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Defining moments launch transcript

Defining Moments in Australian History

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Transcripts of the Defining Moments in Australian History project launch

Mr Paul House, Ngambri Custodian

[Indigenous language: Yinaagalangbu, gibir-bangu, wugalbu, migaybu. Dirra-ngalbang mayiny.]
Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Tony Abbott, ladies and gentlemen, young men and young women. Distinguished guests.

[Indigenous language: Nga-dhi yindya-mali Ngambri – Ngurmal Walgalu, Ngunnawal – Wallabolooa mudyigang yanhibu dha-yndhu.]
My respects to Ngambri, Ngurmal, Walgalu, Ngunnawal, Wallabolooa ancestors past and present.

[Indigenous language: Nga-dhi yindyam-marrabu mudyi-ganggu ngurambandhiguwal nginha yiradhu.]
My respects also to other elders here today.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge our ancestors, our elders, for laying such a strong foundation for the younger generations to move forward. My name is Paul House. I was born here at this site, the old Canberra Hospital, in the centre of my ancestral country. The name ‘Canberra’ is derived from the name of our ancestral group and people, the Kamberri, and was first government gazetted in 1834 right here at this site as Kamberri station located here on Acton Peninsula.

This welcome is made in the spirit of peace and desire for harmony for all peoples of the modern ACT and surrounds. Whilst on our ancestral countries, we wish to declare our ancestral rights to provenance and to the special respect of all Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples now living on our ancestral countries, including our transient friends on Capital Hill.

Our main aim is to establish an atmosphere of mutual respect through the acknowledgment of our ancestors and the recognition of our rights to declare our special place in the pre and post history of this country.

I would like to thank the National Museum of Australia (NMA) and I would like to thank the Australian government for inviting me to be here today. As a younger generation Ngambri, I have great responsibility to lead my family. I would like to see my children grow up in a society that honours and acknowledges the Indigenous people of this country. I believe as traditional custodians and Indigenous Australians we should be entitled to a greater share and wealth in the prosperity of this country also.

I believe it is important our cultural knowledge is passed on through generation to generation and embodies and preserves the relationship to the land. Cultural places and landscapes like the NMA house these stories, and protection of these places and landscapes is key for the long-term survival of these stories and our country.

We are all glad that you are here. With this welcome we ask that you respect the law of the country and the law of the land says the following: 

You must respect and honour all people in all parts of the country, give honour, be respectful, be polite, be gentle and patient with all, then people will respect you. Hold fast to each other, empower the people, respect your country, culture and heritage.

On behalf of our families, I warmly welcome you here. Thank you and welcome. [Applause]

Mr Daniel Gilbert AM, Chair, Council of the National Museum of Australia

Thank you, Paul, for that welcome and a reminder of the special place of Indigenous people in this country and especially at this Museum. This is a great day for the National Museum of Australia as we launch an innovative and exciting new project: Defining Moments in Australian History. The idea of defining moments derives from the simple premise that all of our histories are important to all of us, as variable as they might be. History helps us understand who we are as a nation, where we come from, what we identify with, what we admire, what we are proud of and what we might not be proud of.

Defining Moments is a program of live events with online conversations, and physical and virtual content. The project will help us understand that history is something that is rarely fixed or something that can be judged from a single point of view. For instance, in marking the settlement of Sydney, we can on the one hand acknowledge the tremendous courage and spirit that took hold of this country, a courage and spirit that has made us the great nation we are today; but we must also acknowledge the devastating impact on the Eora Aboriginal people of Sydney. As our Indigenous brothers and sisters proudly say, ‘We have survived and our many contributions to nationhood continue,’ as indeed they do.

This leads me to mention Captain Arthur Phillip, a man of whom we can all be very proud. I know the Prime Minister has a strong conviction about the importance of Captain Arthur Phillip, one which we all share. Although of relatively modest background, Arthur Phillip was an Enlightenment man, a man who surrounded himself with other Enlightenment men, men such as Watkin Tench and William Dawes. Phillip underscored the importance of the rule of law, the importance of providing economic opportunities for the settlement including, very significantly, economic opportunities for convicts.

Somebody gave me this little publication [Admiral Arthur Phillip Royal Navy: Scholarships and Grants] this morning by the Britain-Australia Society Education Trust. There is a marvellous piece that I will adopt and quote. Mat [Trinca] is looking at me because he told me I am not allowed to go off speech and I have just gone off speech, but bear with me. I quote:

Phillip's leadership of the First Fleet was inspired: all on board were humanely treated and kept healthy, and his navigation was superb. His establishing of the colony was an extraordinary achievement. As a farmer himself he recognised the enormous potential of this new country and encouraged others to believe it. Phillip was the architect of modern Australia.

