News

Effective engagement: the tonic for a reconciled nation


31 May 2011

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda.

Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, last night gave a special Sydney Ideas lecture as part of the Reconciliation Week events at the University of Sydney. This is an edited extract of his speech.

My address here tonight is titled Effective engagement: the tonic for a reconciled nation. I have chosen this because I truly believe unless we can come together as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and truly hear each other, truly understand each other and truly respect each other, reconciliation will remain ever elusive.

In February 2010, I began my five year term as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

In the following months I travelled around Australia, meeting with remote, regional and urban communities.

I heard many stories and witnessed many things that are heartbreaking and disturbing, particularly given that we live in one of the richest, most successful liberal democracies in the world. It is simply unacceptable that Australia's first peoples are the most vulnerable of this healthy, prosperous nation.

Indeed, I believe we need to ask the question: can we ever be truly reconciled while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to live in such relative disadvantage and continue to remain on the margins of our society?

We need to have a framework or a lens through which to address disadvantage and advance reconciliation. It is my belief that human rights provide such a framework.

Human rights are useful because they provide governments' and the people a set of minimum legal standards which if applied to all people establishes a framework for a society to foster dignity and equality whilst celebrating difference.

The challenges confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities - effective engagement, poverty, education, health, protection of culture and languages, incarceration rates, protection of women and children - are all human rights issues.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples gives us 'new impetus' to work together. This is because the Declaration is about creating new relationships based on partnership, mutual respect and honesty.

I don't underestimate the challenge that effective participation, grounded in the Declaration poses for governments. It requires a true re-setting of the way governments have conducted business with us, and related to us, in the past. And changing the way governments do things can sometimes be akin to a big ship trying to turn around.

The reconciliation agenda clearly also requires improvement to the relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian community.

When the National Apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples was made in February 2008, I believed Australia was ready for a new, stronger, deeper relationship with its first peoples.

On that day there was a palpable sense of us coming together as a nation. Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians sat together, held each other and cried together. The nation took a great leap forward together.

(L-R) Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Shane Houston and Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence planting hands in the Sea of Hands at yesterday's Reconciliation Week launch.
(L-R) Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Shane Houston and Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence planting hands in the Sea of Hands at yesterday's Reconciliation Week launch.

However, since that time we seem to have lost our way a little bit. It is my view that if we are to improve the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia we must build understanding of each other.

I firmly believe this is the right time, right here and now, for the Australian people to formally recognise in our Constitution the special and unique place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples hold in our nation. We are now engaged in a process towards a referendum in two years' time.

So over the next two years, there will be debates, speeches, opinion pieces in the press, bloggers responding to these articles, people prowling the parliamentary corridors, constitutional lawyers at ten paces, yea and naysayers, documentaries, panel discussions, arguments at dinner parties, barbecues and in front bars - all of these things.

And it's precisely all of these things, just like all the work leading up to the National Apology, that will build awareness, focus minds and hearts and help move us all forward as a nation.

It's not about looking back. It's about looking forward and moving forward as a nation towards the goal of true reconciliation. So in order to get to this destination, we have much to do. But this is the type of exercise that builds the healthy relationships necessary for an agenda of hope.

We must grasp this opportunity to reset the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of Australia.

I encourage all of you to read the available resources, become familiar with, and engage in the once in a generation opportunity for reconciliation that is this constitutional reform process.

I encourage you to be more inclusive, to put yourself in other people's shoes and to listen to other voices.

And I encourage you to familiarise yourself with human rights standards, such as the Declaration, that recognises that all people are equal in dignity and rights.

Without us, the people, reconciliation is a pipedream.

After all, reconciliation is not about me, and it's not about you, it's about all of us and our shared vision for this land we all call home.

If I may, I want to end with a poem written by one of our fighters in the struggle, Oodgeroo Nunukul, or as she is also known Kath Walker.

I am honoured to have known Oodgeroo in her later years and the poem I want to recite is one she wrote for her son, Dennis.

I think she captured the spirit of reconciliation of looking ahead rather than backward, indeed a woman before her time. It's called 'Son of Mine'.

My son, your troubled eyes search mine

Puzzled and hurt by colour line

Your black skin as soft as velvet shine

What can I tell you son of mine

I could tell you of heartbreak, hatred blind

I could tell you of crimes that shame mankind

Of brutal wrong and deeds malign

Of rape and murder son of mine

But instead I will tell you of brave and fine

When lives of black and white entwine

And men in brotherhood combine

This I would tell you son of mine

Thanks you ladies and gentlemen.


Media enquiries: Katie Szittner, 9351 2261, katie.szittner@sydney.edu.au