Burney, the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person to serve in the New South Wales parliament, recalled her friend Charles Perkins fondly in delivering this year’s oration but issued a clarion call for his firebrand “truth-telling” to continue to lead the way for First Nations rights in Australia.
She paid tribute to his legacy and stewardship and said that because of Charles Perkins and his life of fighting for Aboriginal rights, “we have nothing to fear and it’s up to us to continue to provoke, irritate, and inspire.”
We do have his legacy and we do have his example of bravery and truth-telling… The life of Charles Perkins is the First Nations’ experience and the First Nations story of Australia, the history and progress of Aboriginal rights and the status of First Nations people in this country.
Ms Burney said that truth-telling is key to healing and reconciliation and that this is exemplified by the life and work of Dr Perkins. “We do have his legacy and we do have his example of bravery and truth-telling,” she said.
“He left everything on the field; he was rare, refreshing and most of all he was real. The life of Charles Perkins is the First Nations’ experience and the First Nations story of Australia, is the history and progress of Aboriginal rights and the status of First Nations people in this country.”
The first Aboriginal graduate from the University of Sydney, Arrernte and Kalkadoon man, Charles Perkins was instrumental in forging an Aboriginal perspective, identity and activism in contemporary Australia. He is widely recognised as one of the founders of the reconciliation movement and established the Freedom Rides in 1964. The rides in a bus through country towns in New South Wales raised awareness nationally and internationally of the parlous state in which First Nations peoples lived at the time. It marked a restart in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Healing cannot properly begin without acknowledgment of the hurt and pain perpetrated against our people.
“The Freedom Rides were fundamental in transforming the attitudes of Australians and their understanding of the racial discrimination faced by Australia’s First Peoples. The period was often regarded as softening the environment for the historical reforms forming part of the 67 Referendum.
"Charles Perkins was a towering and integral figure in the legendary generation of activists from the 1960s, responsible for fundamental shifts, for fundamental truths in the advancement of First Nations peoples in this country. Lessons have been learned from Charles,” said Ms Burney.
In the presence of Dr Perkins’ children Rachel and Adam, Linda Burney spoke with great respect of the life of Charles Perkins and the impact of his activisim as well as the many truth-tellers he has inspired.
“His greatest contribution is that he challenged preconceptions and attitudes during a time of great change and reform not just in Australia but across the world. Charles found himself at the forefront of grassroots activism and resistance, he brought change from within and from within the community and the corridors of power and that is something great.”
He understood the power of consensus, building broad support, navigating power structures of the day to bring tangible change.
She spoke of his ability to work in a bipartisan manner, working towards consensus within existing structures to bring about change:
“Charles worked in Aboriginal Affairs under both Liberal and Labor governments and I think that this is another lesson for us; you work with what you’ve got, you work with what’s in front of you. He served in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs under Harold Holt. He served as the Secretary of the Department of Aborignal Affairs under Bob Hawke and was eventually appointed Commissioner of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission under Paul Keating. He understood the power of consensus, building broad support, navigating power structures of the day to bring tangible change.
"Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said ‘he recognised that it was sometimes necessary to appear unreasonable to be heard. To know and to work with Charles was to know that, at times, there would be disagreements and difficulty’. He said Charles took comfort from the fact that there were more and more people each day waiting with impatience for the time when all of us can say, as Australians, we have faced our past honestly,” said Ms Burney.
It's more important than ever for people of good will to stand together.
The Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Michael Spence AM, also acknowledged the need for consenus, acknowledgement of past hurts, and healing.
“The University is committed to the notion that until we know what it means to be an international university deeply of this place, that’s a part of a real partnership between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia, and until we have explored that with the Aboriginal communities in our vicinity and more broadly afield we won’t know what it means to be an Australian university and we won’t be able to be a part of the healing of this country.
"Now it’s more important than ever for people of good will to stand together,” said Dr Spence.
Ms Burney spoke of the need for Constitutional reform which has been tasked to the Joint Committee on Constitutional Reform: “We must acknowledge that for too long, First Nations people have been legislated to and not legislated with. That will change. It means acknowledging that one of the most important things we can do is listen to First Nations people, that we can set-up a strong advisory but non-binding mechanism, a platform from which we can impress upon our elective representatives the concerns, the interests of First Nations Australians, but we know that reform of this magnitude, constitutional reform cannot happen without bipartisan support.”
Ms Burney spoke of a number of important acts of truth-telling in Australia’s recent history beginning with the High Court handing down of the Mabo decision in 1992, to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 and recognition of the Appin Massacre in 2016 and the Myall Creek massacre in 1838.
“It was an important part of truth-telling because it was the first time that the white perpetrators were brought to justice.
"I think it’s very easy for people to dismiss many of the challenges facing First Nations people by saying it’s in the past, get over it, forget it. No one else is asked to do that and it is our past that gives us our future,” she said. “Healing cannot properly begin without acknowledgment of the hurt and pain perpetrated against our people.”
“This has been a long journey a journey that’s not over and a journey that we all must commit ourselves to,” concluded Ms Burney.
Following the Oration, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence and Dr Perkins’ daughter Rachel and son Adam awarded the recipients of the Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Prize to students:
The prize was established in 2000 to commemorate the life-long achievements of Dr Perkins, the first Aboriginal man to graduate from university. With the support of the University faculties and The Charlie Perkins Trust for Children & Students, there are now three prizes awarded to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who have achieved outstanding results for a Bachelor or Honours degree.
Reflections at the 2018 Dr Charles Perkins Memorial Oration by Dr Michael Spence AM, Vice-Chancellor and Principal.
Ms Burney will give the opening address at the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide gathering to be held in Sydney 26-29 November 2018 with First Nations people from across the globe coming together to discuss truth-telling and healing.