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Address by Peter Garrett MP to the National Reconciliation Forum Dinner,\nWMC Conference Centre, Kalgoorlie: 25 October 2005. \n



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PETER GARRETT MP

Member for Kingsford Smith

Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Reconciliation and the Arts

Address to the

National Reconciliation Forum Dinner WMC Conference Centre Kalgoorlie

6.30pm Tuesday 25 October 2005

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you tonight.

I acknowledge the traditional owners, the custodians of the land we meet on, elders and the extended Aboriginal community of this region.

I applaud the commitment by the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder to host this National Reconciliation Forum for the second year running.

I welcome the initiatives that the City has undertaken, including the establishment of a Reconciliation Committee of Council.

I note too as a result of last year’s forum the establishment of the Boulder Short Stay facility and as well the Western Australian’s Government’s development of a State Indigenous strategy.

I hope that many of the initiatives, including those identified by CEO Ian Fletcher following his Churchill fellowship study trip to Canada as well as those emerging at this conference from business and the community at large will be subject to thorough consideration, acted upon and put into practice.

The subsequent public hearings here of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Straight Affairs will focus closely on the issue of employment in regions like the goldfields and I expect MP’s to gain some real insights to the obstacles and opportunities that present themselves.

Clearly education and skill development are central figuring out how to improve employment prospects for Indigenous people which is the subject of this Reconciliation forum.

Issues of provision of appropriate health services, increasing involvement with Aboriginal communities on agreed approaches and clear lines of accountability through all levels of Government, through to Aboriginal communities are also, obviously important.

And there’s much more I could identify.

Cast your mind back to just a few major things which have occurred in the last thirty years or so: Gough Whitlam and the Vincent Lingiari Wave Hill mob; stopping the Coronation Hill mine; Paul Keating’s Redfern speech; the Mabo Legislation; the election of a number of Indigenous Labor members in the recent Northern Territory election.

I mention these to illustrate what a long, strong commitment Labor has had - and has - to Reconciliation and to the task of improving the prospects for Aboriginal people in our country.

It is a time of great - or at least significant - change for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people. Notwithstanding the many examples of progress being made by Indigenous peoples and organisations, the universally recognised problems of very poor health, low literacy rates, high levels of incarceration, of assault, including within families, and severe economic disadvantage is again in the national spotlight.

Along with Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Chris Evans, and Member for Lingiari Warren Snowden, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Indigenous Affairs and Northern Australia, I am ready to listen, and on our side, develop policies which can move things forward for indigenous Australians-God knows this is desperately needed right now.

The Prime Minister has repeated his statement, first made at the beginning of his second term in 1998, that he expects his government to be judged by its progress on redressing Aboriginal disadvantage.

He talked in expansive language at the Reconciliation Workshop in Canberra about how he recognised that symbols were important, as well as practical actions. And he’s said he’ll meet Aboriginal people “more than half way.”

Well, he and members of his government, can expect Labor in opposition and the Australian people to judge him severely if after nearly ten years of government and with record budget surpluses, the situation in regard to Indigenous people does not show significant improvement.

In fact, he should expect it.

As with other key issues percolating through the Parliament, the test is whether the Howard government will put aside its ideology and construct an approach which embraces both the history of previous engagement between Indigenous and European Australians and the need to agree policy and actions which includes Aboriginal people in their differing situations around the country.

This requires prudent and supportive policies which attack the blockages preventing Aboriginal empowerment; social and economic. Policies which are developed bottom up in tandem with Aboriginal communities and their leaders.

But it also requires understanding and compassion and a willingness to see the recent passage of history objectively in order to fashion a national response that settles with the past in order to open up the possibilities for a shared future.

There is a vigorous debate around the country about the best pathway out of welfare and to economic independence, including issues of changing the legislative arrangements that deal with ownership and control of land that vests in Aboriginal entities.

I agree very much that a job is the best way of escaping from poverty, that there has developed a cycle of welfare dependence that has robbed people of the capacity to fashion decent lives for themselves, and that economic independence is a key to redressing that state of affairs.

