NACCHO Aboriginal Health ” What Works Part 9 ” ; Hon Linda Burney’s Menzies Research Oration ” Community led programs “

 

Shadow Minister for Human Services Linda Burney makes her maiden speech in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

” Paternalism is symptomatic of a view of Aboriginal Australia which sees Indigenous people purely as the problem.

It speaks to that old lie – that Aboriginal people have inflicted this deprivation on themselves, and that governments must save them from themselves.

Despite my pessimism about the current direction of government approaches to the Aboriginal community I do see some cause for optimism.

The communities which are doing best are those which have found ways to support their own initiatives despite failing Government approaches.

I take heart from organisations like Tharawal in Sydney’s South-Western Suburbs – an Indigenous health services ( and NACCHO Member  ) which does not just focus on treating illness when it occurs.

They target what Sir Michael Marmot calls “the social determinants of health” and what the Menzies School of Health Research has worked so hard to identify. Stable housing, early education and social support.

And they are seeing excellent results. You know it is about providing this information to the organisations that already work in communities – it is not a lack of ideas, we know the programs that work and they are community led. ”

Hon Linda Burney MP : ” Truth telling and generosity – Healing the Heart of the nation  : Oration Menzies School of Health Research Darwin 18 Nov 2016

Photo above : the first elected Aboriginal woman in the House of Representatives Shadow Minister for Human Services Linda Burney makes her maiden speech at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

I open by acknowledging the Larrakia people on whose land we meet today.

I pay my respects to their elders past and present. I also take this opportunity to acknowledge their long struggle for equality, for land rights and for self determination.

I pay tribute to the Larrakia peoples’ determination in the face of denial and I mourn with them the loss of so many elders before their 23 year struggle for land rights could be resolved.

In acknowledging country I do not just pay tribute and respect –

I am acknowledging the fundamental truth that this land has played host to thousands of years of lived human experience.

Cultures evolving and changing since the first sunrise.

I want to thank the school for hosting me today. The world class socio-medical research published by the Menzies School of Health Research will lead to very real improvement in the standard of living for many Aboriginal people.

I also acknowledge today the special guests in the audience;

 Commissioner Mick Gooda, of the Royal Commission in into Juvenile Detention

 Tony McAvoy SC, the first Aboriginal Senior Council

And of course my colleagues;

 Senator Malarndirri McCarthy

 Luke Gosling MP

 Various Northern Territory administrator and MPs.

It is an honour to be invited to deliver the Menzies’ School of Health Research Oration for 2016.

If I can I’d like to offer my thoughts on 4 things –

  1. Truth telling and forgiveness, as I did for the Lingiari Oration in 2007 I want to remind you all of the importance of narrative and the need for truth as the bedrock of our reconciliation process;
  2. Recognition of First Peoples in our constitution – our next great project in truth telling and the one to which we must turn our attention to now;
  3. The perilous state of our Governments’ Indigenous Affairs policy today. and;
  4. The way, as I see it, forward from here.

But I want to start by appealing to your optimism – the facts of our condition can be dispiriting but I am reminded of the lessons taught to me by the late Faith Bandler.

I had the extraordinary honour of being invited by Faith’s daughter, Lilon, to speak at her memorial service in the Great Hall at Sydney University.

Faith more than anyone understood that we are playing the long game – it require understanding and devotion but most of all it requires patience.

The memory of Faith is an appropriate one – it was the work of Faith, along with so many others like Jessie Street and Alan Duncan that convinced the Menzies and Holt Government to hold the 1967 Referendum.

That 10 year campaign saw the revitalisation of the fight for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights and began the journey of truth telling.

In my first speech to the Australian Parliament I told the story of an older non- Aboriginal woman making her way to the voting booth late on Election Day.

It was cold and dark and her daughter urged her just to give up and go home as she slowly made her way across the park to the local public school– but she insisted.

She said that her opportunity to vote for an Aboriginal woman “was history”. She saw that she had a stake in that election that transcended “bread and butter political issues”, she didn’t need to be an Aboriginal person to understand that.

She knew that the election of an Aboriginal woman was not just a victory for Aboriginal people; it was a part of our shared national history.

Not so long ago that would not have been the case – we had two distinct historical narratives.

A white one and a black one.