Of great importance, of course, was Phillip's concern for the welfare of the local Aboriginal population. The friendship extended towards them is a mark of his great leadership at the time. Unfortunately, not everyone who followed him continued with that leadership, but I am very pleased to say that someone who does continue with that leadership and friendship is the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister, we are very pleased that you are here today to launch the Defining Moments project by unveiling a plaque that marks Captain Arthur Phillip's establishment of the Sydney settlement in 1788 and, indeed, in two days time it will be the bicentenary of his death in 1814. The plaque unveiled today is the first in what will be a series of some 25 in total which will be installed in the Museum Hall. They will be a subset of the many moments to be featured online.

Our intention with this project is to support discussion and debate, not to settle arguments. You will see on the wall behind that there is an initial list of 100 defining moments assembled by Museum staff and a panel of eminent Australian historians. We want Australians to think about and discuss our history and help us to create online resources that people can engage with and which can be used by students and indeed everyone who wants to learn more about our past.

Today we present online content and in this Hall five moments in total. In coming months, we will continue to release additional online content and ask Australians themselves which of those moments they think are important and others that they think should also be included. So it's a nice little debate to get going through the country.

The Museum has received a great deal of help in establishing this project. I would like to thank the panel of historians for their advice and assistance, many of whom are here today: Professor Judith Brett; Professor Rae Frances, who serves on our council; Professor Bill Gammage; Dr John Hirst, who previously served on the Museum's council; Dr Jackie Huggins; Professor Marilyn Lake, who I know worked with Michael Ball and Michael Kirby in the early days on this, as did John Hirst; and Professor John Maynard.

I particularly want to thank Michael Ball and Michael Kirby for agreeing to serve as patrons of the project. Michael Kirby particularly wanted me to express his apologies for not being able to be with us today. However, I am delighted that Michael Ball is here. When I took over in my role here as chairman of the Museum, he said, ‘You must get this Defining Moments project up and running at some future time.’ I am very pleased to be able to say to him that we have done that. Without saying any more, let me welcome Michael Ball and ask him to make a few comments. Thank you. [Applause]

Mr Michael Ball AO, co-patron of the project

I have been to the National Museum of Australia many times, but each time I came I wondered what the criteria were for these particular objects which were selected. I wondered what part each of them played in our history and how it has affected our lives today, but there seemed to be no flow, no logic, behind the objects displayed. What I was looking for was a place which would identify, define and display our country's defining moments.

Over lunch with my good friend Michael Kirby, who was then on the bench of the High Court, I discussed my thoughts and I found that he was as attracted by the idea as I was. It's a great shame Michael could not be here today, but he has an unavoidable commitment at Southern Cross University where the chancellor John Dowd will give the fifth Kirby lecture. I would like to emphasise that this launch would never have occurred without Michael's many initiatives. His energy and his inputs were quite remarkable, and we should be eternally grateful for his contributions.

From the beginning, we wanted to take this idea to the National Museum but we thought we should take a fully developed proposition, not just an idea. The first task was to identify our defining moments upon which we put a limit of 100 to avoid presenting a phonebook of ideas. Clearly such a list couldn't be drawn up by me, not even with the help of Michael Kirby, so Michael arranged to involve Professor Geoffrey Blainey to seek his help.  Later, as Danny has said, we enlisted the help and advice of Professor Marilyn Lake and Professor John Hirst, both of whom were unstinting in their contributions. Others who made important contributions at that early stage were Danny Gilbert himself, Annabelle Pegrum, chief executive of the National Capital Authority, and the Hon Tony Staley, who was then the chair of the Museum.

We recognised from the beginning that it would be almost impossible to achieve unanimous consensus on 100 defining moments, even among our leading historians, but we saw this as an advantage rather than as an obstacle because we saw debate as a vital aspect to the project: debate among historians, debate among the public, debate with our teaching institutions. We saw these debates as providing fresh thinking and as adding vitality to something which could otherwise be a static display.

We also made a number of other decisions which we believe will contribute to the success of Defining Moments. First, we did not wish to compete with the National Museum or with any other museum or collection in Australia. We saw our mission as being to complement existing institutions rather than competing with them.

Second, we would not set out to collect physical objects because the best objects were already housed in museums around the world, because physical objects would be prohibitively expensive and because we wanted to have our emphasis on the Internet. The Internet would also provide the capacity to reach all Australians constantly and be an ideal medium for discussion and debate.

Third, we wanted to add a new teaching tool for our teaching institutions, one which would not only list our Defining Moments but one which would be tailored to teaching at all levels from primary schools through to universities and postgraduate work. This thinking was embodied in the charter which we drew up and which reads:

Defining Moments is an exploration of Australia's history and events over the centuries that have been a special significance for the Australian people within our distinctive and diverse nation.

Defining Moments is designed to promote knowledge and debate about Australian history and what it means to be an Australian today.

Defining Moments will remain under constant review under the guidance of professional historians, teachers of history and other experts and in consultation with the people of Australia.

Defining Moments will aim to encourage this debate and thereby to promote a more intense encounter of Australians with their history.