We should not be afraid of new ideas or approaches even if that means leaving some previously accepted notions behind.

But there is a danger in the current debate of oversimplifying the issue. There is real merit in examining ways in which Aboriginal people can take a stake in their own home. But it is another thing to say that providing individual home ownership for Aboriginal people in remote communities will automatically lift them out of poverty.

I say “individual” home ownership, as too often it is also forgotten that many of the communities being talked about are on Aboriginal land, owned by Aboriginal people, but in a communal sense.

In a region such as the Goldfields where we meet, some 35-40% of the indigenous population is unemployed so it will take more than private home ownership to break the under-employed and unemployment cycle here as it will in many other parts of Australia.

Importantly we must not fall into the trap of repeating the mistakes of the past and simply replacing one set of mantras with another, or of seeing Aboriginal affairs as a playground for ideological battles.

We must not try to hide the fact that things have been done very badly, that policies and actions - and often the wrong policies and actions - have not always been delivered properly or fairly or been suited to the task.

But it is also crucial that the “Reconciliation” part of the picture is not obscured by this debate. Reconciliation is seen by the many Australians who supported it, who marched and met and spoke up, as unfinished business.

Reconciliation, as former Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Chair Gus Nossal observed has two components. They are as relevant today as they were a decade ago.

The first is understandably symbolic and relates to the respect for indigenous culture, identity and spiritual beliefs, and it includes acknowledgement of history.

The second component relates to “renewed efforts to redress disadvantage”, along with a commitment to “… work towards fuller participation of Aboriginal people in the economic, political, cultural and social life of the nation.”

Reconciliation comes from a shared history.

Namely, the understandings and joint acknowledgement of past events and practices, and the significant investment many people of good will have placed in processes like that laid out by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

We have to come to terms with, and use, the past in order to move forward.

The work of the Council, including its recommendations regarding a National Strategy to sustain the reconciliation process should not be cast aside simply because a new political imperative has taken hold.

This Strategy set out ways to build on the progress already made towards reconciliation after the Council completed its term in 2000. The Council named as essential actions under the strategy: Leadership for the reconciliation process; Education for reconciliation; a “people’s movement” for reconciliation (celebrating significant dates and events); Protocol and ceremony; symbols of reconciliation; and formal recognition of the documents of reconciliation.

The fact that the Howard government has chosen to ignore most of the recommendations of the Council’s final report to Parliament and then remove the word reconciliation from the lexicon and replace it with the term "practical reconciliation" does not alter the fact that the essence of the term Reconciliation

and the process that attached to it was to do with both the symbolic and the practical.

It still has force and should be a part of any endeavour to improve the situation Aboriginal communities’ face around the country, as is happening here in Kalgoorlie at this forum.

And the symbolic side of reconciliation had real meaning: an apology, working towards an agreed form of settlement between Aboriginal people and the contemporary Government, a recognition of past wrongs and the establishment of healing processes to address those wrongs.

Just as we shouldn’t put aside without reflection the policy, and policy delivery, mistakes of the past: we likewise shouldn’t cast aside these past wrongs which still informs the situation many people find themselves in.

As well reconciliation has a psychological element which is critical to helping destructed communities and individuals get onto a firmer footing.

The work done by Dr Fiona Stanley, one of Western Australia's foremost health professionals and former Australian of the Year, in tracking the day to day experiences of families living with a constant cycle of loss and grief is relevant

here.

Professor Stanley points out in the ‘West Australian Child Health Survey’ that in the absence of a concerted program to engage with these losses and help people work through the experience, the overwhelming presence of loss will be in turn visited on the subsequent generation and the cycle will continue.

Results from the survey, which studied over 5,000 Indigenous children and their families from WA, indicate that 12.3 % of all carers were separated from their families. These carers had higher rates of alcohol consumption, double the likelihood of being arrested or charged and were more likely to be in the mental health system.

