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Monday, 18 February 2008
Page: 617

Ms PLIBERSEK (Minister for Housing and Minister for the Status of Women) (4:42 PM) —I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we are meeting on today, the Ngunawal people, and say what a great pleasure it was to have the first formal welcome to country before the opening of this parliament. I also want to acknowledge that the land that my electorate covers is the land of the Gadigal people, who are part of the Eora nation. I want to pay particular tribute today to Auntie Joyce Ingram, Auntie Sylvia Scott and Uncle Max Eulo. They are the people who most often do welcome to country in the seat that I represent. Auntie Sylvia has recently retired from doing welcome to country, although she has done it for many years.

On 11 November 1998 during my first speech I said sorry. I thought it was an important thing to say then, as I thought it was an important thing to say last week. I said sorry for the policies of many governments over many years that removed Aboriginal kids from their homes and their country, not because of abuse and neglect but because of the colour of their skin. Families and communities across the nation were destroyed. Many have never had a chance to rebuild. There are many people who have begun the long journey home, but perhaps they will never find the parents, families and communities that they were taken from.

‘Sorry’ is a word we commonly use to express empathy and to acknowledge past wrongs. It has a particularly important meaning for many Indigenous Australians in the context of the stolen generations. When we say sorry, the common response is: ‘Thanks.’ I was so thrilled to see on the day of the apology so many people wearing T-shirts in the gallery that just said, ‘Thanks.’ That simple interaction of sorry and thanks that is so common in ordinary interactions between human beings has been so difficult for us at the national level over the past 11 years. I hope that interaction of sorry and thanks can really begin the healing process that has to happen in this country.

Former Prime Minster Paul Keating, who initiated the inquiry into the stolen generations, stated in his famous speech in Redfern why saying sorry was so important. He said:

The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians. There is everything to gain.

The support for the apology in my electorate was extraordinary. We had literally hundreds of emails and phone calls to the office expressing support for the apology, thanking the Prime Minister for taking this historic step and saying that people joined with him in this journey. Thousands of people gathered in Martin Place in my electorate, outside the New South Wales parliament and inside the New South Wales parliament, watching on the big screens. Glebe Public School had a smoking ceremony and a welcome to country before watching the delivery of the apology in their school hall. St Brendan’s School in Annandale flew the Indigenous flag while watching the broadcast. Rozelle Public School watched the apology and heard from a man who had been taken from his family as a child. Darlington Public School held a special assembly where children gathered together to form the word ‘sorry’. Alexandria Park Community School organised a community breakfast followed by a special screening of the apology. Students from years 5 and 6 at Mount Carmel School walked to Redfern Community Centre with banners and posters, and I believe they got a very good response from passing traffic beeping their horns! Members of the stolen generation and their descendants gathered at the Redfern Community Centre with local community supporters. Classes at the Sydney Secondary College at Blackwattle spent the morning talking about the historic significance of the apology and the issues of history behind it. There was a great deal of acknowledgement of this important event across my electorate.

Of course, as many members have said, this does not make up for action—it was never intended to. This is a way of acknowledging historical issues that need to be acknowledged and dealt with, but they are not dealt with simply by making an apology. There is a great deal of work to be done with the Indigenous community to right some of the wrongs that they have suffered. We know that the life expectancy of an Indigenous child born today in Australia is 17 years less than that of a non-Indigenous child born today in Australia. It is simply impossible to accept those sorts of figures. We know that problems like diabetes, kidney disease and eye diseases including trachoma are much more common in many Indigenous communities than they are in the non-Indigenous community. We know that Indigenous women are much more likely to suffer domestic violence than non-Indigenous women. Of course these are all issues that we have to address. The apology is not a replacement for these things, but nobody has ever claimed that it is.

All of these are things that we have to acknowledge in order to deal with them, but there is so much good work being done as well, and I think that we make the mistake sometimes of forgetting to acknowledge the progress that has been made and the work that fabulous people and organisations are doing in their communities. Last year I had the opportunity to do a little bit of research on the teaching of Indigenous languages in New South Wales public schools, for example. I wrote about it in the Sydney Morning Herald, saying:

Linguists believe there were about 70 Aboriginal languages spoken in NSW when the First Fleet arrived in 1788. Many of those are almost lost, especially as older Aboriginal people, who learnt the languages as children, die. In 2002 the Australian Bureau of Statistics found there were fewer than 3000 people who spoke an indigenous language in NSW. Last year that figure had dropped to 800.

