Sydney Festival: Professor Houston's hopeful address

11 January 2012

Professor Shane Houston: "The stories we tell are the things that bring to life what it is to be Australian."
Professor Shane Houston: "The stories we tell are the things that bring to life what it is to be Australian."

Professor Shane Houston, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) this week joined MC Wendy Harmer for Sydney Festival's Hope 2012 speakers' event.

At Eugene Gossens Hall, Professor Houston appeared with comedian and disability advocate Stella Young, international theatre director Nigel Jamieson, human rights campaigner Sophie Peer and activist, and University of Sydney law student, Senthorun Raj.

The theme of the night, 'Citizens Seizing the Day' took inspiration from the increasing contribution of citizens to framing public debate, whether in social media or movements such as the Arab Spring.

Professor Houston took hope as his subject describing it as "a power that holds Australia's peoples together as a nation and as communities" and called for people to use story-telling and narrative to define a new Australian identity.

Reflecting on his own father's extraordinary life journey, from his underpaid pastoral work to his decades of service in the Australian armed forces, Professor Houston described the power of narrative to "define and reinforce our notions of who we are; how we relate to each other and how they sustain us.

"For more than 35 years my passion in Aboriginal affairs has been a vision that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and our culture becomes an integral, respected and shared part of Australia's national identity and story - it should be about our us-ness.

"We know that nations are defined by their shared stories; by the narrative we take into our homes, workplaces, dinner parties, political debates, academic enquiry and education and public life. The stories we tell are the things that bring to life what it is to be Australian."

While there have been notable occasions when Australia's national story has linked Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples' culture and futures to Australia's future, such as the 1967 referendum, the bridges walk, reconciliation, and the national apology, these occasions have been rare, Professor Houston said.

"There are 22.8 million Australians. None of us will ever meet the other 99.99 percent who call themselves Australians. Most will never be at that nation-defining event. Most of us didn't do a citizenship ceremony. So what is it that binds us together; what is it that makes us Australian; what gives us our national identity?

"It's our national story. It's the stories that we share about each of us with all of us. These are Australian stories because they are only ours," Professor Houston said.

Professor Shane Houston is a Gangulu man from Central Queensland and an activist for Aboriginal equality.

He has an extensive background in public service and health, with a PhD from Curtin University exploring the way Aboriginal values are incorporated into health funding decisions. He is dedicated to building a fairer and more compassionate Australia and is currently working on integrated strategies to advance Indigenous participation, engagement, education and research.

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