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Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples - 10/09/2014 - Public consultation for constitutional recognition

HENRY, Mr Reginald James, Culture and Workforce Development Senior, Ruah Community Services

LYNCH, Mr Francis, Chief Executive, Ruah Community Services

CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been forwarded to you. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Lynch : I have a number of other roles, one of which is President of the Australian Council of Social Service, and so I have a broad perspective of the community sector as well. I am not appearing here today representing ACOSS; I am here representing Ruah.

Mr Henry : I am a bit like Francis in that I also wear another hat. I am also the chairperson of the Medina Aboriginal Cultural Community, which is in the Kwinanaarea.

CHAIR: I now invite you to make a short opening statement. After you have spoken, I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Mr Lynch : Ruah is an organisation that has been working in the metropolitan area of Perth for 55 years. We provide services in the areas of homelessness, mental health, domestic violence and supporting women leaving prison. As a result of that work and that profile of work, we have a lot of contact with Aboriginal people through the services that we provide. Over the last 20 years in particular, we have developed a lot of working relationships with Aboriginal communities, organisations and Aboriginal people in leadership.

The reason we wanted to come along and be part of this hearing today is that one of the objects of our organisation, Ruah, is to work to promote justice for people in the community. There is a specific part of our constitution where we say that we are seeking to promote reconciliation in the community around the relationships with Aboriginal people in the community and to promote and work for justice for Aboriginal people. It is really important to us to work with Aboriginal groups and people in the community.

I am just going to speak on some particular projects and make a couple of comments. We are involved in a long-term project in the south-east metropolitan area of Perth, which is a partnership between Ruah and the telethon kids—the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. We have been working for four years with people from the institute to try and find more appropriate ways to connect and work with the Aboriginal community around providing mental health services. The project is likely to go for another couple of years. It is now connected to 14 mainstream mental health services across the south-east region of Perth. One of the really important parts of the project is about trying to understand from the Aboriginal community's point of view how we can do that business. There has been a great and deep connection of communication and relationship with the elders of the Wadjuk-Nyungar people.

We are trying to understand in specific terms a Wadjuk-Nyungar perspective of life here in Perth, the experience of people from the Aboriginal Wadjuk community of mental health services and how we can reconstruct mainstream services to better connect and work with Aboriginal people. Part of that is language. We are now talking about 'decolonising' our organisation. How do we reconstruct what we are doing in a way that takes account of the historical situation? That is really important. It is not that we have spent much time on specifics, talking about recognition in the Constitution, but recognition is one of the issues that comes up in those discussions in various ways. So that has been really important.

One of the other things that we are doing is supporting some other Aboriginal organisations. One of them is a group called the Wadjuk Boodja Gateway Aboriginal Corporation. That is an organisation made up of a number of the Wadjuk elders and representatives from many of the main families in the Wadjuk area. That group has been going for a number of years now and Ruah has been invited by that group to be in partnership to help them get their group going in a structural sense. They have a whole series of objectives. One of them is to get a cultural interpretation centre set up in the Midland area. On behalf of that organisation, we have been successful in getting money out of Lotterywest, so we have been the auspice organisation for them. We will hopefully be appointing the CEO of that group in the next week. Again, that has been about partnership. A lot of the discussion for that group and why we were chosen to be involved in partnership with that group was about understanding that there is a lot that we need to do to assist in the recognition.

Clearly we as an organisation are not going to be presenting any discussion or evidence around the constitutional elements of what is in front of this committee. We are not lawyers. We are not coming from that point of view. One of the other things that we as an organisation are doing is trying to understand how we relate to this as people.

Again, one of the things we have been doing over the last couple of years is we have connected with a program called Courageous Conversations about Race. This comes out of a US experience. We are partnering with UWA and the leader of that process, who is an African American, Glenn Singleton. It is about understanding our own experiences of being in this community, our own experiences of race, and about how we need to engage with people at a personal level around that.

I suppose I am concerned about how the referendum is going to go if and when it is put and about how those discussions happen in the community, because it will engender a whole lot of discussion. I think we need to have some mechanisms, some tools almost, to help us go about the process of talking about race, because I think that is part of what will come up. It is going to be really important for us not just to have the question right but to have the discussion and the debate and to do that in a productive way.

Senator SIEWERT: Can I jump in? Do the conversations you have been having with community about recognition lead to conversations about broader recognition—whether by government or by community—and the Constitution, or is it not as clear as that?

Mr Lynch : It happens at a whole number of levels. My experience is that there are a lot of people in the community who do know that there are discussions happening around Constitutional recognition. Whilst people might be quite unclear about what the question might look like and how it might be put, they know that there is something potentially going to come. So, in some cases, yes, it does refer to that, but I think there are other ways that that discussion happens. It is about that respect and honouring of people. Our organisation is in a process of talking with the elders at the moment about how our organisation works and connects with the community in Perth and is having a series of quite deep conversations. One of the things that is coming up really strongly there is: even though we have asked for their engagement with us, it still comes down, at that personal level, to: 'Are we going to respect you?' Are we respecting the elders? Are we prepared to go into relationship? Are we prepared to listen? So there is a much more personal element to that. I am not sure I am answering your question particularly, but I suppose my experience is that the recognition is happening. In that, there has been some reference to the Constitution, but it is also about—

Senator SIEWERT: At all levels.