“White” Australia (as it was then) had no interest in Indigenous history, and “Black” Australia had no stake in engaging with a “White” future.

That old woman proved to me that we are changing this.

For the 1988 bicentenary campaign our signature poster was “white Australia has a black history.” –

That campaign, led by Kevin Cooke and Reverend Harris (with a young Linda Burney too) sums up the feeling.

I can think of few venues in which it is be more appropriate to discuss the reconciliation movement –

A school of health research; which, along with education, is one of the greatest areas of need for Aboriginal people and,

One named for our 12th Prime Minister; who governed in an era which saw the revitalisation and renewed push for equality and self-determination for our people.

His reign marked a turning point – the beginning of the end for the Australia which was nestled firmly in the bosom of the British Empire.

It was a time of national coming of age.

I am no political fan of Menzies but I think it is true to say that without him there could have been no Whitlam or Keating or Hawke.

Their fiercely independent and inclusive model of Australian identity was born of a rebellion against the era of Menzies.

So in this sense we owe him a debt of sorts.

When I was only 4 years old in 1961, Sir Robert Menzies hosted a delegation of Aboriginal people from mainland states.

They had already been fighting for years to see a referendum held which would grant Aboriginal people equal rights.

There was considerable excitement amongst the attendees, a meeting with Prime Minister was in itself a victory for a community almost completely excluded from the political process at that point.

Menzies served his guests alcoholic drinks.

Our Prime Minister was shocked when informed by one of the attendees that that act was illegal under state law.

Such was the denial of truth and the refusal to see discrimination in our country at that time – the sitting prime minister was, himself, unaware of this discrimination.

It was paternalism in its worst form.

Menzies resigned when I was 9 years old – he had been a constant on the radio and on TV for those who had them, for much longer than that.

This explains to some extent the reverence with which so many look back on this time. To them it was stable and prosperous.

But even looking back through the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia – we cannot help but catch glimpses of the rampant discrimination of that era in the corners of our eyes.

Forced removal; captured so hauntingly in Archie Roaches’ “Took the Children Away, Government or church run reserves dictating the terms on which Aboriginal people could live, and; Government decrees which saw indigenous languages banned or even outlawed.

This was an era in which the Indigenous people of this continent were still considered biologically inferior, in which the White Australia policy still enjoyed bipartisan support.

It was a time in which the voices of women, non-white Australians and marginalised groups were systematically silenced.

So, while I pay my respects to Robert Menzies I cannot deny this truth. Nostalgia and reverence aside, this was an age of acute racism and a total denial of history.

We still considered ourselves an outpost of the British Empire, the millennia of Aboriginal history on this continent not only ignored, it was actively being hidden and destroyed.

I don’t know what Sir Robert Menzies would think of me delivering an oration named for him;

A woman;

An Aboriginal person, and;

A Labor member of Parliament.

Things have certainly changed.

If he didn’t accuse me of being a communist first, he might ask whether we had any political views in common and he might be surprised to hear where things stand today.

The fact is, regardless of political stripe, Menzies and I share some core political beliefs.

Sir Robert Menzies believed that government intervention could be a tool for good; he believed that the role of government was to empower the “forgotten” Australians and; He did saw economic growth as a means to an end not an end unto itself.

In his 1961 election address he noted that “a growing nation must be a healthy one”, and while it would be up to Whitlam to introduce a nationwide health scheme,

Menzies invested significantly in the area.

He was amongst the first leaders in Australia to recognise that the health of the community was a valuable measure of its prosperity.

And while his view of the 1967 Referendum was in some ways conflicted (Menzies himself having campaigned against some proposals) he also oversaw the passage of the 1963 Commonwealth Electoral Act which granted universal suffrage to Aboriginal people regardless of the state in which they were born.

Like the story of all governments when it comes to First Peoples’, Menzies legacy is mixed.

Menzies to some extent defined his generation but he was still a captive of the more exclusionary views of his day.

Truth Telling and Reconciliation

When it comes to the reconciliation process to date, truth telling is important.

Truth telling has been a theme of my public life to date.

In my view the path to reconciliation must be grounded in a fundamental commitment to truthfulness – it is one of the cornerstones of reconciliation.

