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Address to the Empowered Communities Launch, Sydney



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MHR FEDERAL MEMBER FOR WARRINGAH

28 August 2013

TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MHR, ADDRESS TO THE EMPOWERED COMMUNITIES LAUNCH, SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES

E&OE……………………….……………………………………………………………

Thanks very much Fiona. Thanks very much Noel and thanks everyone. Thanks Shane for the welcome. This is a very significant gathering. Shane alluded to the fact that on the 26th of January 1788, not far from here, modern Australia had its formal beginnings. A lot has gone right. Some things have gone wrong. But as we all know, modern Australia never quite got right the relationship with the First Australians and what's happening here today is an important new beginning which accepts our history, which accepts the good and the bad in the past but which tries to build a better future with the Indigenous people and the rest of our community, opening our hearts to each other in a way that we haven't always been able to do in the previous 200-odd years of our national existence.

So I am very honoured to be here and I was thrilled to put my signature on the Jawun Declaration underneath that of Jenny Macklin because it is important that we try to go forward together on something as important as this. It's always a real thrill to be in the company of my friend Noel Pearson. Noel and my relationship didn't really get off to an auspicious beginning. It was back in 1998. Noel didn't know me and I hadn't met him. But I went to a very, very rowdy public meeting at Mosman in my electorate at the Mosman RSL and I could hardly get in. I hadn't actually been invited as such because it was a meeting that was, frankly, pretty hostile to the Howard Government in which I was then a Parliamentary Secretary. There were a series of speakers and the last speaker was Noel and Noel made an extraordinary, extraordinary oration. The first two-thirds of it was brilliant and I agreed with every word of it. The last third of it was brilliant and I had a bit of trouble with it because he concluded with the phrase, “Let us get rid of this putrid government.”

I'm not going to adapt that phrase for any current purposes, but Noel - it was a very, very powerful affirmation of the need for change and it was a very powerful assault on a Government which, at that stage of its life, was still feeling its way forward when it came to Indigenous issues. Now, I'm pleased to say that, led by the former Prime Minister John Howard, we did grow very considerably in the years after 1998 and it was in fact, no less a person than the then Prime Minister who again proposed Indigenous recognition in the Constitution not long before the 2007 election. But I concluded on that particular night in Mosman Town Hall that Noel Pearson was a person of enormous substance, great charisma and very possibly a prophet for our time and I decided that I would do my best to get to know this man and I would do my best, where I could, to work with this man and see what we could do together.

So, a couple of years later, I was in Mossman in far north Queensland on my first trip to Cape York as Minister for Employment and Minister with whole of Government responsibility for Cape York and I went into the back of a meeting of the Mossman Community Centre about half the people in that room were whitefellas, about half the people in that room were blackfellas - about 200, 300 people and Noel took to the

stage. And again it was an extraordinarily powerful presentation delivered without a note, and Noel said, look sure we were ripped off sure this was our country and it was taken away and yes we feel bad about that and yes there was an injustice about it and we should always fight for justice we should always fight for recognition but we have got to fight to live in the country that we have we have to be able live and work in Australia as it is not as it might have been but as it is, and it was a very bracing and powerful message. And I could tell that while some people in the room were warming to Noel - not everyone was. I first discovered in my own life how prophets don’t always have universal honour in their own country because why Noel was from that country, was well known from early childhood to many of the people there - not everyone agreed. But that is the lot of someone who proposes change that is the lot of a real leader. Sometimes people who should be their best friends are not their best friends and this is the loneliness and difficulty of true leadership, and I won’t to congratulate Noel for being prepared to set out on that very lonely path which he was well and truly embarked upon back in those days.

So, throughout that period in government I stayed in close contact with Noel, made trips to the Cape, camped out on at least on occasion with the boys from the bush, Noel and we spent a couple of days trying to harvest tea tree leaves for our friend Milton to turn into tea tree oil. And then of course we lost the election and I found myself unexpectedly the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs. I rang Noel in the February of 2008 and said look mate in the years since I have been in Parliament I have visited dozens of Aboriginal Communities but I have never spent more than 18 hours at a time in one - in my judgment the key problem this whole area is not lack of good will, not lack of spending, but lack of involvement and engagement at a personal level and please would it be possible for me to spend some significant time and be useful, not just a glorified tourist, so in 2008 I was a teacher’s aide for three weeks at the school in Coen.

In 2009 I was a truancy assistant for 10 days at the school in Aurukun, an election happened in 2010 and wasn’t able to get up to Cape York then. In 2011 I spent three or four days in and around Hopevale doing the bush building program. In 2012 quite a few people of great prominence went to Aurukun and we did the books and mortar project to refurbish the library for four days, and it is my commitment that as long as my public life lasts, I will spend a week in an Indigenous community because if it is good enough for Australians to live in it should be good enough for a Prime Minister to stay in, and it should be good enough for members of the Government to be there too. But one of the things that I became acutely conscious of with growing force through that period of Government and then over the last few years in Opposition, is this whole issue of governance in remote Indigenous communities in particular.

Aurukun is a village of about 1,500 people and there must be over 100 governmental, semi-governmental and non-governmental organisations working there, all doing in their own way an excellent job, but often tripping over each other and the poor people spend their whole life going to meetings rather than getting on with their life.

One of the shining examples of doing things differently, however, was the Family Responsibilities Commission which was working there and in three other Cape York communities thanks to the work of Noel and the Cape York Institute.

As most of you would know, this is an entity established to take charge of the welfare reform process, where a respected former magistrate advised by respected local elders, makes binding decisions on a consensus basis about what should happen to the welfare entitlements of people who, for various reasons, are not quite hitting the mark in terms of observing their responsibilities to their friends, their neighbours and their families.

And I thought to myself, "This is a very powerful lesson which, may well have applicability in other places around Australia.” I think it's great that this Jawun process is now looking at how the lessons of Cape York and elsewhere might usefully be applied to governance more generally in the remote parts of our country.

It's terrific to have a very geographically disparate group of people here today and it’s really encouraging to new consensus on display here today from Indigenous leaders from right around our country, different generations, the new consensus that we have to move forward in a different way. And that we need to take

responsibility for our lives. The kids need to go to school. The adults need to go to work. The ordinary law of the land needs to be respected. If all of that happens, then the oldest living cultures on this earth have a fighting chance of survival, but there is no serious chance of survival, if the people who live the life fall into this pit of despair, this pit of hopelessness, which has for so many people beckoned over the last couple of generations.

So, I think this is a very encouraging development today. I'm very blessed because over the last few years, I have become friendly with some really outstanding Indigenous people - Noel, Warren Mundine who is here today, Alison Anderson who has done such remarkable work in the Northern Territory - and as I tried to say in my talk at Garma a couple of weeks ago, I do believe that the only future for this country, is a future where black and white Australians walk forward together arm in arm. That's the future for our country.

I think there is a better prospect of that happening now than at any previous time in our national existence. There has been so much dirty water under the bridge. There have been so many disappointments. There have been so many false starts and yet we have made progress, progress is undeniable, but now let's try to accelerate it, let's try to do so much better in the next five years than we have in the last fifty.

I think we can do it. I think we can do it. I dedicate myself to working with you to try to bring this about.

[ends]