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Inspirational Abbott's Indigenous aspiration


Earlier this month we marked the fifth anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. The Apology was adopted by the Parliament on the motion of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and supported by the Leader of the Opposition Brendan Nelson. Their successors spoke well when passing the largely symbolic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said 'on this special anniversary we acknowledge the courage that enabled Kevin Rudd to offer the Apology and the generosity of spirit that enabled Indigenous Australians to accept it'. She spoke of the Constitution as 'a foundation document (which) is more than just a set of rules and procedures':

It can articulate a nation's sense of itself. But our nation cannot articulate such a sense of self when there are still great unanswered questions in our midst. How do we share this land and on what terms? How adequate are our national laws and symbols to express our history and hopes for the future? No gesture speaks more deeply to the healing of our nation's fabric than amending our nation's founding charter.

With a real show of bipartisanship, Tony Abbott complimented Gillard on her 'fine speech' and without any fanfare proceeded to put to rest the Howard critique of the 'black armband view' of history. He told Parliament:

Australia is a blessed country. Our climate, our land, our people, our institutions rightly make us the envy of the earth, except for one thing — we have never fully made peace with the First Australians.

This is the stain on our soul that Prime Minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago. We have to acknowledge that pre-1788 this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now. Until we have acknowledged that we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people.

We only have to look across the Tasman to see how it could have been done so much better. Thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand two peoples became one nation.

So our challenge is to do now what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our country's foundation document. In short, we need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people.

Let's not underestimate the significance of Howard's successor giving credit to Keating for his Redfern speech, before then invoking the Treaty of Waitangi and calling for atonement.

A new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders were gathered in the public gallery for the passage of the legislation. Together with them were many of the leaders from earlier campaigns over the Northern Territory land rights legislation, Mabo, Wik, native title and reconciliation.

They then proceeded to the National Press Club which was packed to the rafters with supporters. The two speakers were two of the up-and-coming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders Tanya Hosch and Jason Glanville. Each spoke proudly of their diverse heritage.

I realised one of the benefits of the National Apology has been that Australians with a mixed heritage are now proud to proclaim it and share its benefits with the community at large. Hosch told the Press Club:

I was blessed to be raised in a family that is a model for the kind of nation I want Australia to be. A family where race isn't a divide, but an enricher ... that is proud of the many strands of its heritage, and particularly of our Indigenous heritage ... that integrates the best of all of our traditions and cultures, and which has nurtured me to play a part in bringing about this big moment in the life of our nation.

Glanville told the story of his great grandmother leaving the mission with her two year old child and coming to Cootamundra and building a home. He told us:

In the Cootamundra Town Hall, where once my great grandmother was barred from being able to vote, a stained glass window now hangs. It's a picture story. In it, she is telling bedtime stories to her grandchildren in the language of their ancestors. The town that once excluded this amazing Aboriginal woman has now immortalised her remarkable story. At long last, it has recognised her, and regards her story as a source of pride. It's time our Constitution did too.

I was privileged to sit at table with many erstwhile campaigners like Lowitja O'Donoghue, Pat Turner and Jackie Huggins. But alas, Karen Middleton was the only serving journalist from the Press Gallery to join the press gallery committee in asking questions. Later in the week, I was dining with some of the gallery and I quizzed them about their absence. They told me there was not the same interest in Indigenous affairs nowadays.

There is plenty of work to be done if the referendum is to get up in the next parliamentary term. In the wake of the National Apology, there is a new generation of Indigenous Australians able to show us the way. Hopefully our elected leaders will be aboard.

Abbott told Parliament: 'I believe we are equal to this task of completing our Constitution rather than changing it.' Hopefully there will be unanimity about what constitutes completion, and there will be patience and respect shown as we discuss what changes might be put off for another time. 

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law, director of strategic research projects (social justice and ethics), Australian Catholic University, adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. 

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, National Press Club, Reconciliation



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Existing comments

Yes but is all so patronising that a bunch of white migrants who are the descendants of the murderers and land thieves can have the gall to recognise the people who own the land and then kick out those few who said the same as me. Abbott and Gillard are both just off the boat, they would have learnt the same nothing about aboriginal history as I did so they don't even know what they are on about. They are both still gungho about the racist intervention, still both amazed when aboriginal people do amazing things and Abbott a few months ago was even questioning what an aboriginal descent person is. No-one questions his British descent, who is he to question aboriginal descent. It's all so sad, pathetic, parochial, colonial and racist. One example is Lowitja O'Donohue is 1000 times the woman Gillard will ever be having to thank a racist for recognising her right to exist.

