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Noel Pearson, Founder and Director of the Cape York Partnership, 17 March 2021

MATHEW TRINCA: Good evening. My name is Mathew Trinca, I'm the Director of the National Museum of Australia. And tonight it's my great pleasure to introduce Jude Barlow, of the Ngunnawal people of this place of Canberra to welcome us to her Country. Jude.

JUDE BARLOW: I'm just hoping you can actually see me in the front row there. Yuumma, which is hello in Ngunnawal, and is the Ngunnawal people's gift to you all. Jude Barlow, and I am an Ngunnawal woman. My family are Wallabalooa people, a family group within the Ngunnawal nation. And, as always, it is a great pleasure to be here with my friends at the Museum. So thank you, Mat.

Now, in the most recent history of this country, some of the smallest voices, and, in fact, some of the silenced voices have been those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Through deliberate policy others spoke for us, others determined our lives – where we lived, what we spoke, where we worked and with whom we mixed. Now, before he passed away, my dear old dad showed me his exemption papers, and I can tell you it was really, really hard reading. And in applying for his papers, he had to seek references from the good townsfolk of Yass, the local priest, the postman and the policeman.

Now, they all loved my dad, and he was, by their accounts, a good bloke, and yet they still said things like, He lives with his Aborigine wife, and he's very clean for that type of person. And, as you can imagine, my own life was profoundly affected by the dictates of government policy. Due to the impacts of the Aborigines Protection Act, when I was about three and when my mum and dad's relationship had irretrievably broken down, my four siblings and I were separated and sent to various family members. Fearful of us being taken by the state, my dad made the heartbreaking decision to farm us out to family, so that we would not be taken. And it was a real fear that he had.

As his sisters, my aunties Bertha and Daphne, were taken off the streets of Yass and sent to Cootamundra Girls' Home where, amongst many other things, they were trained as domestics. This and other policies have had profound and long-reaching effects, and not just for me and my family, but for many First Nations peoples. And now our voices need to be heard. However softly we may speak, however small our voices may be, but I think this is the most important thing that those to whom we speak, they need to listen to us. They need to still their voices in order for us to do the work we need to do.

And now I would like to welcome you in the language of my ancestors once thought lost because we weren't allowed to speak it, and I'm going to do this on the land of my ancestors. And in doing so, I continue and acknowledge the work of my dear old dad, Eric Bell, whose birthday it is today. I am proud to speak in the language he and his sisters, Mum, dads, uncles and aunties were forbidden to speak. [Speaks in Ngunnawal]. And this means, today we are all gathering together on Ngunnawal Country, and this Country is my ancestor's spiritual homeland, and we are keeping the pathways of our ancestors alive by walking together as one. Welcome to Ngunnawal Country.

[applause]

MATHEW TRINCA: [speaks in Ngunnawal] This is Ngunnawal Country, today we're all meeting together on this land, Ngunnawal Country, and we acknowledge and pay respects to their elders. And I'm grateful to Jude, a great friend of the Museum; to Craig Ritchie, my colleague at AIATSIS for the work they've done in encouraging us to use language, the language of this place that animates life here in the place that we call home, the place where the National Museum has had such a welcome and a continuing welcome from the first peoples of this place. To our speakers, Mr Noel Pearson, Dean Parkin and Vicki Morta. To the Gurindji mob: Rob Roy, Rosie Smiler, Jamesie Barry and Lisa Smiler that have travelled, I gather, the better part of a day to get here today.

To David Jones, Chair of the Council of the NMA and other members of our Council, including Fiona Jose, who happens also just to be the CEO of the Cape York Partnership. Welcome also to the former Chair of Council, Danny Gilbert. And indeed to all the First Nations people from across the country who are with us tonight, and distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of the Council and the staff of the National Museum, I'm delighted to see you all here for this important event, which really speaks to issues, compelling issues, of constitutional recognition and the voice to parliament for the First Nations of this land. And we're honoured to welcome Noel Pearson, Co-founder of the Cape York Partnership Land Council, and Founder and Director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, to give tonight's keynote address.