As Dr Alex Boraine, deputy chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noted at the Melbourne Reconciliation convention in 1997;

“Reconciliation… must be grounded in reality. There are 3 anchors which can keep us on the ground…. The first of these anchors is the experience of truth… of telling, of coming to terms with the truth of our past and the truth understood in this way transcends lies… it rejects denial to come clean in order to build, to heal.”

I told you earlier how surprised Menzies was to hear that the law prohibited serving his Aboriginal guests alcohol.

If not deliberately, then subconsciously, he had chosen not to see this discrimination.

As has much of the Australian community for the majority of our post-colonial history.

We cannot afford to do that.

In the last 30 years we have started to lay the anchor of truth –

We have a curriculum which teaches the truth of our history, we have a political system which now includes a record number of First Peoples and we have almost reached a national consensus about the imperative for action on closing the gap.

This kind of truth telling is not purely symbolic.

Children in our schools now understand that the history of Australia, or at least the

Australian continent, extends far beyond 228 years of colonisation.

And that is important. We won’t really be able to treat the malaise which afflicts

Aboriginal communities until the broader community understands the impact of generational disadvantage and cyclical poverty.

When Kevin Rudd delivered the apology to the stolen generation in the federal parliament he undertook a momentous act of truth-telling.

When that speech concluded two older Aboriginal women handed the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader a coolomon – it was an astounding act of generosity.

For that generosity we owe considerable gratitude, but it also demonstrates in part why the apology was so important.

That act of truth telling opened the door to forgiveness – and without it we cannot see old enmities consigned to the past.

After The Apology, as I walked into the marble foyer of the parliament I ran into Aunty May Robinson, an elder from South Western Sydney.

She held in her hands a black and white photo – and her only words to me when we saw each other were;

“Linda! I bought mum.”

We fell into each other’s arms crying.

Recognition

It is my hope that the Recognition of First Peoples in our constitution will be another of these great moments of truth telling, and that it will pave the way for a greater depth of understanding.

As it stands we have a Constitution which tells the story of western democracy; the Westminster system of government and a thousand years of its development.

But it says nothing of the more than 40,000 years of lived experience on this continent that preceded European arrival.

Our Constitution, the document on which the Parliament I sit in is founded, does not tell the truth. It is a fundamental failing and one that we cannot continue to ignore.

This is a part of the reconciliation process that Dr Boraine talked about almost 20 years ago and it is a fundamental part of our nation building project.

The symbolism of recognition belies powerful consequences.

I saw the feeling of relief on the faces of those old women in the Parliament after the apology and felt the relief of the broader Australian community at finally having acknowledged the truth.

More than anything else Recognition will add another thread to the tapestry of our national identity – a history and a story that we can all share.

I do not concede to any argument that suggests this act will be divisive. The true act of division would be a continued denial of the truth of settlement and invasion.

Recognition and Paternalism

I am also hopeful that Recognition will pave the way to a more consistent and effective approach to Government policy in the area.

For all the talk of “Prime Ministers for Indigenous Affairs” and a bipartisan commitment to closing the gap, we are yet to see the progress we need.

Life expectancy for First Australians is almost 10 years shorter than the rest of the community – the number blows out considerably further for those in rural or remote communities.

Our young people are locked up at ever increasing rates – almost 48% of those in the juvenile justice system are Aboriginal.

Our birthweights are consistently lower, as are our educational outcomes and our average earnings.

We are making slow progress – but it is not enough.

For every year that passes without dramatic improvement in our condition we draw closer to a point at which we will have failed yet another generation.

In the last week of Parliament I attended the launch of a report on the National Aboriginal Suicide Prevention Strategy.

How can it be that for Aboriginal people attending the funerals of young people is so commonplace?

One of the women who attended, Norma Ashwin, a mother who has lost her child, summed up the feeling of her community –

“We have nothing. Our kids have no hope, nothing, just a sense of no belonging… [we have] Lost everything…”

It is easy to see how in the face of this despair, Governments can turn to lazy policy options and to the comfort of the past.

Perhaps in frustration at slow progress Conservatives have done what they usually insist they will not – let the government pick and choose winning initiatives while ignoring community voices.

