I acknowledge the Gumatj people of the Yolngu nation and I pay respects to their elders past and present. I particularly acknowledge our host, Galarrwuy Yunupingu. I recognise that I stand here with you on what is, was and always will be Aboriginal land.
As we join together here each year at Garma, we are gathered in the cradle of this continent’s international trade. Each December, when the Worlmamirri season was upon the land and the stars of the scorpion were spread across the early morning sky, the Yolngu would look to the sea, waiting for the horizon to fill with the sails of Macassan vessels.
Long before any Englishman planted the Union Jack anywhere on this continent, the Yolngu were trading with neighbours who arrived in masted ships. Things did not always go smoothly, but the trade flourished over centuries, the Macassans arriving with cloth and rice and knives, and eventually setting off home with cargoes of sea cucumbers.
And the two peoples made their mark on each other.
West of here, a 65,000 year-old grindstone was found in the lands of the Mirarr clan near Kakadu, predating what was thought to be the dawn of the baking age in Egypt by 30,000 years.
These are just two small examples from just one part of this vast continent. Two small examples that will still come as a surprise to many Australians.
It comes as a surprise because this is not the country we non-indigenous think we know. But little by little, we are beginning to know.
The myths that hold us back are slowly falling apart. The misconceptions, the half-truths, the sheer wrongheadedness with which non-Indigenous Australia has so often regarded the original custodians of this continent are being shaken apart by a better understanding.
As they crumble before the facts, there is a line that we hear repeated, the thin harvest from the education of so many generations of Australian school children. And that line is: Why weren’t we told before?
Thankfully as a nation we have been moving slowly beyond our erasure of Indigenous achievement — what W. E. H. Stanner called the cult of forgetfulness, the great Australian silence.
Look at Bruce Pascoe’s extraordinary book Dark Emu, which has done so much to shatter myths by looking at the knowledge we already had but chose to bury along the way. The way in which Dark Emu has been embraced over the past few years stands as an eloquent statement of Australia’s hunger to know ourself. It is a powerful assertion of our collective desire to smash the lies we’ve been telling ourselves as a nation to justify dispossession and destruction.
Bruce, a Bunurong man of the Kulin nation, stands tall as one of the many toiling to break the shackles that bond us to the dead weight of a false past. He blows away the dust of old textbooks and perceived knowledge to let us see again what the early Europeans saw: the crops, the towns, the villages, the carefully tended earth and the agriculture that sustained so many of the nations of this continent — and who can say how many millions of people over more than 60,000 years — until they and an entire way of life were marginalised, and the memory of them dimmed.
But they were not dimmed entirely. The darkness of silence, and the ignorance that gorges upon it, is being broken with shafts of light.
After the silence, there must come a voice.
One that will enlarge us as a nation.
Which until it exists we are all diminished.
I recently attended the Welcome to Country in federal Parliament House in Canberra.
It’s extraordinary to reflect on the fact that this is something that didn’t ever happen until the election of the Rudd Labor Government.
It is a ceremony that works as the most profound of two-way streets. It allows all of us who serve there to acknowledge the privilege of meeting on Ngunnawal country, and it is the moment the traditional custodians of that land welcome us with hearts every bit as open as they rightfully expect ours to be.
Instigating the Welcome to Country in Parliament House was a step that was both modest and overdue. But as Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly sang, “from little things big things grow.”
I repeat what I said in that welcome: “The Parliament should do more than hear an Aboriginal welcome. The Parliament should also hear an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice … Forty-five times we have opened the Parliament in this country without a Voice to Parliament for the First Nations of this great land. The 46th Parliament should be the last in which we do that.”
It is a desire the Uluru Statement from the Heart delivers in fourteen words of unadorned power: “We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in The Constitution.”
With a Voice in place, there can be truth-telling, and there can be Makaratta.
Makaratta. That great Yolngu word must resound through the land. So much is encompassed within its four syllables: conflict resolution, making peace after a dispute, justice, the path to treaty.
Within those four syllables dwells the hope of self-determination, something that has already been achieved to various degrees by First Nations people in New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the nations of Scandinavia.
None of those places have achieved utopia, but when you look at the gaps in everything from health to justice to education between the indigenous and non-indigenous populations there, they have left Australia behind. And when you compare life expectancies, the bare, harsh, unavoidable truth is that they have left us for dead.
We cannot go on like this. But we can go forward.
It is clear to me that enshrining that Voice in the Constitution is what must come first.
Australia’s Constitution was written at a time of profound change. The men who wrote it had seen the world they’d known evolve; at their hands, a collection of colonies had become a nation. They had no reason to expect that the disparate, relentless forces driving that change would ever stop. That is why they did not set out to create a museum piece to be put behind a piece of glass and an ever thickening layer of dust.
They created a living document. They designed the Constitution to be enduring, but not unchanging. To future generations they gifted the mechanisms for change. Yes, they set a high threshold, which was crucial. But just as crucially, they took great care to not put change out of reach.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about constitutional change. Some are wary of any sort of tinkering with the nation’s prime document.
I do understand constitutional conservatives. I have been active in politics since I was a teenager, long enough to have a sense of where they are coming from. To be a constitutional conservative is not a dishonourable thing.