Now, Noel Pearson is known to you all, he is an esteemed lawyer, academic writer and land rights activist who'll tonight speak to these issues of constitutional recognition, the voice to parliament, which are so important, not just for the future of this country to say it in that manner, but also really are important to all of us who live here, who call Australia home. Thanks also to our other speakers. To Dean Parkin, who'll set out the context for Noel's speech, and Vicki Morta, who'll provide a personal perspective on these issues and why they're so important at a community level.

Now this year is a special year here at the National Museum, it's a year in which we celebrate our 20th anniversary on this side, on the Acton Peninsula. We've supported and enabled discussion and debate to advance the common interests of the peoples of this land, and this year this landmark speech kicks off a commitment to a series of speeches by imminent Australians on matters of national meaning and significance. In a digital age, when the echo chamber of social media can produce arguments that can seem shrill or unflinching, we think it's important to create the opportunity for public discussion about the things that matter, the issues that go to the very heart of our national culture. And, more particularly, the Museum is really dedicated to that notion that our past is not simply that something that's gone before, but is present in our lives today, and it affects and influences the nation that we can become.

It's only really by looking directly at the past, as challenging as confronting as it can be, that we grow and that we develop as peoples of this nation whose history is certainly shared if it's not altogether yet reconciled. And this place, in fact this very room, was always imagined as a place for dialogue and debate, a place where we would discuss issues of national meaning and resonance, a place where the strands, the varied strands of our story, come together. It's a place where we're committed to looking honestly at our history, and, in doing so, hope to make sense, both of our present, but also of our future. And I think, in truth, it's only when you do that, that you address the responsibilities that come from knowing that truth, from the truth-telling about the past that we need to build, adjust an equitable future that properly honours the First Nations of this continent, and indeed all who have come after.

So, as Director of this institution, I can say honestly from my heart that I'm truly delighted to be the host for this event tonight. And, quite frankly, I can't wait to hear the discussion that will unfold. And it's now my great pleasure to introduce Dean Parkin, Director of the From the Heart campaign. Dean's a Quandamooka man of Minjerribah, North Stradbroke Island. He's also a great bloke and he will outline the context for tonight's keynote address. Dean. [applause]

DEAN PARKIN: Aunty Jude, I want to thank you for your very warm, very heartfelt welcome, and I think on behalf of all of us I'd like to take the liberty to wish your dad a happy birthday and wish your family the very best wishes. I pay my respects to you, your elders past and present, and I bring greetings from my peoples, the Quandamooka peoples from Minjerribah, or North Stradbroke Island, as you may know it, just off the coast of Brisbane. Thank you, Mat, for the very kind introduction. As mentioned, my name is Dean Parkin, and I am the Director of From the Heart, a campaign for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice enshrined in the constitution.

I want to thank you all for attending tonight, particularly those who have travelled a long way to be here. It is my role to introduce Guugu Yimithirr man, Noel Pearson, who many of you know well, and Vicki Morta, a Ngajanji woman who will speak about the importance of a constitutionally enshrined voice. In the midst of a flurry of the campaign, I've been doing a lot of personal reflection recently. I turned 40 last week, and there's nothing like a birthday with a zero in it to consider one's own mortality. Part of this is a normal human contemplation of one's own life and death, but that does not explain the burning prickling feeling I had when thinking about the next three to four decades of work ahead. You see, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people think of time across generations.

What we experience now is part of a continuum from what has gone before and what is yet to come. We are connected to both, past, present and future. We are connected in a spiritual sense, and also in gritty real-world politics. The political and policy decisions of the past play out in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. The latest scorecard recording these impacts is the Closing the Gap strategy. Closing the Gap doesn't tell the full story of the hopes and fears, the successes and failures, the optimism and cynicism that ebb and flow through our families and communities.