Mr Lynch : 'Are we going to actually change our behaviours at an organisational level and at a personal level?'

Senator SIEWERT: Can I take you to the point you made, that the question is important but it is how we then have that discussion in the community. You cited the example of the courageous conversations. Can you expand a little on how you see that happening?

Mr Lynch : Yes, I can. I do not want to stop Reg from talking—

Mr Henry : Go for it.

Mr Lynch : but an example recently is that we were having a workshop about these courageous conversations, and one of my personal experiences recently has been of being with people who I know quite well and talking about just normal things—it was around people owning properties that they were putting out to rent in the market—and one of them saying, 'I really don't want my property to be leased to an Aboriginal family.' So I immediately said, 'Why not?' and was shut down completely. In fact the response was, 'But you would say that.' So they know who I am; they know what I do. So my response was shut down and the discussion just moved on, and I tried to open up the discussion again and then it was shut down again. What I am trying to say is that my way of interacting with that discussion was not productive, so I need to rethink it: how do I open up the discussion so that we can actually talk? I do not believe that that person is inherently racist to Aboriginal people in all ways, but they had a particular view about what an Aboriginal family might mean for them in their rental property. So I think that there are going to be lots of situations when the debate goes to a referendum where we are talking about people's personal experiences of Aboriginal people and how that is going to influence their take on the question and how we actually open up a discussion which is open rather than closed. So how do we actually support the referendum in an open way? I do not know if that makes sense.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, it does. Mr Henry, you look like you want to jump in.

Mr Henry : No, no.

Senator SIEWERT: What is the next step? How do we do that?

Mr Henry : One of the things I like in the whole notion of the courageous conversations is around how in Australia we have the old joke that when you go to a party you should not mention politics, religion and particularly race. In Australia we have a society where at times we do not want to talk about it. And the moment we start to talk about race, then people are fearful that they might be labelled: 'That person is talking about race; they must be racist', or whatever. I think we need to develop a culture in Australia where we start talking about stuff that worries and concerns us. The thing I like in that whole discussion around the courageous conservations is actually getting things on the table so we can talk about them. I hope that makes sense.

CHAIR: In terms of your organisation and its reach, how effective will the engagement around discussion be once the question is identified from your perspective?

Mr Lynch : I am not quite sure what you are asking, sorry.

CHAIR: If we come back to the conversations, I will use the analogy of weekend football finals: people around the area are going to be talking about the Fremantle Dockers doing well against Port Adelaide and hoping that they are going to win. How do we translate that level of conversation, around a football team, to recognition? And who, in your mind, are some of the key players we need to engage?

Mr Lynch : Obviously there has been a lot of discussion about making sure that you have the obvious: the government, the opposition and the state governments in support. But I think it actually has to be at a whole series of levels. When the referendum comes up, I personally want to play a role within the organisation of Ruah but also within the community sector. I think there needs to be people at a local level within different sectors or industries. There needs to be leaders at a whole series of levels who take leadership and are prepared to say that they are taking leadership around this, in the sense of saying, 'I support this.'

I did not put it on, but I have the RECOGNISE badge. Sometimes I wear it—and I should have worn it today but I forgot to put it on when I got up here. The RECOGNISE campaign is a grassroots campaign, but I think one of the things about the RECOGNISE campaign, as much as I support it, is that it is speaking to the people who want to be part it—it is preaching to the converted, in a sense. So, we need to make sure that there are people across all sorts of different areas who are prepared to say, 'I'm the person in my local sporting club and I support this.' Is there a mechanism and a way that they can actually reflect their view on this?—in a positive sense, hopefully. Can I actually take leadership and say the Leeming football club supports this?—or the netball club or whatever.

CHAIR: One of the messages we have been hearing very clearly from the community is that at the grassroots level they are not being engaged. They accept that RECOGNISE has been to town. They have seen the symbol, but the question they have been asking is: 'When do we get the opportunity to sit down and talk about the detail? We know nothing.' Yesterday we had very lively input from a particular family who gave us that message very strongly—that there was an absence of that level of engagement. We have also heard that the 1967 referendum was successful because of the breadth of non-Indigenous organisations that engaged and influenced others. Given that you wear a number of hats, as you have indicated, do you see those organisations playing a critical role?

Mr Lynch : Absolutely. I think it is really important that a whole range of different types of organisations are prepared to see this as within their gambit. The community sector, for example, is made up of tens of thousands of organisations who are active in the community, many of whom are working with Aboriginal families and communities. Hopefully, this is not going to have partisan politics attached to it and will actually be about trying to see this as a positive move.