So even in recent memory the loss of languages has been very speedy. Yet in many New South Wales public schools Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are learning Indigenous languages. The desire to prevent the loss of language is great for its own sake. It is terrific to expand the body of human knowledge rather than to see it shrinking. It has been so great for school attendance and the pride of those Aboriginal kids to learn their own language, in many cases, or another Aboriginal language, in other cases, and for non-Indigenous kids to develop some understanding and knowledge of Indigenous culture in their local area.

There are so many great things happening in my electorate. There is a hospitality training college called Yaama Dhiyaan. They teach Aboriginal kids who want a career in hospitality all of the basics. It is run by Auntie Beryl Van-Oploo, who has a career in catering as long as your arm and is a fantastic caterer. She has a terrific young Aboriginal chef working with her, Matthew Cribb, who I can tell you personally makes the best damper that you will ever try and fantastic jam made from all sorts of things including some of the bush tucker berries that you can get.

They have another training college that is co-located called Yaama Dhinawan, which is a training college that does pre-apprenticeship courses for Aboriginal kids who want to go into the building industry. This is also a critical area for me because we know that skills shortages in the building industry are contributing to the high cost of building these days. I have been to graduation ceremonies for these young people. What these organisations are doing is terrific; it is terrific what these people are doing who are taking on these courses. Some of them are the first in their family to be doing post secondary school education.

The same is true of the Tribal Warrior Association, which is an organisation that teaches maritime skills to Indigenous young people up and down the east coast of New South Wales. They travel up and down in their boat, the Tribal Warrior, doing the work they need to do to get their basic skills up. The last graduation ceremony had 35 people graduating and, most importantly, getting very good jobs—again, right up and down the east coast of Australia, from Sydney Ferries to tourism operators in Cairns, who all use the skills the Aboriginal kids get through the Tribal Warrior Association.

Over very many years, a fabulous organisation called the Redfern Aboriginal Corporation has also been involved in local job creation. They have provided many jobs and excellent services through their business ventures in catering, furniture removal, employment placement, screen printing, garbage removal and lawn mowing. We have the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Company, a not-for-profit charity, which has been involved not just in developing the Block but also in owning over 100 parcels of land. They have very extensive land and housing interests now.

St Saviours Church in Redfern last year was behind the organisation of the Coloured Digger ceremony on Anzac Day that, for the first time in many cases, acknowledged the contribution that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, in particular, have made over many years through our armed services. These are Indigenous Australians who fought and served with non-Indigenous Australians and in many cases lost their lives. Those who returned to Australia were not allowed in the front door of the local pub or inside the local RSL club in some cases.

The St Saviours Church ceremony was for some people the first time that they had their service to this country properly acknowledged. It was an incredibly moving ceremony that was followed up by the RSL, who organised a terrific commemoration, this time at the War Memorial in Hyde Park in Sydney, with very high-ranking Indigenous officers there. Indigenous schoolkids came along to learn a little bit more about their fathers and grandfathers who fought and, as I say, in many cases died for Australia.

The previous speaker mentioned Dick Estens and his involvement in regional New South Wales and employment creation. Of course, Dick and his organisation were also active in my electorate. We have the Aboriginal Medical Centre, Elouera Gym, Aboriginal Legal Service, Murawina Childcare Centre, Koori Radio, Mudgin-Gal Women’s Service, REDwatch, the Settlement, which has provided after-school care in particular, and Wyanga Aboriginal Aged Care. There are so many great organisations which are doing terrific work to close some of those shocking gaps—the 17-year life expectancy gap and the gap in educational outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

I conclude today by saying that what happened here last week—the apology to the stolen generations for the policies of past governments, for taking children away from their families when they should not have been taken away—was an important and historic event. While the response from my electorate and from my constituents has been vastly positive and while it is vital to acknowledge the history behind the apology and why we had to make it, it is also vital that we focus on and support the terrific contributions being made by people in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to ending disadvantage on their own behalf, for themselves, the organisations and individuals who have taken up the challenge and are following the words of Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody ‘From little things, big things grow’ and the people who are doing small things that will change the lives of so many Indigenous Australians.