However, there is one story that cuts through to the core of our current challenge and justifies in plain terms why a voice enshrined in the constitution is our nation's most critical policy reform. Among the announcements of the recently refreshed Closing the Gap strategy, a new target was set to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults held in incarceration by at least 15 per cent by 2031. If nothing changes, and this target trajectory extends beyond 2031, the incarceration rate gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians does not close until 2093. Look around at every single Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person here tonight, whether they are our established leaders, myself, or the brilliant young people, statistically speaking not a single one of us will live to see equality on incarceration.

No matter how hard we try, no matter how much talent or grim determination we commit, the highest ambition, our nation's democracy and bureaucracy can muster is to merely break even in 72 years' time. There is no policy area in our nation in greater need of disruption than Indigenous affairs. So when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were finally asked at the backend of a decade-long process, what meaningful constitutional recognition meant to us, we delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and it's called for a constitutionally enshrined voice. We brushed constitutional symbolism aside and reached for a practical structural reform that has a real impact on lives.

Our democratic and bureaucratic institutions are passively settling in for the next seven decades. It is logical that we call for a voice that has similar continuity and certainty. Only a constitutionally enshrined voice can hold those institutions to account over the long-term. Over the last few weeks, we have seen the anger and frustration of women across the country who have been ignored, silenced, discriminated against and abused. It is a story that is so very familiar to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in our communities, and for too long have sought inclusion, respect and representation. They are more likely to be at the frontline of violence, sexual assault and the forced removal of children. They have been advocating for decades for changes in their community, in policy and law.

If nothing else, a constitutionally enshrined voice must elevate and center these voices that are far too often ignored. Ensuring gender equity is essential, but by itself is not enough. There must be a level of accountability to ensure that when they speak, their voice is heard and acted upon, so change actually happens. Let me be clear, the current institutions are not used to this kind of accountability for outcomes. Life will be decidedly less comfortable with our aunties at the table demanding better outcomes for themselves and their families, as it should be. I have already carried the Uluru Statement in a funeral procession to farewell one of its signatories. Every year that passes, every delay, excuse and faint-hearted half-measure means more of those signatories never seeing their vision realised.

The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King's cautionary words in that sweltering summer of 1963 perfectly capture the urgency of this very moment in our history. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquillising drug of gradualism. Yet there are those pedalling gradualism on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today by proposing to only legislate a voice without first holding a referendum to enshrine it in the constitution. We are told to accept the real politic of change as if the practical realities of our current condition are not staring us in the face in our communities on a daily basis.

We are told we must try our legislated voice before we earn enough credit to buy it at a referendum at some vague point in the future. Can anyone imagine such a patronising condition being put on a proposal for our public? We are told of the fears of a failed referendum, about what that will do to our nation and the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within it. In other words, in order to avoid failure, we are better off not trying in the first place. This is a dismal argument that shrinks into its own self-defeatism. It also assumes the worst of the Australian people that they are incapable of finding it in their hearts, within their hearts and minds to support a voice at a referendum.

Untroubled by a lack of evidence or expertise, the gradualist would have us walk away from a generational opportunity for reform, based on nothing more than Dennis Denuto's vibe of the thing. Our campaign research shows that as of June last year, only 17 per cent would vote no in a referendum on a voice, 56 per cent would vote yes, with the remainder undecided. The research also found those undecided voters were more likely to support a voice once they were aware of it and understood it. The government is currently seeking submissions on voice co-design options to determine what a voice might look like and how it might operate. Even though the question of constitutional enshrinement is not within the scope of this process, the vast majority of submissions from the people of Australia support a voice that is enshrined in the constitution.

Our call for a voice is animating that fundamentally Australian idea of a fair go. The people know it is time for our nation to extend a fair go to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through a historic referendum on a voice. We are not naive to the work needed to grow and consolidate that support, but ours is a campaign of opportunity and possibility. On this, as with so many other issues, the people are way ahead of the politics. This is where an unspoken gap exists between Australians inspired by the Uluru Statement and the political and bureaucratic gradualists. It is one of imagination. Addressing the very real social and economic challenges is only part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

