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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 851


Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory) (18:11): I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and to thank the spirits of this place for giving us all the strength to be able to speak in such depth on an issue that our country wrestles with as black and white Australians. I would like to acknowledge in the gallery Jackie Huggins, Rod Little and Gary Oliver from Congress and to thank them and all those who were able to speak directly to the hearts of all political leaders this morning, here in Parliament House, on the latest Closing the Gap report.

I would also like to say to this Senate and to the parliament that this day is an extraordinary day and an important day because it brings directly to the forefront the issues that impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For parliamentary leaders of all Australians, it brings to the forefront the importance that is placed on the fact that the lives of Australia's First Nation's people are still the most impoverished and disadvantaged. It is also incredibly important in the way that is extraordinary, because what we are wrestling with here is actually in this parliament. We are talking about a law that governs our country—but we are really talking about two laws. I am a Yanyuwa Garrwa woman, whose spiritual origins come from the sea country and I feel really good and strong, yes, and I give thanks. I acknowledge the strength of my ancestors and the laws of the Yanyuwa Garrwa people in this house and respect the fact that I am on the awara, the country, of the traditional owners of this land. Those are the two laws that I live with and respect.

When we come to a day like this, when the parliament focuses specifically on first nations people, it fills me with great pride—deep pride—not just for the Yanyuwa Garrwa people and not just for the people of the Northern Territory but for our country, for all Australians. As much as this report does not hold good news, and as much as this report tells each and every one of you what we all live, it also tells the first nations people that this parliament, this law, does acknowledge a wrestling of our conscience in this country, a wrestling of our conscience that no political party has the answer to on its own. Every political party—the major parties—that has tried and continues to try, has acknowledged here today the one thing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been saying consistently since time immemorial: 'Work with us. Not for us, not to us, not against us, but work with us.'

I would like to take you on a bit of a journey. In my way we call it the kujika, the songline or the storyline. Kujikas are really important and that is the law of the Yanyuwa. The kujika tells a story over thousands of years. It is not just one story; it is hundreds of stories. As I travel from Borroloola through to Darwin through to Tennant Creek then to Alice Springs and then here to Sydney that is a kujika. That is a story, because we are travelling and it is the songline. It is my songline.

I remember the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We know that one of the targets that are not in the Close the gap report is justice targets. In the lead up to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody there was one young woman—an outstanding woman, a young mum—who advocated strongly and who reminded this country that Aboriginal people were dying in custody at a rate that was such a phenomenon, on a tragic scale. She stood and faced media after media, calling for something to be done. She was not alone but she stuck in my mind, because at the time I had started as a journalist, and one of my first tasks was to cover the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. I used to look at that woman, that Aboriginal woman with her young baby in tow as she would face the media, and I thought, 'Wow, thank goodness for people like you, because you inspire me and you give me hope.'

As I sat in the courts listening to the different stories as to why an Aboriginal man had died I would see my colleague Senator Dodson and many others. I covered the story when Elliott Johnston, the commissioner, was to release the recommendations. I share this story because, again, it is about the challenge of working in a mainstream environment. We want people to have jobs. But we are forever conscious that we are trying to balance, if you like, the many expectations on us: from our own family, culture and kinship, and from the broader Australian society.

The woman who inspired me throughout that process sits in the gallery today—Jackie Huggins. The woman who pushed and advocated for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, is today still reminding the Australian parliament that you must work with Aboriginal people and does not give up on the fact that as imperfect as this parliamentary system is we still have to work at trying to get it right. Is Congress the answer? I certainly think it needs every bit of support to get there. Are there many other answers? Of course there are.

The other significant aspect of the kujika and the story that I would like also to share with you is the stolen generations. Yes: respect, recognise and restitution are absolutely critical in going forward in these next 12 months. In 2001 I covered another court case and that was the stolen generations court case in the Federal Court. When Lorna Cubillo and the late Mr Peter Gunner took the Commonwealth to court over their forced removal from their families. I covered that case. Throughout that whole case, which was carrying the weight of all the stolen generation people in the Northern Territory, they stood in that court and they shared the most intimate of brutal details that occurred to them while in the care of others under the Commonwealth. Yet everything hung on their case. Every member of the stolen generation from the Northern Territory, who needed that case to be won, was to be disappointed because they lost. They lost the case. But in the findings it was agreed that they did suffer sexual abuse.

I look at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse today, and I ask, as a senator for the Northern Territory: why is it that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to tell their story again? What is wrong with our system of governance that it does not just pick up a report that has already been acknowledged by one court case or one commission and carry it over here to this court case or this commission, without putting the same people through extreme pain and trauma compounded on further pain and trauma? That is what we as political leaders now need to really examine: this system of governance, this law that fails at every step to give the justice, to give the satisfaction, to give the respect and to acknowledge that there are two laws here that are clashing.

We talk about resetting the engagement with first nations people. We actually have to start the engagement with first nations people. We have to acknowledge that there are many nations here in this country, and if we are to move towards constitutional recognition, which we so strongly believe we have to, there are many other things that must be discussed on that journey. Those things will be further discussed as people gather over the next few months.

I say to the first nations people of Australia: don't give up. This wrestling of the consciousness of this country and the conscience of this country can only find a way if we find it together. But it does need the wisdom of the spirits—the good spirits, the strong spirits, the positive spirits—from the Yolngu nation to the Larrakia nation to the Yanyuwa nation to the Arrernte nation to the Yorta Yorta mob, right across the east, again to the west and to the Palawa in Tasmania. Do not give up, you mob. Find your spirits, because when your spirit is strong it gives strength to the rest of us. It gives strength to the rest of us to find a better way. That wrestling of this country's conscience will continue, and so it should until we get it right.

I would like to just conclude by addressing the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. I want to say to him: we see what you do and what you try to do in your party room, with your cabinet colleagues and as you travel across Australia, and we know that you make many mistakes, but there is no doubting the strong intent behind what you do to improve the lives of the first nations people in this country, and I want to say thank you for that. I want to say to the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, and to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull: when you can both stand and reach a higher point in politics for the betterment of first nations people in this country, it can only be much better for all Australians in this country.

That is why having Closing the Gap and this day as a critical conscience moment for this parliament will always be important, because we do lose way too many people too early, too soon, who are being jailed at rates that are outrageous for a country like ours. So, to all first nations people, I say: thank you. Let's stay strong. Let's keep going. To the parliamentarians of both houses: let's get this right, hey? Bauji barra.