Marilyn | 26 February 2013  

When you stated in your penultimate paragraph that there is a "new generation of Indigenous Australians able to show us the way" -- I thought of the impressive, 2013 Australian of the Year in the Local Hero category; Indigenous leader, Mr. Shane Phillips, which reads as follows from the AotY website: "Advocate for Aboriginal rights, Shane Phillips is a respected member of the Redfern Aboriginal community and is regarded as their voice on a range of youth issues, juvenile justice and Aboriginal deaths in custody. He is the fulltime CEO of the Tribal Warrior Association, a non-profit organisation directed by Aboriginal people and Elders that offers training for employment and helps at the grassroots level with emergency relief for struggling families. He also operates a mentoring program to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to achieve their full potential. The concept is uncomplicated: it’s about forming good habits, guiding by example, including everyone and acknowledging achievements. Shane is also credited with improving the relationship between his community and the police. Since the 2009 introduction of the Clean Slate Without Prejudice program run in collaboration with the police, the number of robberies committed by local youth has declined by 80 per cent. Born and raised in Redfern, Shane is an outstanding community leader, respected by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike for his integrity, hard work and determination to get things done."

Daniel Moszkowicz | 26 February 2013  

There must be some irony in the fact that Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were all educated in Catholic Schools and it seems that these three politicians, among all the rest, have and probably will, lead the nation to unite on this matter. And not forgetting Sir Gerard Brennan from the High Court as well.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 27 February 2013  

But allow me to compliment Frank Brennan for, once again, a direct honest report from a crucial frontier for Australia, not to mention the rest of the universe. I wonder, from a faraway land many of its first peoples called Turtle Island, if Australians quite appreciate the rare value and virtue of a Frank Brennan, whose combination of experience in law and as priest make him a piercing observer of the cultural, social, and political scene. If only he was not a Magpies man.

Brian Doyle | 27 February 2013  

Tony Abbott is a tired old DLP dinosaur out seeking easy votes in an election climate where he knows he is loathed as badly as he loathes Gillard, so it's just a case of 'he would say that, wouldn't he?'. Has Abbott been to Damascus recently? If not, where was his voice during the Howard era, and beyond, when he could have been developing an advanced policy to identify a sharp point of difference between the dinosaurs of the Coalition and the dinosaurs of the ALP? As far as Fr. MickMacAndrew's whistful comment suggesting it has taken the Vatican educated to realise the error of the Australian way, give us a break cobber! There is little in Abbott's past political actions to suggest he is or ever has been guided-by-the-light at all, anymore than Keating was. Perhaps that awful SDA Senator from Tasmania we all used to suffer pork-barreling for his state might have claimed that, but even then, we all knew he was just pushing his DLP barrow of nasty political tricks, not being spoken to by any gods.

janice wallace | 27 February 2013  

I have always believed that two of Keating's speeches were amongst the greatest ever in terms of the definition of genuine all-embracing humanity, namely, the Redfern Speech and his Tribute to the Unknown Warrior at the War Memorial. I have always hoped that he actually wrote them and that they were not simply political rhetoric serving only the individual politician. Similarly, I hope that Abbott's speech supporting Gillard was also expressive of his thoughts and not just expedient politicking written by someone else. Cynical?? Almost certainly when one looks at the practical performances of Keating, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott. Howard, of course, doesn't even deserve mention in the same breath as reconciliation. All he contributed was a scar on the face of our country. Actions do indeed speak louder than words no matter how enduring and quotable some words become. Keating's speeches mentioned above are up there with Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and have application for humanity at large, not only in Australia. Some,as expected, attribute them to a very good speechwriter. I like to believe that he wrote them.

john frawley | 27 February 2013  

It is welcome news that the leader of the Liberal Party now acknowledges the need for fairness towards Aboriginal Australians. On the other hand, we are still waiting for cross-party recognition of the need for fair treatment, including equality of opportunity, for all Australians of whatever skin colour or the wealth - or lack of it - of their parents.

Bob Corcoran | 27 February 2013  

It would be truly inspirational if Abbott declared the abolition of the apartheid NT Intervention implemented by his mentor, Howard. It is causing suffering and shame here and now

Vacy Vlazna | 27 February 2013  

It is wonderful to listen to Father Frank's calm and uniting view of the situation. He is always measured and not too emotional, but respectfully listens to Aboriginal people and learns from them. I pray for a united Australia and that the anger from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can be alleviated.