The final paragraph of our charter reads:

Few Australians will embrace uncritically the initial 100 Defining Moments.

This is to be expected. However, it's out of the ensuing debates and disagreements exchanged in typically robust Australian way that familiarity with Australia's history will be heightened, and recognition of the moments critical to Australia's identity will be sharpened, appreciated and celebrated.

It's a great honour to have been invited to participate in this launch of Defining Moments here today. I am very grateful to Danny Gilbert as chair and Mat Trinca as director of the Museum for inviting me. Thank you. [Applause]

Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts

Prime Minister, Chief Justice, your excellencies, Members of Parliament, Mr Gilbert, Dr Trinca, Mr Ball, members of the council, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. This coming Sunday marks 200 years since the death of Arthur Phillip. As Danny Gilbert said, Arthur Phillip was a man of the Enlightenment. In his fine new biography of Arthur Phillip published last year [Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy], Michael Pembroke describes him as 'the least appreciated of the great men of the Enlightenment'.

It is entirely fitting that the first of the defining moments which we mark today should be the settlement under his leadership at Sydney Cove in 1788. Unquestionably, Arthur Phillip was the founder of modern Australia. As we reflect more deeply on Arthur Phillip's life and of that settlement, we come increasingly to appreciate that the Australia which evolved from that time was impressed from its moment of birth with the Enlightenment values that Arthur Phillip brought to his task.

As you have heard, over the next two years this very fine institution will essay an extraordinary project. It will select 100 defining moments in Australian history ‑ as Danny has said, there will no doubt be a robust discussion on what should be on the list and what doesn't make it to the list ‑ which will tell our country's story. Those defining moments will be commemorated in this building and they will be available to be accessed online.

The Prime Minister, a man whom I know has a deep, abiding and passionate interest in Australian history, honours us with his presence today in launching this important project and unveiling the first of the defining moments, the plaque that commemorates the settlement by Arthur Phillip at Sydney Cove in 1788.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming to launch this project our Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott. [Applause]

The Hon Tony Abbott MP, Prime Minister of Australia

Minister Brandis, Danny Gilbert, Paul House, my other parliamentary colleagues, Chief Justice, ladies and gentlemen, it really is great to be here to help launch Defining Moments and to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Governor Arthur Phillip.

It is fitting that we today launch the Defining Moments Project and also mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Governor Arthur Phillip, because the arrival of the First Fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent. Let me repeat that: it was the defining moment in the history of this continent.

It was the moment this continent became part of the modern world. It determined our language, our law and our fundamental values. Yes, it did dispossess and for a long time marginalised Indigenous people. As Noel Pearson frequently reminds us, modern Australia has an important Indigenous and multicultural character. Still it’s British settlement that has most profoundly shaped the country that we are.

It has provided the foundation for Australia to become one of the freest, fairest and most prosperous societies on the face of the Earth. So Arthur Phillip is as significant to modern Australia as George Washington is to the modern United States. On the 26th January 1788, Governor Phillip raised the Union Flag at Sydney Cove, drank the King's health and success to the settlement. I quote from the official record:

With all that display of form which on such occasions is esteemed propitious because it enlivens the spirits and fills the imagination with pleasing presages.

He encouraged all the new settlers, including the convicts, to work hard for the benefit of the community and promised the reward of land upon emancipation. His instructions from the British government were to build amity with the local inhabitants, and Phillip tried hard and faithfully to carry these out. Most notably, he declined to order punishment after himself being speared.

He was a man of his times. He was a man of courage, decency, moderation and vision ‑ characteristics which should and usually do mark the nation he helped to found. Yes, he was a man of his times; he was a man who embodied the best of his times and made this country embody the very best.

Any attempt to nominate defining moments will inevitably be contentious. For instance, I hope that the defining moments of World War I might include the capture of Jerusalem and the achievements of General Monash as well as the landing at Gallipoli.

I hope that the defining moments of 1964, for instance, might include the launch of The Australian newspaper as well as the publication of The Lucky Country.

Australia may not be the most important country in the world but it is the most important to us, and it's our duty to enlarge our country not to diminish it. Actually, I rather envy those who choose the defining moments that will tell the story of our nation on these walls. After all, it's what we choose to define ourselves by that does indeed help to define us.

But there is a further defining moment that I hope one day will certainly have a plaque here at the National Museum, and that is for the constitutional amendment recognising Aboriginal peoples that I hope will soon take place.

In any event, the Defining Moments Project will be an opportunity to popularise important episodes in our history. It will be a chance to honour our forebears and preserve what is best about us for future generations. May it remind us that in history's page every single stage should advance Australia fair. [Applause]

Closing words following plaque unveiling

DANNY GILBERT: That concludes the ceremonies. You are all welcome to stay and mingle and enjoy some of these important exhibits that you see before you today. Once again, thank you very much and have a terrific weekend. Thank you. [Applause]