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Mabo 20 years on: a celebration

Gail Mabo, Tom Calma, Leah Armstrong, Rod Little, Agnes Shea, Jenny Macklin and Samantha Faulkner, 30 May 2012

SAMANTHA FAULKNER: Good evening and welcome ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, and welcome to our distinguished guests this evening. I won’t name you all because I am probably going to miss some of you. But I would like to make a special welcome to our guest Gail Mabo and to our panel this evening: Dr Tom Calma, co-chair of Reconciliation Australia; Miss Lea Armstrong, CEO of Reconciliation Australia; and Mr Rod Little, chairperson of the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body and director of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of this country and pay respects to your ancestors. I acknowledge the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here this country and pay respects to your ancestors as well. Thank you for joining us this evening to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Mabo decision. I am Samantha Faulkner, director of the ACT Torres Strait Islander Corporation and your MC for this evening.

Tonight we are honoured to hear from Gail Mabo, who will share her personal story about her father and his significance to his family. We are also very lucky to have our three Indigenous leaders tonight who will join us in a short panel discussion, reflecting on the last 20 years and also thinking ahead and sharing what their future wishes are as well. After that I would like to ask you to join us for refreshments and to have a chat with the panel.

Firstly, I would like to welcome Auntie Agnes to the stage to give her welcome to country.

AGNES SHEA: Good evening everyone. It is nice to see you all on one of Canberra’s fresh evenings. I am very proud and honoured to be here this evening to welcome you to the land of our country of the Ngunnawal people.

Firstly, I would like to start off by acknowledging Minister Jenny Macklin, Minister Chris Bourke, Gail Mabo, Tom Calma, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I also extend that welcome to all of our other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends who have joined us here this evening, and a special welcome to all elders regardless of your cultures. There are other Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples from many nations around the country and the world who have come to live on the Ngunnawal land. I would like to acknowledge and pay my respect to them also, especially those who have joined us here this evening.

In this National Reconciliation Week the theme is ‘let’s talk recognition’. This focuses on how Australians can better recognise each other and recognise the contribution, cultures and histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We all know the importance of recognition and how good it makes us feel. National Reconciliation Week is the perfect opportunity to recognise all Australians and the unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within this country.

The third of June, Mabo Day, is celebrated each year by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It recognises the efforts that Eddie Mabo and the other Torres Strait Island people achieved 20 years ago at the High Court of Australia. Their victory is a victory for us all. This decision recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a great relationship to the land that existed prior to colonisation and still exists today. This recognition paved the way for land rights called native title.

It is lovely to join you this evening to celebrate this momentous occasion. Canberra is a special place and my wish is for you to do and enjoy good while you are here. Once again, on behalf of my daughter and myself, thank you for having us.

Now I would like to finish, like I normally do, in the words of the Ngunnawal people: ‘Nagana yarabai yangu’, which means ‘you’re welcome to leave your footprints on our land now’ or in other words welcome to Ngunnawal country. Please enjoy the rest of the evening. Thank you all.

SAMANTHA FAULKNER: Thank you, Auntie Agnes. I would also like to acknowledge my fellow directors of the corporation here this evening: Masepah Banu, our chairperson; Daniel Morseu, our deputy chairperson; and Fiona Peterson, our secretary, who can’t be with us this evening; and also acknowledge Lydia George, our director, here this evening as well.

The ACT Torres Strait Islanders Corporation was founded in 1996. Its objectives are to promote and encourage the Torres Strait Islander heritage and culture to the members of the corporation and to maintain the objects of the corporation through economic, social and educational activities. Our membership is open to all Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people who live in the Canberra region. I think we have currently just opened that up to all supporters too. I would welcome you to join and be a member or an associate member.

I would ask you all to pause for a moment as well too. In our custom we also like to pause for a minute’s silence just to remember those who can’t be with us this evening and in particular to stop for a moment to reflect on one of our elders who passed away recently and who has also been a voice for the Torres Strait and for our people as well. If I can ask you to bow your heads and pause for a moment. (Pause).

Thank you for that moment. I would now like to invite Minister Jenny Macklin to the stage to say a few words.

JENNY MACKLIN: Thanks very much, Sam, for welcoming us all here tonight. If I could first of all say a very big thank you to Auntie Agnes for what is always a lovely warm welcome to country. We acknowledge you; we acknowledge all the other elders who are with us here tonight; we do recognise your place and the importance of acknowledgment of country; and we also acknowledge and pay our respects to your ancestors. Thank you very much for having us.

