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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 1025

Mr JENKINS (Scullin) (17:46): I start my contribution to the debate on National Sorry Day by acknowledging that we meet here today on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples and I pay my respect to the elders past and present. Doing that is not something that came naturally to my generation. We were not exposed to that through our education system. I can remember at school collecting money for the Aboriginal Advancement League. That was the only exposure that we would ever have. It is ironic that we had trainee teachers come from Papua New Guinea to our school, but indigenous affairs was not something that was front and centre in my education.

So when the amateur psychologists try to work out what was in my mind as I opened proceedings on 24 November last year before my resignation as Speaker, the fact of the matter is that the raw emotion I displayed was in response to the realisation that it was the last time that I would make that statement that now forms part of our standing orders to the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples. My son reminded me, 'Dad, at least you were the first Speaker who got to do it.' Sometimes sons have a way of looking at a glass as half full when I seem to always think it is half empty.

I was a member of this place from 1986 to 1997, and for a brief moment early on in that time, for a couple of months before an election, I was dragooned—and I mean dragooned—onto the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs. I think I attended one meeting. The electorate of Scullin had something like .03 per cent Indigenous people when I was first elected. The city of Whittlesea, which is one of the main local government units, now has the third largest Indigenous population in Victoria. So in the quarter of a century since my election, mainly due to the search for affordable housing on the urban fringe, the Indigenous population there has become much larger. But it was the Bringing them home report that was my first experience of thinking about the issues of Indigenous Australians and what they had suffered and what they had enjoyed. I do not think that we should see this as something to do with negativity. This is about being very positive and moving forward. It was this report and the reflection on what we had seen since Europeans came and started what we refer to as the 'modern Australia' that made me think that there was something that we should be doing, not only because as members of this place we are integral to the formation of government, but because each of us as individuals, I believe, is very important as a community leader. We should be showing that leadership within our communities.

In an adjournment speech, I think in June 1997, I read a few things out of the Bringing them home report. Some went back into history about what people had said in the twenties. There was also a quote from a person that went on to be a valuable member of this place, from another political party, John McEwen when he was Minister for the Interior. He visited what was known then as the Half-caste Home in Darwin in 1937. McEwen being of the land really knew what he was saying when he said:

I know many stock breeders who would not dream of crowding their stock in the way that these half-caste children are huddled.

The other thing that came home to me was when I read the story of a young man born in 1964 and I realised that he was just a little younger than my younger sister who was born in 1963. He talked about being removed from his mother and the struggles, when the records were revealed, that the mother had had in trying to make contact with the young lad. Birthday cards and Christmas cards were not delivered but were put on his file. When he discovered his mother, she was working in an institution that looked after orphaned Aboriginal children. Fortunately they had six months to enjoy getting acquainted.

Luckily for me, straight after the tabling of Bringing them home, I was a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Family and Community Affairs for the period, I think, 1998 to 2000 when we had our inquiry into Indigenous health. That was a privilege. What we saw was often horrific, because you could not believe that people living in Australia in that period should have been left behind. Some of the communities that we visited were confronting, not because they were dysfunctional but because I, a lad from the northern suburbs of Melbourne, had not been exposed to them. The people themselves, the Indigenous people, were so open in the way that they came before us and discussed the issues and solutions and the way that they saw forward.

I slightly digress as I feel obliged because I think of him often. We had as an adviser somebody who was instrumental in the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, NACCHO, the late Puggy Hunter, who travelled with us. I guess Puggy was just a little bit younger than me. He was a great person to explain what it meant being involved in Indigenous health services. One of the things that really struck me—and at that time it was not something that I had to really worry about—was when he said: 'You just get tired when you spend your time attending the funerals of people of your own age.' As I said, that was not something that I had to think about then. I am getting closer to that time now, and that is the difference.

There is a brilliant young Indigenous doctor, Ngiare Brown—a wonderful person. When I visited the medical faculty at Darwin University last year, I saw a number of Indigenous Australians involved in studying to become a doctor. There should be more but it is getting there; it is noticeable. I think that is important.