At a deeper level, it imagines a future in which the fullness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity enriches our shared sense of nationhood. In the midst of incredible uncertainty, more and more Australians from all walks of life can sense a great generational gift within their grasp. A serious practical reform that offers our best chance at closing the gap and a historic unifying moment in our history. It is a cause worth fighting for. I'd now like to invite my friend and collaborator, Noel Pearson, to the stage to give tonight's keynote speech. Normally at this stage, I would launch into a long list of Noel's accomplishments and leadership roles, but I'd call that his powerful oratory and critical thinking that defines one of the great minds of the nation, but I hope he doesn't mind me describing him as one of the great Oikophiles. It's better than it sounds, trust me. Oikophilia is the love of one's home. From education and welfare reform to land rights and a constitutionally enshrined voice, Noel's life work is rooted in his love for his Guugu Yimithirr people, the Cape York region and our nation. Please welcome, Mr Noel Pearson.

[applause]

NOEL PEARSON: I pay respect to the Ngunnawal First Nation of this city. I bring greetings from First Nations of Cape York. Thank you to the Council of the National Museum, and thank you all for your presence today. Before making my remarks, I wanna acknowledge the women of Australia who are engaged in another campaign of vital importance to the integrity of our country. Listening to Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins this week, I thought the parliaments of our nation never produced such speeches, nor shown such profound leadership. I pray that our children will look back and see this was a moment when change started. Given this week's events and the salutary conversation upon which our minds should be properly focused, it is with some misgiving I turn to constitutional recognition.

I mean no respect, and I wish all power to this campaign. Before I do so, I want to acknowledge the role of Indigenous women in their leadership of the process and culmination of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Hundreds of our women from all compass points of the country took the lead on this process of self-determination. I pay respect to them, and particularly to that of Dr Pat Anderson and Professor Megan Davis for their leadership of Uluru. Might I say, there is the strongest connection between the imperative of empowerment, recognition and self-determination that Uluru seeks and the social evils to which this movement of Australian women will no longer tolerate.

Let me start with the question of what. What is it that we are engaged in and have been ever since Prime Minister John Howard made the commitment at the beginning of the 2007 federal election campaign. He told the Sydney Institute, 'The Australian people want to move, they wanna move towards a new settlement of this issue. I share that desire, which is why I am here tonight. I announce that if re-elected, I will put to the Australian people, within 18 months, a referendum to formally recognise Indigenous Australians in our constitution. Their history as the first inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of culture and languages and their special, though not separate, place within a reconciled indivisible nation.'

The opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, made a similar commitment in response. Then just before election day, Rudd deferred constitutional recognition to Labor's second term. A second term never materialised for Rudd, but Prime Minister Julia Gillard established the expert panel on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution, co-chaired by Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler, which reported in late 2011. It is now a decade since the expert panel. I won't rehearse this long journey with its numerous inquiries and processes, except to answer the question of 'what' that I raised at the beginning. What this process has been about since Prime Minister Howard in 2007 and Prime Minister Gillard in 2011 is the recognition of Indigenous Australians, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia.

The imperative was recognition, and it was acknowledged by our most conservative Prime Minister, Howard, and our first woman as Prime Minister, Gillard. It has been such a long road, with many twists and turns and seemingly endless miles of procedure and process, that we can be forgiven for having sometimes lost sight of what we are doing. Let me refresh our memories and identify what this is all about. It is about recognition. It was and is not about the legislative enactment of a voice to parliament by itself. It is about the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution, which empowers the parliament to legislate the voice to parliament as the means by which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are recognised in the nation.

The next question is why. Why recognition? The answer is straightforward. Because the Indigenous peoples of Australia have never been recognised. There was no recognition when Lieutenant James Cook claimed possession of the continent on behalf of the Crown. Apparently contrary to his secret instructions, which spoke of the need of the consent of the natives in 1770. There was no recognition when the First Fleet asserted British sovereignty in Sydney Cove in 1788. There was no recognition when each subsequent colony was established across the continent. There was no recognition when those colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Indeed peoples of the Aboriginal race were excluded from being counted as citizens in the new federation, and from the national parliament's legislative power.