CHAIR: Who do you see driving that? Given the number of organisations, who is the driver? It cannot be a parliamentary committee. RECOGNISE is doing an effective task of raising the issue. But it then comes down to: how do we then persuade a community to accept the concept, talk about it and then act on it? Who does the leading there?

Mr Lynch : I do not think there is an obvious answer to that question from my point of view. Again, I think it will be down to individual choices of people, to say, 'I'm going to stand up,' and then within their organisations. I am certainly not in a position, for example, to commit ACOSS, but my view would be that if there is a way of leading a campaign, organisations like ACOSS, business lobby groups and larger groups need to take leadership and be part of it. It still comes down to the local level. If it is all up there—which might be what you were hearing in that session yesterday—it is still out of touch. It needs to come down to the local level and there needs to be a way of getting involved locally. Maybe that is about having local communication. I do not know who takes leadership. It is really hard.

CHAIR: That is the conundrum that we have, in that sense, in that you can have a campaign but, if you do not have leaders at a local level that take the carriage of this, it does not gain momentum. So you do not get that rolling stone gathers more moss situation.

Mr Lynch : We need to find a way. What do you reckon?

Mr Henry : Yes, it is an interesting question. I would agree that we need to be able to touch people at the grassroots level. When I have been yarning with people, asking, 'What do you think about the changes in the Constitution et cetera?' there are all kinds of different perspectives and views. A lot of it is based on misinformation or not really knowing what is going on or misunderstanding what the whole intent of the changes to the Constitution is. I do see that there needs to be a lot of work there that gets, for want of a better term, your average Australian to understand what is really being proposed and that allays all those fears.

I was chatting with Francis a bit earlier on about how, having lived through Mabo, when the decision came out, suddenly there was this whole fear in the community that people might lose their houses and things like that. I think it is really important to have a campaign that is positive, to allay people's fears and to let them know that these changes that are being proposed are not going to cost you anything other than your goodwill, your sense of fairness and those kinds of aspects that we pride in Australian culture. To me, I think that campaign will be really important. I do see maybe a role for some of the organisations where they already see Aboriginal people in a positive light. I would imagine that organisations like the AFL would get on board. They are really good at getting messages down to the grassroots level through their system. I would imagine it would be people like that. That would be one aspect.

CHAIR: The obvious question to ask is: what are the roles of Aboriginal organisations? Because what I am hearing is they are only talking amongst Aboriginal clients; they are not talking to the broader community in which they play a key role on many other fronts. But on this issue we were told yesterday, again, that Aboriginal organisations have made no attempt to get out into the community and start talking about recognition. Do you see a role for them? And how would you consider that that should be taken on board?

Mr Henry : I think there could be a huge role to do that. Interestingly, at one point we had Reconciliation WA come in to do a talk. A great young lady called Kimberley Benjamin talked about the RECOGNISE campaign and mentioned that there were more mentions about windmills—

Mr Lynch : Lighthouses.

Mr Henry : lighthouses in the Constitution than of Aboriginal people. I found that really interesting. So here was this young person talking, and it really made me sit up and take notice. I would definitely see a role for people like Kimberley going around and talking to different groups and getting them to see a real reason from a young person's point of view. I guess I just really liked the fact that she was speaking so wisely about it. I certainly would be interested in the organisation I am chair of being part of spreading the message out in our area. But there is the question of who does that talk. What I liked about Kimberley was that she was very knowledgeable about what was and was not in the Constitution, and I must admit I do not know much about the Constitution; I am sure most Australians do not. It is something we do not know. American citizens would be very well versed with what is in their constitution, whereas in Australia perhaps we are not as well versed.

CHAIR: I do not think they are as well versed as you believe. I think that they know relevant sections—

Mr Henry : Sure.

CHAIR: that are pertinent to them. We do not do that. I have no more questions.

Senator SIEWERT: I have one more. In terms of your discussions with Aboriginal community members, do you think there is strong support for recognition in the Constitution?

Mr Henry : I think, yes, there is support for recognition in the Constitution, but I think the support comes with a bit of fear: what does this really mean? We perhaps need to educate the community more about what this really means because I think there is a bit of confusion around the impact. I have heard some people talk about issues of sovereignty and all kinds of other things. But, yes, I think there is definitely in-principle support behind it.

Mr Lynch : My experience is that there are very wide ranging views from a lot of the Aboriginal people that I have spoken to. It has come up in conversations without me bringing it up, and there has been everything from 'I wouldn't want this in at all' through to being very supportive. I would hope that, when there is a final, settled version of the words and there is a good logic to the reasons why we should be doing this and, hopefully, it is clearer, then people can be clearer about what they want, because at the moment it is still: 'What are you supporting?' 'We don't know yet.' But along with that there are going to be different views within the broader, mainstream community; certainly, I am hearing different views as well.

CHAIR: Given there are no further questions, I thank all witnesses for their informative evidence. The committee will suspend to visit the Western Australian schools constitutional convention and return at around 2.15 pm.

Proceedings suspended from 11:57 to 14:11