The children of these carers were more likely to use alcohol and drugs, be arrested or charged and have emotional or behavioural issues. Professor Stanley’s research proves, what she calls, “the inter-generational effects of these policies for the health and well being of the children and grandchildren of those who were removed”.

This WA example represents the scale of the challenge that faces all of us concerned with the reconciliation of past wrongs, whatever circumstances and motivation they spring from, that way healing lies.

Underneath - in terms of profile - the entire scare campaign in the last election about interest rates, and security, the Labor Party went to the election with a strong, proud record and policy in relation to reconciliation, and Indigenous Affairs generally.

We put forward a set of policies which were intended to restore opportunity for Indigenous Australians by supporting Indigenous participation in decision-making, and developing more effective ways to deliver indigenous programs.

We promised to strengthen Indigenous representation by establishing a national Indigenous representative body. That is still our commitment. The Government has failed miserably in that regard - it abolished ATSIC, which we all agreed had its flaws - but it had no Plan B - it had no alternative way of proper, substantive, respected Indigenous representation and involvement in decision-making.

Under Labor, consideration would be given to the most suitable model to replace ATSIC, and whether for instance a new national body would take responsibility for brokering partnership agreements, coordinating funding and undertaking consolidated auditing of indigenous programs. This latter task is of real importance.

These new regional Indigenous bodies would make the key decisions, with support from their communities and a Labor Government, these outcomes would aid reconciliation, not hold it back.

Our policy on reconciliation is to acknowledge the original custodians of our land during the formal opening of each Parliament.

A Labor Prime Minister would apologise on behalf of the nation to the Stolen Generation, a national apology for the separation of indigenous children from their families.

And before I hear the first cries of “we’re past that - let’s focus on practical measures”, or that concentrating on so called “gestures” lets the Government off the hook in terms of getting real things done, I want to state clearly that I do not believe this is the case.

It is not an either or situation. Indeed that line of reasoning is often employed by this government as an excuse when they want to do one thing, but not another.

I believe a national apology still matters, and to majority of Aboriginal people as well.

Symbols and other, “practical” actions are both important. Indeed the Prime Minister said that at the reconciliation workshop.

Unfortunately, he just said it. And saying sorry is, in reconciliation terms, a very “practical” measure - it would have real reconciliation results.

It would contribute to the overall bringing together of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians for greater co-operation mutual respect and set a positive foundation for improvements in the social, cultural and economic position of Indigenous Australians.

Labor has strong reservations about a number of aspects of the ‘practical reconciliation’ approach.

Firstly, the lack of accountability measures in the current delivery of the Federal Government’s “mutual responsibility” policies in Indigenous communities.

Since the beginning of the COAG trials, on which the new Federal approach has been predicated, there is little evidence that there are rigorous or transparent accountability mechanisms built in, nor the opportunity for Aboriginal communities to exert any real steerage over the process.

The report “Measuring Progress-Sharing Power & Accountability with Shepparton’s Aboriginal People” referring to one of the early COAG trials, identifies the lack of baseline data, lack of agreed measurements of indicators of

wellbeing for Aboriginal people in the region, and lack of provision of tools and sufficient autonomy for Aboriginal leaders and communities; all these factors acted as a barrier to making the process deliver something real.

The solution identified has to do with recognising that true mutual responsibility is a two way street.

Importantly where the whole of government approach is undertaken it must include rigorous measurement of goals against outcomes. In the absence of a clear strategy for evaluation and without allowing autonomy (read self determination) for Aboriginal people this approach will, I fear, yield little in the way of results.

Then there is the matter of delivery by Shared Responsibility Agreements.

As much as anything SRA’s mean Aboriginal people having the means and autonomy to do the job.

We will look closely at the evidence of progress and success of these agreements.

We do not believe that the provision of basic services for Indigenous Australians should be a privilege, nor that SRA’s should serve as a bureaucratic tick off to meet bureaucratically set goals.

When people talk about the need to get off “welfare and government handouts” and become part of the real economy, and economically independent, we must

remember the context in which the so-called “welfare and government-handouts” are being delivered.

