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Tuesday, 2 August 2022
Page: 349

Senator McCARTHY (Northern TerritoryAssistant Minister for Indigenous Australians and Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health) (12:02): I   , and also on behalf of Senators Dodson and Stewart, move:

That the Senate—

(a) marks the passing of Gunditjmara and Bundjalung man Archie Roach;

(b) recognises:

(i) Archie Roach was one of our nation's greatest songmen and truth-tellers, and Australia has lost a giant of the music industry and of the First Nations community,

(ii) Archie Roach was many Australians' first exposure to the horrors of the Stolen Generations, and his voice, his music and his story came out of trauma and pain,

(iii) Archie Roach's powerful songs also brought people together, providing strength and they still serve as a source of healing, and

(iv) the songs of Archie Roach will live forever, etched into more than 65,000 years of history and he will be remembered as one of the early Aboriginal artists to bring Indigenous music into the mainstream; and

(c) expresses its condolences and offers its deepest sympathies to his family.

Archie Roach didn't just make music. He gave an enduring voice to the hurt and hope felt by a generation of Australians. It's a voice that will remain etched in the minds of many Australians and also the consciousness of this country.

Roach was born at the Framlingham Aboriginal mission in Victoria. He was removed from his family at a young age as part of the stolen generations. He was separated from his mother, a Gunditjmara woman, and his father, a Bundjalung man from New South Wales. Uncle passed through several foster homes before he was finally settled with the Cox family. He acknowledged this family as having taken care of him well. He learned the basics of keyboard and guitar from his foster sister, Mary Cox. Uncle was too young to understand his situation, like many other members of the stolen generations, and he was left to assume that biological parents of his had already passed away.

But the truth about his forced removal from his family was discovered when he was a teenager, in a letter from a sister he didn't know that he had. It brought news of the very recent death of his mother. The revelation further complicated issues of mental health, identity and belonging, and is understood to have contributed to his falling into the streets with alcohol and other issues and periods of homelessness. It's to these stories of struggle, of finding his sense of self and identity, that he dedicated his life in song and story.

While living on the streets, Uncle met Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman from South Australia. He credits her as his saviour and his sounding board. She was also a talented musician and a member of the stolen generations. I know at one point she apparently saw Uncle in the studio audience on the Happy Hammond show when they were both kids and said to her foster mum, 'I'm going to marry that boy one day,' and so she did. They were partners in life and music for over three decades. Uncle was reluctant to make his first album, but it was dear Ruby who encouraged him to pursue the challenge. She told him: 'It's not all about you, you know. How many blackfellas do you reckon get to record an album?' They were soulmates, and they embarked on a journey of healing through music. Years later, when they were married with a family of their own, their house would remain open to disadvantaged young people in need of the support they themselves had found in each other. He brought people together through his storytelling and music. I guess in some respects he held up a mirror to our country, a mirror that still is there and continues to be there, because his songs are there and continue to be there.

The last time I saw Uncle was before COVID, here in Canberra. He performed here, and it was so good to see him. I think then I realised just how much of a journey it still had been for him since Aunty Ruby had passed away. It took him a while to get back on his feet and back out singing after she passed, but he was there singing strong here on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. Despite all of that—the hurt, the struggles, the pain—he was still reaching out to all of us in the audience, all of us who came to listen to him sing, reminding us, 'Look out for others, you don't know the footsteps and the journey that other people have walked, and, no matter how difficult your road, always look out for others.' That was a message I found firmly stayed with me throughout my life in knowing him. I think of his family and his children in particular, and I say thank you for sharing him with us, with the broader First Nations community, with Australia, with the world.

I just want to finish with the song 'Took the Children Away', which resonated across Australia and internationally. Just one song, like all of his songs, telling the stories of pain but also, incredibly, of hope and healing coming from the stolen generations. He reflected in the opening of the song:

This story's right, this story's true

I would not tell lies to you

Like the promises they did not keep

And how they fenced us in like sheep.

Said to us come take our hand

Sent us off to mission land.

Taught us to read, to write and pray

Then they took the children away,

Took the children away,

The children away.

Snatched from their mother's breast

Said this is for the best

Took them away.

The powerful messages and music of Uncle put into words and articulated that familiar feeling of heartbreak, loss, disempowerment and also hope.

I urge the Senate to play his songs. I urge senators to play his songs. Let's not just feel sadness, but let's celebrate an incredible man, a wonderful family and just give thanks to the way that he held the stories of our people and still sang with hope about the future. Thank you, Uncle.