Conservative forces have continued to drive us back towards the paternalism of the past – from the “10 point plan” on native title and the destruction of ATSIC in the late 1990s — through to the very recent cuts to legal services, defunding of advocacy organisations and of course the denial of support for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

Half a billion dollars has been pulled out of the Indigenous affairs budget.

The trend is clear.

A concerted effort to silence the voices of Aboriginal leaders and a refusal to accept what we already know to be true —- solutions to our problems need to be found with communities, not imposed upon them.

Don Dale provides a perfect example – the Koori media had reported this story months before any mainstream news agency did and members of the local community will tell you – they had raised these issues before.

Indeed we know now that the both the Federal and State Governments’ were well aware of the issue.

But the story received scant political attention. Key advocacy organisation which could have raised the issues more loudly, either didn’t have the resources or didn’t exist anymore.

Paternalism isn’t just a failed policy approach because it pacifies communities and because it deprives individuals of their rights to self-determination –

It necessarily makes communication one way, from top to bottom.

Inflicting policy decisions on Aboriginal communities and then arriving later for a photo op and twitter post is not a substitute for consultation.

In the 1886 Corranderk petition to the Victorian government William Barak wrote on behalf of his people;

“Could we get our freedom back…to come home when we wish and also to go for our good health when we need it…”

It troubles me that today that I am increasingly asked by our community those same questions today – “can WE offer a solution?”… “can WE provide the services?” … “can WE our own choices?”

Command and control policy from Canberra will not help – at best it might make politicians and public servants in Canberra feel better at not having to hear cries for help

Paternalism is symptomatic of a view of Aboriginal Australia which sees Indigenous people purely as the problem.

It speaks to that old lie – that Aboriginal people have inflicted this deprivation on themselves, and that governments must save them from themselves.

Optimism and a Way Forward

Despite my pessimism about the current direction of government approaches to the Aboriginal community I do see some cause for optimism.

The communities which are doing best are those which have found ways to support their own initiatives despite failing Government approaches.

I take heart from organisations like Tharawal in Sydney’s South-Western Suburbs – an Indigenous health services which does not just focus on treating illness when it occurs.

They target what Sir Michael Marmot calls “the social determinants of health” and what the Menzies School of Health Research has worked so hard to identify. Stable housing, early education and social support.

And they are seeing excellent results.

I also see innovative new approaches, like the University of Melbourne’s first thousand days campaign – recognising that supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in that vital period bears real long term fruit.

Increasing birthweight, providing drug and alcohol support for expectant and new mothers – along with a whole range of other early interventions.

I am optimistic because we know that many of the solutions we need already exist – they are not prohibitively expensive or impossible to institute.

Here at the Menzies School of Health Research for example, you’ve done the research.

You know it is about providing this information to the organisations that already work in communities – it is not a lack of ideas, we know the programs that work and they are community led.

They just require political bravery – and with a record number of First Australians inside our parliament and an increasingly active and determined community outside it, I am confident we can find that will.

I am confident that you can find it on my side of the chamber – I have never had more faith in my party’s commitment to Indigenous Affairs.

I am optimistic because for the first time since colonisation we have a parliament that is beginning to represent the community and we will soon have a constitution that tells the truth.

I talked earlier about Faith Bandler and her long game.

She saw better than most that the campaign for the 1967 referendum was much longer than 10 years – it was a starting point for the project we are still running today.

Martin Luther King Jr said that “The arc of the moral universe [was] long but [that it] bends towards justice”

I think Faith agreed, I know I do.

But Faith more than most saw that it was up to us to shape that arc – and I am confident that we can.

We will have set backs, and we’ve taken some steps backwards but those aberrations do not define the trend.

This is a process of national healing, it is a long journey and it does take time.

To do it we need to tell the truth; and we are starting to do that.

We need generosity; and believe that the First Peoples have that in spades.

And most of all we need to accept that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are a part of the solution not just the problem.

Most of all I take my optimism from the determination of Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal communities across Australia.

In her first speech to the Federal Parliament not so long ago your Senator for the Northern Territory Malarndirri McCarthy said in reference to her people’s struggle for land rights;

“[We are] battle fatigued, perhaps we are better to acquiesce? But we are here still, and we are not going away.”

I think the sentiment applies far more broadly – now more than ever I believe in our communities’ commitment to addressing these issues.

We are not going anywhere.

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