The bottom line in much of this debate is how, not if, Indigenous Australians become more economically independent, more economically robust and strong. And by “how” I mean the manner, and the avenues. And I want to fully consider how - and whether - policies aid or hinder reconciliation.

We do need new, purposeful approaches to addressing this issue but the question is whether they bring greater social cohesion to Australia, greater justice, and fairness - or whether they divide us, causing greater hardship, and setting Indigenous people back, and setting us all back as a nation.

I am particularly aware of the substantial change in approach by a number of mining companies operating in Western Australia and beyond.

The willingness of senior executives and boards to seriously engage with Aboriginal communities in relation to native title claims and broader issues of development, employment and culture is, I think, one of the real positives in the current scene.

Whilst there remain unresolved issues in relation to fly in and fly out work schedules and the increasing pressure being placed on Aboriginal communities by demands for more uranium mining, it is clear that the current boom comes at

a time when many mining companies have adopted more extensive and co-operative ways of dealing with indigenous interests.

I know mining is not the one stop shop solution to Indigenous employment but the companies represented here and others have provided substantial economic opportunity for Aboriginal people-there could be and should be more- but importantly Aboriginal people are being engaged with as partners, they are being listened to.

As many of you would be aware at the Argyle diamond mine in East Kimberley the approach of comprehensive consultation taking into account the culture and aspirations of the traditional owners, was exemplary.

Led by recently retired Managing Director Mr Brendan Hammond, this involved extensive negotiations with the traditional owners, the Mirriwung and Gidja (and others) resulting in a voluntary agreement - the ’Argyle Participation Agreement’- being struck which extended the life of the mine in return for a number of commitments to the local community.

Included amongst these were provisions for training and employment, protection and access to Aboriginal sites, agreement on decommissioning of the mine and cross cultural training for staff.

This was a landmark agreement approached in the spirit of Reconciliation and delivering substantial results, mutually arrived at by traditional owners and the company-a good example.

The Rio Tinto group of companies has also done solid work. In the Pilbara the implementation of an ‘Indigenous Employment Strategy’ has resulted in substantially more employment opportunities for indigenous people.

The setting of targets for indigenous employment, the development of apprenticeship programs and an ongoing commitment to working in partnership with indigenous communities is to be commended, as is the overall support for Reconciliation.

Alcan is also addressing the important element of ‘real’ cultural exchange - leading to greater understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, through its partnership with the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which runs the Garma festival, and the Cross-cultural Awareness program being run for workers in Nhulunbuy.

And there are others of this ilk including Carey Mining led by managing Director Daniel Tucker with a 60% Indigenous representation in the work force, one of the pioneers in this area Robert De Crespigny, as well as a number of parties at this forum who I commend.

Critical to really getting satisfactory achievements for indigenous communities is the role of Government.

Not only does there need to be proper representation of Indigenous Australians, through representative bodies, in the decision-making processes, but the portfolio should be given due recognition, and representation, in these governmental processes.

It is not getting it through DIMIA and the present Minister. Indeed at one point the government sought the remove Reconciliation from the Department’s mandate.

It is too important an issue for an obviously flawed department to have major responsibility for. Indigenous Australians deserve better than a department whose treatment of people under its care has been deplorable and subject to scathing review.

I draw inspiration and hope from the powerful contribution many Aboriginal people and organisations have made across the fields of sport, art, politics and business.

But and there is always that word, ‘But’, in 2005 the overall situation for Indigenous Australians remains dire.

After the thousands of words spoken, hundreds of reports, speeches, and statistics, it is time to act.

Real action in whatever sphere can only take place on the foundation of Reconciliation.

In the words of Northern Territorian elder Mr Rubuntja “all of us have to share this country, respecting each other’s law and culture”.

As the call for Reconciliation put it we “must have the courage to own the truth, heal the wounds of the past so we can move on together at peace with ourselves”.

And in the midst of all our activities in community and the work place that remains our task until the job is done.