I also want to acknowledge all of my parliamentary colleagues who are with us here tonight, both from the ACT parliament and those of you who have been able to come down from Parliament House. I can’t see anyone now but those of you who are here, thank you very much for joining us all. It is a very special occasion.

I want to thank the Museum very much for having us here tonight. It is a very special time in our history and one that we are all pleased to mark together.

It is time for us to recognise the extraordinary achievements of Eddie Koiki Mabo and to recognise the work of those many, many people who went before him who were part of the struggle for land rights in this country. Gail Mabo, like her father, has a role in that story and we are so thrilled to have you here, Gail, with us tonight to both honour your father and I am sure you won’t mind me saying also your mother who is a wonderful woman. It’s true that Gail’s father was an extraordinary leader, and she will talk to us about that tonight. But we are also able to acknowledge Gail’s role herself. She grew up as a child surrounded by a wonderful family and I am sure was immersed in all of the debates and discussions in her home about the importance of this struggle. She now as a woman continues the task of reconciliation and continues to make sure that everything we do in this country is about building the strength of purpose of Torres Strait Islander peoples and Aboriginal peoples, around Australia.

We honour you here tonight, Gail, and thank you very much for being with us. The story of your father is a story that has been replicated over thousands and thousands of years of peoples who have cared for their land. I am so thrilled to have the opportunity of welcoming you here tonight – please welcome Gail Mabo. [applause]

GAIL MABO: Thank you very much, Minister Macklin, for that wonderful welcome and thank you, Auntie, for that welcome to country. It’s a little bit strange because this is my first ever speaking engagement to speak about my father. I have always been the one that is off doing other things. I am honoured to be here tonight to represent our family and to speak to you about who my dad was.

He was a man who was driven by his culture. He was passionate to the point that if we were somewhere, and it doesn’t matter who it was, if there was an elderly person in the room he would make us all get up and get out of the road to let them sit down, whether they be black, white or whatever. It was instilling those sorts of values in us that helped us become the people we are. I do that with my children and hopefully they will do it with their children. But it is only through recognition of peoples as peoples that we can go forward and reconcile. What Dad has done is just open the door to say that as Indigenous people of this country, we were the first peoples here but we embrace everybody else who has come to this country, and now everyone who comes here has to embrace everyone who was around.

When my children come home whinging about having an argument with a child at school, I always say to them, ‘Do you know who that child is? Do you know what that child’s name is? Don’t tell me what colour they are, just tell me if you know their name.’ At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what colour the child was who they had an argument with, that child is someone. If they don’t know anything about that child, they have to make a point of knowing who they are talking about. It’s that thing of like ‘Well, maybe one day we will invite that child to our house to show them who you are, because if you don’t start introducing and opening your doors, how are children going to learn?’

As a cultural adviser I go out and I speak to a lot of children. Whenever I turn up to an event I am usually singing and doing traditional dances - all the dances that my Dad taught me. And with that I introduce myself as an Auntie Gail, because there’s a lot of kids who have come from broken homes or families who don’t have an extended family. I always make them say that I am Auntie Gail because then they feel comfortable with you, because if you don’t make them feel comfortable they won’t want to learn. Once you break that barrier and have them relaxing with you, they become sponges. By the end of the day they are singing all my songs and doing all my dances. And then it’s that thing of they have learnt something, and they will go home and talk about their Auntie Gail. Their mothers and fathers will go, ‘who?’ Then it becomes a point of discussion because they will talk about the songs and dances and where they come from, so they are educators in their own right. So we have to start with little people because they are the next generation. Thank you.

SAMANTHA FAULKNER: Thank you for that. I would now like to welcome our panel to the stage - Leah Armstrong, Tom Calma and Rod Little, if you would like to join me.

I will quickly introduce these three lovely people because I know you didn’t come here to listen to me speak. Rod Little is the chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body here in the ACT; Leah Armstrong is the CEO of Reconciliation Australia; and Dr Tom Calma is the co-chairperson of Reconciliation Australia. With all their life experience and positions I would like to invite them to comment on the past 20 years and go from there.

LEAH ARMSTRONG: Thank you very much, Samantha, for that introduction and thank you also to Auntie Agnes for welcoming us this evening and I also acknowledge Jenny Macklin and the other parliamentarians here tonight.

I guess my reflections and certainly why it’s important that we have gathered here tonight is to recognise the great achievements that Eddie Koiki Mabo has achieved. I actually think about it in terms of how one man with such courage and commitment and with truth on his side can achieve great things. When I think of his achievements that is what I think of - how a single individual can really make a significant change.