The necessity of recognition still remained well after the centennial federation. This lacuna still remains today. We are a nation that does not recognise its Indigenous peoples. And this was a failure that needed to be addressed according to governments led by the Liberal and National parties, as well as by Labor in the first decade of the 21st century. My point is that whatever Prime Minister John Howard's views about the form of constitutional recognition, there is no doubt he understood the need for it. It is why he made the election commitment he did in 2007. 1770, 1788, 1901 and 1967 all failed to recognise Australia's Indigenous peoples. If not then, why not now?

The next question concerns where recognition is to be affected. This question was answered in 2007 by the Liberal National Party, led by Prime Minister John Howard, and by the Labor party, led by opposition leader Kevin Rudd, in precisely the same way. Recognition was to be affected in the Australian constitution. In other words, it was to be reflected in Australia's most supreme legal instrument, its constitution. That is why this process we are embarked upon is called constitutional recognition. It is not merely recognition in some extra legal declaration or proclamation or by legislative enactment of the national parliament, it is the constitutional recognition affected by amendment to the nation's constitution.

What form that amendment takes is a secondary question about how recognition is to be affected? Proponents of recognition may differ on the form of constitutional amendment, but everyone agreed that it was recognition within the constitution of the Commonwealth. John Howard proposed recognition in a preamble to the constitution. He said in 2007, 'My goal is to see a new statement of reconciliation incorporated into the preamble of the Australian constitution. If elected, I would commit immediately to working in consultation with Indigenous leaders and others on this task.' To be sure the form of constitutional recognition is as important as the question of its location in the constitution. My point is that whatever form recognition takes, the reform was premised on the basis of constitutional change.

We turn now to the question of who, who is sought to be recognised in the nation's supreme law? The simple answer is that category of people whom the terms of reference for the expert panel established by Julia Gillard described as Indigenous Australians. The answer to the question of who, is the subject of recognition may seem straightforward until you consider that recognition is a mirror. When the descendants of the British colonists - the Italians, the Greeks, the Vietnamese, the Congolese, the Sudanese and the Indians, the Lebanese and the Chinese – are recognised by the Indigenous, there is mutual recognition, and we see ourselves in each other's eyes. There can be no unilateral recognition of a part without mutual recognition of the whole.

The final question is, when? When will there be recognition? Indigenous advocacy in respect of recognition goes back to the 19th century from the petitioners of Flinders Island in the 1840s to the Day of Mourning in 1938 to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017. We see behind us a long storied and unrequited campaign for recognition and justice. Are we destined for this forlorn history to continue for a third century? We are engaged in a phase that represents our best chance to achieve recognition sought by our old people. Australians living today can bequeath to our children a commonwealth that affords a rightful place to its original peoples.

Up until now, non-Indigenous Australians have told themselves that these 250 years of European history is the only thing that matters to Australia. This is but the blink of an eye of Australia's story, and recognition will bridge 65,000 years of precolonial history, cultures and languages with these 250 years. Let me point out what is incontrovertible. Australia doesn't make sense without recognition, Australia is incomplete without recognition. How could there be an Australia without its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Indigenous peoples? As long as its Indigenous peoples remain unrecognised, then Australia is an absurdity. A nation missing its most vital heart. This absurdity becomes apparent with each passing January. The old idea of an Australia that started on 26 January 1788, and that's that, is fraying. And our political leaders don't know what to do.

The standard mode has been to ignore these fractures of national identity and all of the consequences that flow from the failure of recognition for 11 months of the year, and then to panic in January about how we're going to deal with Australia Day. Politicians offer thought bubbles, so the nation's national day might return to untrammelled celebration and joy, but no serious thinking or leadership is forthcoming from the political parties or the parliament. And the dissonance becomes more pronounced each year. Indifference and denial might've worked in the past, but plainly today there are far too many Australians determined to stand with Indigenous peoples in rejecting the old idea of Australia.