Catherine | 27 February 2013  

There are many New Zealanders who would roll their eyes upon hearing Mr Abbott say, “We only have to look across the Tasman to see how it could have been done so much better.” This is very much a wistful Australian idealisation of the Maori-Pakeha encounter, grounded in a simplistic awareness that New Zealanders did it differently and that race relations were handled better by the Europeans in New Zealand. Like John Batman’s deal with the Kulin on the Merri Creek, there is much justified scepticism about the Treaty of Waitangi, made five years later. The two parties were living in parallel legal and social universes. Just as the Kulin may have had no notion of Batman’s real intentions in striking deals, so it remains a hotly disputed issue to this day how much any of the Maori chieftains really understood why they were at Waitangi or what the Treaty was meant to achieve. Mr Abbott’s words – “in New Zealand two peoples became one nation” – is a rhetorical flourish used to bolster his own argument, but very poor history. It would seem to me unwise to be using it as a model for how we should address our own history and its tragic outcomes for Indigenous peoples.

PHILIP HARVEY | 27 February 2013  

It WAS a remarkable paragraph in Mr Abbott's speech and that must be acknowledged. I wonder, though, how many of his colleagues in the Coalition could say ANY such thing -- and, therefore, whether it would carry any weight, with any practical effect, in a Coalition government. And to what extend does Ms Gillard's speech indicate some personal historical and moral progress from the uninformed remark which she made, in December 2007 [as incoming Minister for Education, be it noted], that Australia had not been "invaded", rather it had been "settled". The respondents -- and Mr Abborr -- are right: the Keating "Redfern Speech" is one of the inspirational moments of our history -- and it does not matter a jot whether he "wrote" it, nor is the extent to which he polished it relevant or significant: he DELIVERED it and we can all read and be uplifted by it. Further, it can be taught to our children and grandchildren as Lincoln's and King's speeches are taught to Americans. Putting those questions to one side, the most profound problem which Professor Brennan's essay highlights is the attitude of the Australian media. It reminds me of being told by a journalist, some years ago, that the then Editor of the "Sydney Morning Herald" would not publish indigenous stories because "those people are losers" and "they're not part of our demographic". The journalists whom Fr Brennan chided -- "there's not the same interest in indigenous affairs nowadays" -- are scarcely any better. Surely a good journalist and commentator has an obligation to write more than what is simply "popular" and "topical"? They also have a profound educational role: but fulfilling it requires hard work and commitment. Those challenges are far harder than the gossip and speculation which they peddle every day. Our media are egregiously failing us and until they discharge their true responsibilities, the moral understanding of the community -- on this and other matters -- will falter.

John Carmody | 27 February 2013  

Keating's speech was really something else! That the Apology has been extended and accepted, by and large, by Aboriginal Australians is very significant. Acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples in our Constitution, long overdue, requires bipartisan support from our Parliament to have any hope of success and it looks like both sides, normally at each others' throats, are united on this issue. We should not forget, though, in acknowledging Indigenous peoples in the Constitution there is no quick-fix to the many problems that still exist. Many Indigenous people are still sceptical of reconciliation conversations - it's all about justice and respecting individual autonomy.

Pam | 27 February 2013  

Thank you Fr Frank, for this article.

Marcia Howard | 28 February 2013  

The majority of armchair 'activists ' give me the s***s when they wax lyrical about a handful of predominately urban indig youth who achieve some academic or artistic acclaim .It means little to me when the survivors of my beautiful Great Sandy desert dwelling Kukatja people are still in hell .Let me cite one couple who were youths during our association during the 60's/70's .Donny & Patricia married, had 8 children & were destroyed by government, bureaucratic genocide . Currently ,Donny is a chronic alcoholic found anywhere between Broome & Balgo .Patricia perpetually in Perth ( a continent away from her soul land )& never to see it again .Of their children , two have suicided , two died from the typical Diet/ Dignity related diseases & remaining four all but 'the living dead' .Do you believe any of us would endure such a traumatic enslaught ? On a different level ,who with the appropriate political clout is acting against the Qld State govt's recent "Land Tenure Review "? Which is intent on trashing "Native Title " by granting Freehold Title to holders of Pastoral Leases .This of course is to fulfil the promise of the then Deputy PM to deliver 'bucketfulls of Extinguishment to graziers attending the Longreach Rally in the Howard era .Of course the evening before they were homestead guests of the family who would be by far the major beneficiaries of such an outcome .They would then enjoy perpetual ownership of an empire of grazing land of grossly inflated monetary value .Let's see if Abbott stomps on his Brisbane mates .

john kersh | 04 March 2013  

@John Kersh -- the country and the Australian people have moved beyond your blame-game antics. The unity and respect achieved from Reconciliation has set the course for a positive future for indigenous Australians -- thanks to so many good non-indigenous Australians who work tirelessly on correcting the imbalance in health and education and social opportunities.

Daniel Moszkowicz | 04 September 2013  

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