I grew up in Mackay in Queensland and I had very proud and strong Torres Strait Islander culture as I growing up. But we also celebrated, as Gail has mentioned, other cultures and throughout my family there are a lot of other cultures as well. We have Malay, Japanese and Indian. At events and celebrations we would not only have Torres Strait Island dancing but we would have Malay dancing and celebrations of all those other cultures.

On moving to Newcastle in the late 1980s I was quite shocked and surprised to find in conversations with the broader Newcastle community that they had no recognition of the Torres Strait Islands. There was very little recognition. What was more shocking is that there was very little recognition of the Aboriginal community in Newcastle. What I see is that the Mabo decision in 1992 brought that to effect and created the awareness and started a national conversation about recognition.

ROD LITTLE: First of all could I acknowledge Auntie Agnes and thank you for your warm welcome as always. I acknowledge Minister Macklin. Gail, thank you very much for those kind words and memories of your father. And welcome to all brothers and sisters here tonight. What a decision that was. For me personally it was a sense of hope, and it was a turning point for my father to pursue an application under native title. It was one of those moments of hope. For me personally it was a gratitude to Gail’s father and to many other leaders that participated in that process.

But it also raised quite a bit of anxiety across the broader Australian public. It was one of those moments where I thought there is hope for us as first peoples of this country to be recognised and to participate in a society as equals. But I guess reflecting on those 20 years, it really doesn’t seem to be that way and it really hasn’t turned out like I expected at that time. The Mabo decision influenced my decision to join the Public Service and participate in policy development and decision making that I thought I was able to influence and really bring forth some changes not only for my people back home in Western Australia but for our mob right across the country in whatever circumstances.

For me up until now I guess it was a reflection on how difficult it was to demonstrate to people what the truth of the matter is in this country that yes we were traditional owners; we were owners of these lands before anyone else set foot in these lands, and that should be recognised, respected and valued. I have felt that, being a stolen generations member myself, hang on a second, these sorts of things shouldn’t happen - and we are still struggling.

The other really positive thing from that decision and many other decisions and actions that people have taken is one of great admiration and great respect for people who will stand up, who will articulate and who will take up the fight and the challenge that is placed before them to do the right thing. That is often a struggle. That takes a toll on your life and on your families. So we are very grateful for that decision, and what a decision it was. We still are living in hope.

TOM CALMA: Auntie Agnes, Jenny Macklin, senators, Chris Bourke, Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters and our Aboriginal friends and brothers and sisters as well. Today is a great showing of what reconciliation is all about: a mix of people who are out here to build on what we are trying to achieve through Reconciliation Australia. That is, to share knowledge, to get a better understanding about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture, and not only to be able to reflect on the past but also to look at what is currently happening and where we go to into the future. So thank you all for your participation.

My first recollections of Eddie Mabo were back in the 1980s before there was a discussion of land rights when he was in education and we were working on the development of the national Aboriginal education policy. Eddie was very, very fiery. He was loud. He wanted to get his views across about education and about participation, but mainly about culture and trying to make the education system very appropriate to everybody that participates. There is a very strong belief by many of us that, if we can make education attractive, people will attend. You make it attractive by making sure that you respect culture, you respect language. If we can start to get people to participate in something they are comfortable with, and formal Western education will come after that. That’s why there is a strong move by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the nation, and well supported by others, to look at supporting bilingual education. That was my first experience of Eddie Mabo. He was very loud and made sure his voice was heard by all.

But in more recent times, and he had passed at this time when I went to Mer or Murray Island and visited his grave site, you really get a feel of what native title was all about and what his claims were all about when you go to a place like Mer. There you can see the fish traps that are under water, you can see the culture and understand about how the division of country existed amongst the people where culture still existed - as it does across mainland Australia where people still practice.

One of the sad things is that we do it innately as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when we identify relationships between people and when we talk about country. We don’t think about it in the sense of having to justify it to somebody about making a land claim or a native title claim. There is a different way in which we see land ownership and title to land versus how the Western legal system sees it, so that throws up a whole range of challenges.

But that said, as of last month we had over 620 native title claims in existence. There have been 175 determinations made, and the majority of those have been consent determinations. That hasn’t meant that Aboriginal people get access to everything but we do have some rights over the land and access rights generally but not full determination or full control of the land. That is something we have to look at.

Whilst it can be said that 15 to 16 per cent of the Australian land mass is covered by native title determination, people need to understand that that doesn’t mean that we control the land. We share it with non-Indigenous Australians in many cases. It also means that it’s only the land that is claimable if some other title is not over it. So it’s not about taking land off people; it’s about recognising who the ownership is. And for us in many instances it’s the importance of being recognised as the traditional owners of the land that is most important for our mental health, for our well-being and very often for our physical health as well.