The situation calls for leadership, to deliver the country from its contradictions. Without it, polarisation will increase, and rather than mutual recognition we will have contradiction and repudiation. Australians are waiting for leadership on recognition. If not now, then when? Repudiation is the enemy of recognition. In fighting against the repudiation of the country's Indigenous heritage, no answer lies in the repudiation of its British inheritance. They both inure for the memory and advantage of all Australians. Even as we face the truths of our colonial past, for our history is replete with shame and pride, failure and achievement, fear and love, cruelty and kindness, conflict and comity, mistake and brilliance, folly and glory.

We shouldn't never shy from the truth. Our Australian storylines entwine us further with each generation, and we should ever strive to leave our country better for our children. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is Australia's greatest act of faith, hope and love. Faith in the people of Australia, hope for the future, not withstanding the mountains of bitter evidence to the contrary. Love for the country, for we could never walk away from Australia. Do I need to say this is our country too? It is the only home we have, we should never let despair alienate us from the truth that Australia is firstly our home. Let me lay out what lies on the horizon for us. With the constitutional recognition soon will come the day when we acknowledge three stories: the ancient Indigenous heritage, which is Australia's foundation; the British institutions built upon it; and the adorning gift of multicultural migration.

The first story of our ancient Indigenous heritage is best described in the Uluru Statement that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the First Nations of the Australian continent and its islands possessed on the ancient laws and customs, according to the reckoning of culture from the creation, according to the common law from time immemorial, and according to science for more than 65 millennia. This is a spiritual notion, the ancestral tie between the land or Mother Nature and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born there from remain attached there too, and must one day return dither to be united with their ancestors.

The second story of our British institutions that were built upon these foundations recognises that those who sailed the First Fleet landing at Sydney Cove carried upon their shoulders the common lore of England. When the sovereignty of the British Crown was proclaimed, the rule of law, parliamentary government, and the Australian English language have their provenance in Britain. From eyes onboard ship, this was a settlement, and from eyes onshore an invasion. The eve of the 25th and the dawn of the 26th January 1788, is when ancient Australia became the new Australia. The Britains and Irish, convict and free, who founded this institutional heritage made the Commonwealth from 1901 a great democracy of the globe.

The third story is the gift of multicultural migration, and recognises that peoples from the Earth over brought their multitude of cultural gifts to Australia. That we celebrate diversity in unity makes us a beacon to the world. When we renounced the White Australia policy, we made a better commonwealth. In Robert Hughes incomparable words, 'We showed that people with different roots can live together, that we can learn to read the image bank of others, that we can look across the frontiers of our differences without prejudice or illusion.' These three stories will make us one - Australians. Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is not a project of woke identity politics. It is Australia's longest-standing and unresolved project for justice and inclusion.

Let me finish with a thought experiment that we bring together all of the great Australians of our public life who have now passed, from James Cook to Bennelong, from Arthur Phillip to Jandamarra, from William Cooper to Dorothea Mackellar, from King Barraga to Samuel Griffiths, from Daisy Bates to Eddie Mabo, from Jack Patten to Margaret Guilfoyle, from RM Williams to Eddie Mabo, from Jim Killen to Kim Beazley the elder, from Vincent Lingiari to Robert Hughes, from Ninian Stephen to Wenten Rubuntja, from Harold Holt to my hero, Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, from Benelong to Arthur Phillip, from Ron Castan to Arthur Boyd, from Margaret Tucker to Jack McEwen, from Pearl Gibbs to Bob Hawke, from John Koowarta to Malcolm Fraser, from Doug Anthony to Rick Farley, from Sidney Nolan to David Unaipon, from Mum Shirl to Slim Dusty, from Steve Irwin to Victor Chang, from Arthur Beetson to John Toohey, from Charles Perkins to Gough Whitlam, I will stop here, but you get the idea.

We would add to their number the countless Australians who are known to each of us, our relatives and friends of our families, people from our communities, ordinary Australians of common decency, of foibles and failings, but all possessing an abiding love for the people and the country of Australia. If we asked this conference of our ancestral dead to consider the prospect that lies before us now, that we secure recognition of Indigenous Australians through a constitutional provision that empowers legislation, establishing a voice to the parliament and government of the day, to advise us on what to do.

