented by the Torres Strait Regional Council, led by my friend, Mayor Phillemon Mosby.
While I have spent a lot of time in the Torres Strait, this was my first time visiting Masig Island. Masig is a community of only 250 people. Its history is one of fishing, activism, religion, song and dance. Masig is represented by Councillor Hilda Mosby. Hilda has made the progress of her community her life's work. During the time I spent with her touring the island, she communicated the issues of her community through profound story and frank feedback. Hilda was hosting hundreds of visitors on Masig Island but took the time to take me to the quiet corners in need of repair and the proud monuments of her community's history. Like her peers on the regional council, Hilda is hands-on and extremely passionate about her community and region.
The Torres Strait Islands comprise of 15 communities, each with their own custom, law, culture and, most importantly, delicacy. It takes real work, thoughtful leadership and generous compromise to build consensus amongst the islands and that's exactly what was achieved on this historic occasion. The Masig conference drew a through-line between the past of the Torres Strait, its present and its future. Community leaders shared insight from the very first council conference held on 23 August 1937. It would be remiss of me to not acknowledge this is a historical date for more than one reason. Not 30 years later, on 23 August 1956, Vincent Lingiari led the Gurindji strike, or the Wave Hill walk-off, on the exact same date in the calendar.
Fast forward to 2022, and 23 August was the date of the Torres Strait Islander community leaders signing and reciting what they refer to as the Masig Statement, or the Voice from the Deep. The Masig Statement outlines a path to self-determination and regional autonomy for the Torres Strait. In my first few hours on the island, I heard Deputy Mayor Bani say, 'This is the beginning of a new beginning for the Torres Strait.' This refrain was repeated throughout the celebrations.
In the context of a looming referendum, a community striving for new beginnings feels full of promise. We spoke at length about what this statement means in the context of a voice to parliament. As my good friend Thomas Mayor said, 'On this occasion, this statement gives strength to the campaign for a voice to parliament. It complements the Uluru Statement rather than competes with it, because the statement is about a community clearly articulating their ambitions for their kids, their grandkids and future generations.'
Torres Strait Islanders are a people renowned for their clever, patient campaigning. Through my time visiting the Torres Strait as a senator for Queensland I have observed that an important part of building consensus is sharing story. After years of spending time with community, I took the time during my address to share with elders where I had come from and how that translated into my strong commitment for collectivism and justice. I spoke about education and collectivism, learnt from the trade union movement, and reflected on the ways in which our histories interweave through shared activism and cooperation. I was grateful to deepen my knowledge of the history of the Torres Strait and the many ways it is communicated. It is hard to put into words just how much can be communicated with story, dance and song. Pages of beautiful words brought to life through movement and sound.
I want to talk about Councillor Uncle John Abednego. Deep in the hot afternoon, just after a lunch of sandwiches and fruit, he stood up in front of a crowded room and, through his words and his story, invited the rest of the Torres Strait Islander leadership to culturally adopt me as their daughter and sister. I'm very honoured that they collectively said yes. I realise that this is symbolic in nature, but I was very deeply moved. I take this generous welcome in the spirit in which it was offered, with thoughtful consideration to how I can contribute to the community and profound respect for the history that I have been invited into.
That contribution starts here today, using my voice to build awareness, consensus and enthusiasm, not only for the Masig Statement, but for a Voice to Parliament, that is so deeply needed to restore self-determination to the people of the Torres Strait.
With the remaining time I want to read the Masig Statement into the Hansard tonight, and I do so wearing this necklace that Phillemon Mosby was wearing when he read this Masig Statement for the first time in front of the crowd. He gifted it to me before I left the island. The statement says:
To establish principles and parameters on behalf of the peoples of the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Area to act together in unity, in order to pursue and achieve self-determination and regional autonomy and, in so doing, preserve our distinctive and diverse spiritual, material and economic relationship with the lands, territories, waters, coastal seas and other resources with which we have connection under Ailan Kastom and Aboriginal tradition.
1. In accordance with Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 13th September 2007 and supported by the Australian government on 3rd April 2009 and the Preamble of the Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld), we seek to achieve our right to self-determination as the peoples of the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula area.
2. By virtue of our sovereign right, we have the right to freely determine our political status and to freely pursue our economic, social and cultural development.
3. In keeping with Article 4 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in exercising our right to self-determination, we have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to our internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.
4. Therefore, we will create partnerships with key regional stakeholders, the Queensland and Australian governments together with other relevant organisations to better equip us to work together to achieve our regional goals and aspirations; and in working together as representatives of the peoples of the Torres Strait and the Northern Peninsula Area obtain and safeguard our human rights enshrined in international, national and Queensland law.
PAST: 23 August 1937 was the beginning of regional economy …
PRESENT: 23 August 2022 is the beginning of a new beginning … the MASIG Statement.
FUTURE: 23 August 2037 will be the beginning of regional sovereignty.
I want to thank all of the people of the Torres Strait who welcomed me to Masig Island. Through this statement we see enormous grace. It's a hard-fought consensus on the future of a truly unique region. It is the beginning of a new beginning of the Torres Strait. It is the beginning of a pathway to a Voice to Parliament.
I implore other senators in this place to hear these words, to work with us and to take up the generous offer that the Uluru Statement delivers, that the Masig Statement delivers and that a Voice to Parliament promises.