I think a lot of the issues that confront many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the nation will be addressed when we start to get full control of our lives and have a better say over our lives instead of that being determined by other parties. And that’s what all the major reports are telling governments, and we are talking about not only the current government but past governments. The Department of Finance review of Indigenous expenditure talks about how the past 40 years have not worked in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy because there has been a top-down imposition. We have to get to the situation where we respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as being here as the first peoples. That is where we move into recognition through the constitution, which is our next big challenge. I am sure Leah will talk about that as we go along otherwise I will hog the show. Thank you.

SAMANTHA FAULKNER: Thank you for those opening comments, you have touched on a number of areas there with the truth of the matter, the true contribution that Eddie Mabo gave and touching on areas of health and education. I would like to move forward to another 20 years. Where do you as individuals with your experience see yourselves in 20 years time with this but also where do you see Australia in 20 years time with reconciliation? Commenting on those areas of health and education, is that the key? What’s the role for all Australians in this, including constitutional change?

TOM CALMA: I will go first. I think the biggest challenge we have is to address health and then look at the determinants of health: housing, employment, education and so forth. Unless we have good health I won’t be around in 20 years time. If you think that the average life expectancy of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person is only in the early 60s, that doesn’t give a lot of time left for many of us who are not 60 yet but getting close to that. If we want to enjoy the same life expectancy as non-Indigenous Australians, we need to keep going along the path that has already been set through the ‘Close the gap’ campaign and the government’s and the opposition’s response to the ‘Close the gap’ campaign through the statement of intent where it’s a multiparty agreement supported by all parties. We need to be steadfast in that and to make sure that the goal of health equality by 2030 is achieved, as we have all agreed to.

LEAH ARMSTRONG: I hope it doesn’t take 20 years to get constitutional recognition. That certainly is an area where we have a unique opportunity now as a nation to address the unfinished business of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our constitution. The 1967 referendum, as we all know, was the most successful referendum that we have had where the nation did come together in a united voice to address the issue of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the census. But there are still some elements of discrimination that remain in our constitution where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aren’t recognised. They are invisible in our constitution.

Recognition, as we all know, has a real impact on us as individuals, on us as communities and on us as a nation. We should all think about what recognition does mean to us. Tom talked about the health issues. It has an effect on how we feel as valued members of society and can help us with the way our confidence and our communities can grow. Reconciliation Australia have been tasked to generate broad public support and awareness around the importance of constitutional recognition. The government has given us the opportunity to settle this unfinished business of recognition in the constitution. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people this is very important, but we are only three per cent of the population. For us to have a referendum succeed, it will take the other 97 per cent. It’s a call to action to everybody now to not wait 20 more years and to take advantage of this unique opportunity to get Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognised in our constitution. [applause]

ROD LITTLE: In 20 years time it would not be unreasonable to expect that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would enjoy the same quality of life as anybody else that lives in this country. The challenge, I think, building on what Tom and Leah have said, is to have a standard of health, to be valued for your contributions for you being the first peoples of this country but also to have equal rights to access services that can contribute to your better health, to share in the economy and to raise your families without any fear of discrimination.

I think the first thing before the constitutional reform would be that the government embraces and begins to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and all Australians to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I think that is the first part to start to instill the pride that I think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples deserve to be valued and recognise our ownership. That is the starting point.

Then we move to the recognition in the constitution, and that’s another deserved place for our peoples to be recognised. So once anyone in this room can say, ‘I feel valued, I feel important,’ then you feel good about yourself, and if you have a place in this society you feel good about that. That is the first point. So then all of the other things will start to flow, in my view.

In 20 years time I would hope that my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren - yes, believe me, I will have some great-grandchildren in 20 years time - are able to enjoy life without having to identify who they are. They know where they come from, they know where their cultural background is and they really feel pride in themselves in who they are and who they represent. I think that is going to be the key. So it really has to start with humanity - your feelings about how good you are and your respect. That comes from other people. That is going to be a start. And that doesn’t cost a lot of money. Valuing and respecting people doesn’t cost.

SAMANTHA FAULKNER: Thanks for that, Rod. I would like to ask the panel members if they would like to have any closing remarks just reflecting on that because you certainly covered a range of issues there. I guess it’s up to the audience - while it’s not a question and answer time right now - to reflect on what you have said and to consider roles and the call for action as well. I would invite the audience to approach you with any questions later. I would like you to join with me in thanking the panel members now. [applause]

Date published: 12 July 2012