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Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Page: 11142

Mr MELHAM (Banks) (17:33): I rise tonight to commend the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs for its excellent report on Indigenous language. The committee received a large volume of evidence throughout the inquiry. There were many descriptions to illustrate exactly how intertwined language and culture are. In some ways that is true of all Australians. We grow up speaking our language with its idiosyncrasies, shortened word forms, tone and slang. When we travel overseas it is hearing that familiar language, more than anything, which helps identify another Aussie. At the airport, restaurant or railway station we then turn around and say g'day because we know the language, we know who we are talking to and we know they will understand who we are. No-one but an Australian can quite say g'day in the manner in which fellow Australians say it.

For Indigenous people this sense is incorporated into their very self-identity. The National Congress of Australia's First People noted on page 2 of its submission to the inquiry:

Language is central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. The two are intertwined. Language describes cultural attachment to place, cultural heritage items, and puts meaning within the many cultural activities that people do. Furthermore, language plays a fundamental part in binding communities together as a culture, and individuals to each other in a society.

The report contains a number of similar references to explaining how Indigenous people are their language. I recommend reading the chapter on the role of Indigenous languages to begin to comprehend that role. At the public hearing in Alice Springs, Mrs Amelia Turner speaking on behalf of Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, described that connection. More than any other, this describes clearly what that is. I would like to quote Mrs Turner's words extensively for that reason:

Our language is sacred to us. Every Aboriginal language is sacred for those who speak it. Words are given to us by the land and those words are sacred. What does it mean to an Aboriginal culture? The land needs words, the land speaks for us and we use the language for this. Words make things happen—make us alive. Words come not only from our land but also from our ancestors. Knowledge comes from Akerre, my own language and sacred language.

Language is ownership; language is used to talk about the land. Language is what we see in people. Language is what we know of people—we know of him or her. If they speak my sacred language, I must be related to their kinships.

Language is how people identify themselves. Being you is to know your language. It is rooted in your relationship from creation—in your kinship that cycles from then and there, onwards and onwards. It is like that root from the tree.

Language is a community—a group of people. Not only do you speak that language but generations upon generations of your families have also spoken it. The language recognises and identifies you, who you are and what is you. Sacred language does have its own language. You can claim other languages through your four grandparents. Know your own language first before you learn other languages—to know it, to understand it and also to relate to it.

Mrs Turner's words seemed to describe the essence of the importance of Indigenous language to the speaker. On 26 November 2009, former senator Aden Ridgeway had an article on Indigenous language published in the Sydney Morning Herald. His sentiments are those of Mrs Turner from Alice Springs. They are from a slightly different perspective. The great thing about this article is that it was published not only in English but in Mr Ridgeway's own language, Gumbaynggir—possibly the first time the language has been used in an English language broadsheet. The article later received a UN Media Peace Award, in 2010. He makes a point in the article that is later addressed in the committee's report. Mr Ridgeway says:

The school's role, like that of broader society, should be about embracing and validating the first language of children, not assuming without evidence that the first language holds aboriginal children back.

The committee report includes reference to data provided by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey. The survey shows a positive correlation between the use of language and with wellbeing and socioeconomic variables. In some ways that should come as no surprise. The survey found that Aboriginal people who speak Indigenous languages have better physical and mental health, are more likely to be employed, are less likely to abuse alcohol or be arrested, are more likely to attend school as 13- to 17-year-olds if living in urban and regional areas and more likely to gain a post-school qualification, and are less likely, if living in remote areas, to engage in high risk alcohol consumption and illicit substance abuse or to have been a victim of physical or threatened violence. Page 12 of the report provides a diagram, at paragraph 2.1, which simply illustrates this. At the centre is language—pride, self-esteem, respect. Around the centre are four other circles with arrows showing the inter-relatedness with language. Those circles are: country, or identity; culture—law/lore, ceremonies and dances; kinship—skin names, rules and protocols; and home/family. Prior to European colonisation there were 250 distinct languages spoken in Australia that divided into 600 dialects—that is on page 33 of the report. Only about 145 of those languages are still spoken. The report notes that about 110 of those languages are in the severely and critically endangered categories. Of those languages, many are spoken only by small groups of people—mostly over 40 years old. There are 18 languages still regarded as strong in the sense of being spoken by all age groups, although three or four are showing some signs of moving into being endangered. There are many other languages where only a few words and phrases are used. Not surprisingly, there is community support in many places around the country for reclamation and heritage learning programs for such languages.

Of these 145 languages still being spoken, the committee reports, at paragraph 2.139 on page 42, that estimates indicate that 19 languages have more than 500 speakers, 45 languages have between 10 and 50 speakers, and 67 languages have fewer than 10 speakers. The 2011 census reported that about 61,800 people speak an Indigenous language, which is an increase of 56,000 in 2006. The committee suggests on page 40 to 42 that this could be attributed to work being carried out in the area having a positive impact on the number of Indigenous speakers or, possibly, an improvement in the way the data is collected.

In conclusion, I would like to draw attention to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is referenced by the committee. Specifically, in article 13 that declaration states:

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.

It is important to this country that we abide by that commitment.

I commend the report to the House and note the contribution of the secretary of the committee, Dr Anna Dacre. The committee, led by the Member for Blair, has produced a worthwhile and scholarly report. He is to be commended. I note his comment in the foreword, which says:

To all Australians I say: take pride in the Indigenous languages of our nation. Indigenous languages bring with them rich cultural heritage, knowledge and a spiritual connection to the land …

I concur with those sentiments. I was the shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs for the Labor Party from 1996 until 2000, when I resigned that position on a matter of principle. What I learnt in that period will stay with me to the grave—that is, we have a rich and vibrant culture in this country: our first peoples, who are the oldest peoples with a living connection with this country. It is the oldest culture in the world. We should do everything we can to preserve that culture and to pass on that culture to future generations of Indigenous Australians. We, as a nation, are enriched by our Indigenous peoples. We are not threatened by them. The period when I was Aboriginal affairs spokesman is over: that ignorance and prejudice that reigned as a result of the High Court decisions on native title. For the first time in a long time, we now have a level of bipartisanship in Indigenous affairs. But we should not be smug, because work needs to be done to embrace Indigenous people and to work with them—not adopt a missionary position; not adopt a position where we want to make them like us—to make sure that their languages and other aspects of their culture are protected, preserved and carried on through the ages. That is the real task, and that is why this report that has been delivered by the committee is a very valuable report. It is one that should be read by people out there, because by producing reports such as this the parliament does a great service to the nation. All those involved in the preparation of this report on both sides of politics, and the secretaries as well, deserve great credit, because it is a very valuable report. It is an enriching report, and in many ways it is a report that sets a benchmark that we have to meet, because we have no excuses. We cannot say we did not know of the impact of continuing in the old ways. So I commend the report to the House and again say it was my pleasure to be associated with Indigenous people as shadow minister over the years that I was. I am a better person for it. I am a lot more knowledgeable, and we as a nation are enriched by our Indigenous people.