The other aspect of note from this inquiry occurred on the day that we were in Sydney. We were taking evidence from the Aids Council of New South Wales. Chris, a young bloke who was there, was the men's Aboriginal worker. He had been putting his evidence about his day-to-day work and then in a 'by the way' manner he said: 'But the real thing is: how would you feel if you were a bloke like me'—and, again, I think he was born about the time of my sister—'and when you were born you were a non-person? You weren't counted in the census.' It had never struck me that I was involved. I was of a similar age to him and I had a sister his age. So he was talking about my generation. As a person he has turned out very successfully but in the back of his mind is this fact that when he was born that was his status. That was when I started to think that some of these things are really very difficult for these individuals. Some of the things that we have 'institutionally' done through our laws have to be recognised and rectified. And so, as time went on and we built the momentum to seeing the events of four years ago today, the understanding of the importance of these symbolic steps dawned on me. The fact is that we had to do these things.

How lucky do you get in life? You get elected Speaker of the House of Representatives one day and you think that is pretty good. You bounce the ball on proceedings at 9 o'clock the next morning and then you go through one of the most moving experiences that you can ever be involved in, because the emotion on that day here, four years ago, was quite extraordinary. The fact that it really meant something was tangible. As part of the proceedings, I received the glass coolamon. It was presented to Prime Minister Rudd and then Leader of the Opposition Nelson, who presented it to me in the chair. The people of this place, the people who work here, had it on display that afternoon; it is now appropriately displayed. It is a very, very important symbol—the coolamon, a tool of antiquity. Coolamons are usually carved or made from bark but this one was made of a more modern material, glass, and in the Indigenous colours as a symbol of the Indigenous flag. That coolamon is displayed here as a reminder.

The function today was held at 10 o'clock but I had to leave because I had another thing to do. As I moved out, who should I bump into but Aunty Lorraine Peeters, who had actually presented the coolamon. Many things happen that make you think that these things are really meant to happen. I got to briefly say to her 'Welcome back' and things like that. Today's small ceremony was very important because of what it emphasised. The contributions that have been made by the member for Hasluck, the member for Canberra and the member for Riverina are important because they all recognise that we are still on a journey. For me personally, at a very small gathering in this place to celebrate what happened four years ago, my reading of it was that people were still walking together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and that there was a determination to make things happen. That to me is very important.

The Stolen Generations Alliance gathers around a journey of healing, truth and justice. I think that is something that we should be very optimistic about, but it is a hard slog. It is not going to be easy. When we get into the political debate across the chamber it is right to keep each other honest, but I think that in this place there is a great deal more determination to rectify the wrongs of the past and to do the right thing that transcends the politics. We will have the argy-bargy about some of the methods, but importantly we still have to continue the dialogue. My friend Ken Wyatt described what the people of the stolen generation themselves are putting together as their view of the way forward, and that is important because that dialogue is going to be important in the way we move forward.

Today it is appropriate that we acknowledge by these short statements—although mine should have been shorter—our determination to see the task through. We recognise that this is a situation that requires all of us to work together in partnership, to listen, to continue to understand the hurt that there was and to see that things can be very positive in our determination to improve all those things that are important. The inquiry that the Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs did was entitled Health is life. Why Health is life? We had a bit of difficulty finding a term or expression in an Indigenous language for health. We heard from the National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party that:

In Aboriginal society there is no word, term or expression for ‘health’ as it is understood in western society … The word as it is used in Western society almost defies translation but the nearest translation in an Aboriginal context would probably be a term such as ‘life is health is life’.

That is the important thing in so much of Indigenous culture that transcends our known bounds of definition—the association with the land and that type of thought about health. To our Indigenous brothers and sisters I indicate that I am pleased that the journey has a greater pace than when I was first elected to this place. It is not the end; it is part of the beginning. We should all be determined to ensure that the gaps are closed.