What would our ancestral dead tell us, the present living we should do on behalf of our as yet unborn? Let us complete the legislative design of the voice, and produce an exposure draft of a bill, so that all parliamentarians and members of the Australian public can see exactly what the voice entails. Let us then set the bill aside and settle on the words of constitutional amendment that recognises Indigenous Australians and upholds the constitution, and put the amendment to a referendum of the Australian people at the next best opportunity. Thank you.

[applause]

DEAN PARKIN: I'm not going to attempt the folly of trying to add to that or comment on that, but just a thank you note for those very powerful words this evening. I had the great, great privilege of being a co-facilitator for all of the regional dialogues that led up to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. So I had the privilege of hearing everything that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had to say in the lead up to the creation of the statement. It's why I'm so passionate about it, It comes from the people, comes from people from all walks of life - urban, regional, remote, traditional, academics, workers, dancers. And that process created a spirit of connection and solidarity that is unlike anything I've ever felt.

And when the statement was read for the first time, it's a feeling I'll never, ever forget. The last couple of days we've had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people descend on mass here to Canberra to continue that story. And whether it's been time or the disruption that Covid has imposed upon all of us, I had this tingling feeling over these last couple of days seeing the mob, seeing the support, and it reminded me in a very real way that same spirit that led to the creation of the Uluru Statement in the beginning. The next speaker is the absolute embodiment of that spirit, embodiment of the voices of the people that contributed to the Uluru Statement and how we've got here today. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Vicki Morta.

[applause]

VICKI MORTA: Firstly I'd like to say, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land that we stand upon. I am honoured to be here. I thank you, Thomas, Dean Parkin, for this invite. My name is Vicki Morta, standing proudly before you as an Aboriginal and South Sea Islander descendant. Always proud as a Ngajanji woman from the Atherton Tablelands. I was born in Atherton and raised in Innesvale. I work as an Integrated Rating onboard the RTM WEIPA, a huge bulk carrier managed by ASP Ship Management Group Australia and owned by Rio Tinto Marine.

I have responsibilities onboard, duties such as opening and closing hatches, mooring operations during arrival and departure in and out of port, as well as watchkeeping on the bridge with the officers of the watch. I am also filling in as Operational Caterer, which means I get to work in the galley with the cook. We currently trade between Gladstone, Weipa and Gove, carrying bauxite. It's been 11 years loving everyday onboard and it makes me proud to do something I love for my family, my people and my union. This journey began in 2008 where I completed my traineeship in Tasmania.

Three years later I was made a permanent employee. Not long after that because of my perseverance in 2017 I became Maritime Union of Australia's first female Indigenous Bosun Chief IR.

[audience cheers]

And I have never stopped dreaming. And with the support from my family, work colleagues and my union, I'm soon to become a Deck Officer. This will make me the first female Indigenous Deck Officer. Through all of this, I remain the Ngajanji woman standing before you. It is important that every community has a voice, a voice that needs to be heard. I say this because our communities need someone to hear and address the issues in Australia.

Our First Nations people have struggled for many years dealing with the impacts of health problems, the education system, land rights and the rights to having a voice enshrined in the constitution. We want to control our communities, we want to deal with our children and issues our way. This is why the people in our communities want their voices to be heard. Today our communities have to deal with problems like drug and alcohol abuse, our suicidal rates have increased because we struggle to control our own youth within our own communities. There are events like sports carnivals and NAIDOC Week where these are only once every so often that are organised outside our communities. These events are finished, the community then goes back to normal and the youth are stuck doing what they did before.

Our community people know a one-off approach does not work. We need to follow-up, we need someone to guide them in the right direction and encourage them. Having a strong voice that is protected by the constitution means we could change these programs so they work better for our youth. Our First Nations youth are our next generation, this is why once again our voice needs to be heard. We have too much to lose if it doesn't happen now, we can't afford to be told to wait for another few more generations. Our youth need our people, our elders, our culture. With this knowledge and education, our children, our culture, our youth will have a chance at real success.