But there are times when change is essential. Our Constitution, as it was originally written, did not embrace all Australians. When the chance came for change in the 1967 referendum to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be counted, voters not only made it one of the rare referendums to actually succeed in this country, they did it enthusiastically and emphatically, with more than 90 per cent of voters saying yes, carrying the referendum in all six states.
And while it did not make the problems faced by our First Nations people disappear, it stands as a reminder that we can have the will as a people to fix what is wrong.
So to those who are apprehensive about changing the Constitution, I say: Give this a chance. Give this some room. And to my fellow politicians I add: Let us come together so we can go to the public together — and together we will make the case.
We have come a long way — but there is still such a long way to go.
It is more than a decade since Kevin Rudd gave the Apology to the Stolen Generations. It remains my proudest moment as a member of Parliament, even though it was greatly overdue.
It is approaching three decades since Paul Keating delivered the Redfern Speech, and four-and-a-half since Vincent Lingiari watched the red earth pour from Gough Whitlam’s hand into his own.
And that was nearly a decade after Lingiari led 200 Gurindji, Mudburra and Warlpiri workers and their families out of Wave Hill Station.
It is eight-and-a-half-decades since that great Yorta Yorta man and unionist William Cooper rallied Aboriginal Australia to demand a voice. Eighty-five years!
So it’s hardly like we’re rushing into anything.
We have not yet had true reconciliation, and a country that is not truly reconciled is not truly whole. And until we are whole, we will never reach our truest potential as a nation — and we have so much potential.
But how can we have reconciliation when one side has no voice?
The Voice is the bedrock upon which we must build.
I will take the fight to the Government on so many things; never have any doubt about that. But on this we must work together. We must be together. My hope we can have bipartisanship on this remains alive.
I am encouraged by the tentative moves towards constitutional change by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Ken Wyatt. I hope he gets the support he needs and deserves from his colleagues.
I am, quite frankly, encouraged by the epiphany experienced by Barnaby Joyce. That is not a sentence I ever expected to say, but I have been pleasantly surprised. After being part of the chorus pushing the myth that a Voice would amount to a third chamber in Parliament, Mr Joyce did something unusual. He stopped. He listened. He asked questions from people with knowledge. It is said that the beginning of wisdom is to say: I don’t know. In that spirit, Mr Joyce prepared himself to hear the truth. And the truth was that he had been wrong.
Mr Joyce then went on television to own up to his mistake, and to explain why he’d been wrong. And he encouraged others who’d made the same mistake to follow his example.
There are so many mistakes to unravel. I know there are real concerns about the CDP program. It has been punitive and unfair and has caused much hurt in communities right across the north.
That is why Labor promised before the recent election to abolish CDP and establish a new program that addressed the needs of First Nations people.
We planned for this new program to be developed with First Nations people and thought that it might have some of the same features as the old CDEP, such as proper wages and wages top up with unexpended funds being reinvested into local communities. Under our plan local community organisations would be running the program including determining what work was to be done. We also wanted better access to vocational training and small business development.
We remain committed to our proposal and would be happy for the Morrison Government to adopt our policy as theirs, so that we can get the change in communities that First Nations People across the country having been calling for.
Let’s face it — the Government needs to be doing something to balance the ledger, not least here in our hosts’ country where, in 1963, the Government handed over 300 square kilometres of Yolngu land to bauxite miners.
There is a word to describe this, and it isn’t “generosity”.
There was no consultation of the Yolngu. Instead there was a wall of secrecy. On one side of that wall was the Government, the mining company and all that massive mineral wealth.
On the other side were the Yolngu – Galarrwuy Yunupingu and his father Mungurrawuy among them.
Despite the shabbiness with which the Yolngu were treated, despite the gross lopsidedness of it all, their response was eloquent and beautiful and powerful. First one Yirrkala bark petition, and then when some desk jockey beheld this magnificent document and decided it didn’t meet all the bureaucratic criteria, a second.
While the petitions did not succeed, they did at last carry the voice of the Yolngu into the national Parliament. And not all the ears that voice fell upon were deaf. A slow beginning is nevertheless a beginning.
The rest of Australia must come together to acknowledge the patience, generosity and persistence of First Nations people and their wishes, including the nature of future agreements with them that was made so clear in the Uluru statement.
To the Yolngu and all the First Peoples, I say you have been more than patient. As befits people whose ancestors redefined tenacity, their customs and culture and language surviving through a period so immensely long it saw the very shape of Australia physically change, you have been patient beyond all ordinary comprehension. But your patience has been tested long enough.
I know you’ve had more than your fill of politicians flying up, making statements, then flying south again.
I know you’ve had well and truly more than enough of hearing Balanda talking with Balanda about your people.
None of this is the way to a Voice.
None of this is the way to the truth.
None of this is the way to Makaratta.
But there is a way. I want a Voice and Truth then Treaty to be part of our nation’s journey, part of our national life. And as I’ve said before, it’s not just about respect and redress. It’s about progress and change. It’s about moving out of the darkness and into the light.
As Galarrwuy Yunupingu said: “At Uluru we started a fire, a fire we hope burns bright for Australia.”
We stand tantalisingly close to the cusp of something new — not the reinvention of Australia but the realisation of a greater one, a country drawing into its heart the many strands of our First Nation’s people in the eternal understanding that together, we are all stronger.
It would be the ultimate fulfilment of that most Australian of instincts: the fair go. More than anything, it would be right. It would be just.
The silence is behind us. Let us now hear the Voice.