I speak from the heart because I know and I've seen what's happening around me, and it hurts to see my people continue on going down this cycle. This is why I stand before you knowing these problems exist because I have seen it firsthand. Personally, I have family members and friends who have dealt with problems like mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, youth in detentions and suicides. In the past few months, I have experienced and watched families suffer, including myself over depression, whose those family members have taken their lives and have left a loss in people's hearts. These family members were young, and seeing their loved ones still in grief. I believe they could have been better people in pursuing their dreams and making their people proud. We can change the way our children should be educated, we can change the justice system and teach our children our way. We can work together. We as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders we can help make change to better the future for our children and our children's children.

Why should it be so hard to be heard? Why must our children keep suffering? When we can stand together and make history for this vast nation? This is why having our voice enshrined, we can deal with all of these issues and focus on our people, on our land. With much gratitude and appreciation, this to me, at first, was not to make a big statement or a projection of my achievements or a voice, or my voice to be heard, but later on perhaps this would be an encouragement to the young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, especially my nieces and nephews. If I can achieve this, so can you. Dedication and focus, no matter what personal issues one may face, it is one's own journey that steps one towards destination, fulfilment and pride in oneself.

Sailing around the Australian coast and overseas gave me a local and global experience where the horizon has no limits for me as I strive to improve everyday challenges that come my way. Last year all mankind was challenged by Covid-19, a year of uncertainty. I took the given opportunity to speak at the Maritime Union of Australia's national conference, and in December I was awarded the prestigious award from the Queensland Council of Unions, an award dedicated to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activist who has made an outstanding contribution to the union over the past 12 months.

This short passage to all my young aspirers is achievable with the right attitude and constant positivity on oneself. And I also know that we must empower our people's voices, so they can make the positive changes in their communities over the long-term. This is why I will continue on having determination for a voice enshrined in the constitution. I seek my voice to be heard and my name to be known. This is important, not only to me, but to my First Nations people of this country. So, I now ask for you to walk with us in this movement and stand by us to better our future for the First Nations people of Australia. Thank you for your time. I hope I have made a difference.

[applause]

MATHEW TRINCA: Thanks Vicki. It's just reflecting on what it's been like to, the privilege really, of being in this place, to be the Director of this institution. I've been fortunate enough to be in here to hear remarkable things when people tell their story, but the stories we heard from you tonight, from Dean Parkin and from Noel Pearson are burned deep in our hearts. It seems to me that this moment is one that I hope we will carry forward with us, that will stay with us, that we'll think about, and we'll remember for much time to come. It seems to me to follow what Dean said about this an important moment now for all of us to be moved by, and ultimately to act upon.

I'd like to thank Noel Pearson, Dean Parkin and Vicki Morta for their words and for their openness and embrace of this crowd, but also the nation in offering the things that they've had to say about these important issues tonight. Thank you all.

[applause]

Thanks also to the people that have made this happen tonight. To the staff of the From the Heart campaign, the CT Group team, and our own great staff here at the National Museum of Australia. I'm indebted to you all for the efforts that you've made, not just for tonight, but for all that you've done for this place over many, many years.

[applause]

I want to thank Danny Gilbert as well who suggested this to me, and who is sitting here gladly tonight, a former Chair of Council. You always had good ideas, Danny, but this is a particularly good one tonight. And last of all, I do wanna thank Dean Parkin who has done so much to make this event come to fruition.

[applause]

Dean, I don't know if you're aware, but the staff of this Museum have enjoyed a really great pleasure in working with you through the course of this. They've been struck by your whole-hearted commitment and just your grace in the face of dealing with the challenges that we had. This was first anticipated as an event in February, which had to be delayed because inevitably of the pandemic.

And I really do thank you for all that you've done through that time. And finally, thank you to all of you for being here tonight, for listening to these messages, strong messages that goes to the heart of our history, that if we listen to, we take into our hearts, we think about, and importantly we act, we can make a different Australia, an Australia which we can all share and be proud. Thank you, and enjoy the rest of your evening.

[applause]

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© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

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