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Monday, 18 February 2008
Page: 659

Mr MORRISON (7:55 PM) —I rise once again to support this motion. Like most Australians, I have had very little direct experience or contact with this issue. I do, however, come here with a sense of what I believe is the right thing to do. My first real contact with our first Australians took place almost 30 years ago on a property called Greenwood, which is around 30 kilometres east of Cloncurry in Central Queensland near a place called Oorindi. This was the family property of my Uncle Bill, the grandson of Australia’s grand old lady of letters, Dame Mary Gilmore, whom I know as Great-Aunt Mary. There is much that Aunt Mary and I would probably disagree on today and I am sure, based on my father’s reports of his regular visits to her little flat in Kings Cross when he was a young policeman on the beat, she would be more than up for the discussion. However, one thing I know we would not disagree on is the need to address the disadvantage of our Indigenous communities.

Aunt Mary was an undisputed champion of Indigenous rights in this country, long before it attracted the attention it does today. In speaking on this motion today, I wish to pay tribute to her efforts on behalf of the Indigenous people of this country by reading from one of her most moving verses, The Waradgery Tribe:

Harried we were, and spent,

Broken and falling,

Ere as the cranes we went,

Crying and calling.

Summer shall see the bird

Backward returning;

Never shall there be heard,

Those, who went yearning.

Emptied of us the land;

Ghostly our going;

Fallen, like spears the hand

Dropped in the throwing.

We are the lost who went,

Like the birds, crying;

Hunted, lonely, and spent

Broken and dying.

When I was 12 I travelled to Greenwood with my older brother Alan to visit my Uncle Bill and his family. It was our first real trip to the bush, and I recall being completely in awe of the landscape of this great country. Growing up on Sydney’s beaches, I was very used to seeing a horizon on water; I had never seen one on land. There was a large Aboriginal family who lived in the area and worked on the Greenwood station. They were skilled stockmen who understood the land and were indispensable to the workings of that property. They were beautiful, kind and generous people but certainly different from any I had ever known. When encountering such difference, it is often a natural human reaction to withdraw—particularly when you are only 12 years old. Uncle Bill sensed my unease. He approached me to provide reassurance and said that, above all, I must treat my new friends with the utmost of respect and that, while in so many of our ways we were different, we were in fact the same. He may have chosen different words at the time—I do not recall—but I do recall his meaning. Any relationship must be based on respect, and that is why I believe this motion is so important. It is out of respect that we make this apology and do so without reservation—out of respect for our shared humanity and out of respect for our shared future in this country.

In 1998 my wife and I moved to New Zealand, where I was working for the then National government in the area of tourism and sport. In New Zealand I was struck by the majesty and strength of Maori culture, and it caused me to reflect more seriously on the Indigenous culture of my own nation. The history of the relationship between the Maori and Europeans in what they call Aotearoa is different from our history in Australia. Our beginnings are different and so too are the Maori and Indigenous Australian cultures. However, what is common is the special standing of Maori stories and the tradition in binding their communities together to provide a source of strength, support and identity, as is the Maori association with the land they call the ‘tanga te whenua’, people of the land, and the primacy of family, of ‘whanau’ as it is known. What is also common is a story of conflict and survival, despite the odds. Whilst in New Zealand I witnessed the ongoing treaty settlement process that had begun back in 1975. My witness of this process brought home to me the very real impact of European settlement on Indigenous communities, not just in New Zealand but in Australia and many other lands.

I was particularly struck by a story in the build-up to the millennium celebrations, in which I had an involvement. There is a tribe called Ngati Porou in Gisborne, which is the site of the first place where blood was shed between Europeans—Captain Cook, or Lieutenant Cook, as he was then known—and the Maori people. In the lead-up to the millennium celebrations, the elders of Ngati Porou provided what I thought was a remarkable gesture of forgiveness to the Queen. This is something I want to return to in a few minutes.

The fact that Indigenous Australians represent the oldest living culture on the planet is an achievement of staggering proportions, and in just so many ways, most often unwittingly, we have made this journey more difficult. Whether it is the failed policies of previous administrations, in particular the forcible and illegal removal of children from their families, or fostering a culture of welfare dependence or the evil influence of alcohol, substance abuse and violence—for all of these and for their devastating impact on Indigenous communities, both yesterday and today, I am profoundly sorry.

I do not seek to say sorry on behalf of our past generations. I have no right to do that, nor do I, or any of us, have the right to judge previous generations. The world we confront today is different from that confronted by policymakers 50 years ago, let alone 200 years ago. We have the benefit of hindsight; let us use this facility wisely. The business of being able to confront our past without a sense of judgement was brought home to me in the outstanding novel by Kate Grenville, The Secret River. I am sure Dame Mary would have been very proud of this effort by another great female Australian writer. In this work, the author is able to capture the sense of ignorance and fear that gave rise, wittingly or otherwise, to the many abuses and conflicts that comprise our past, particularly in the early years of our nation. It also captures how these events can haunt us if we fail to deal with them. This was a particular theme of Andrew McGahan’s novel, The White Earth, in which he also raised these issues.

Our apology in this place is not only important to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. It is important for the rest of us to lay to rest the demons of the past, the errors and the omissions, and allow non-Indigenous Australia to also move forward. But while this motion rightly deals with the disadvantage of Indigenous Australia, the reason for the motion principally deals with the policy to remove children from their parents on the basis of race. I must admit that I could not understand, for many years, why such a motion would be brought only for this matter of failed policy. As many have said, there are so many more contributing factors. There is so much to be sorry for. Equally, my hesitation stemmed from my knowledge of the many fine Christian men and women who have selflessly worked in Indigenous communities trying to relieve the disadvantage of which we speak. As I said at the outset of this speech, I do not know these things firsthand. These Christian men and women went there well before I was in this place and selflessly served for that purpose, and I pay tribute to them and thank them for their service. However, at Christmas time, in the knowledge that I would be called upon here in this place to address such a motion, I spoke to another member of my family, Barbara Goldberg, and her husband, David. Both have had significant interaction and fellowship with our Indigenous community, particularly in the areas of education and health. My Uncle David has served the Wreck Bay community near Jervis Bay for many years. When I posed this question to Barbara, her answer was simple and penetrating: ‘Because it is so important to them.’ In short, it is about them, not us. While an apology is important to those providing it—and I have said why—it is most significantly about those to whom it is addressed. This apology is deeply important to our Indigenous communities, and we have seen the impact in recent days of just how important it is to them. For that reason alone it is worth while, and for that reason I support it strongly also.

The final influence came for me on the day of the apology itself as I listened to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition recount the stories of children being removed from their parents. As a recent father, and now a firsthand witness of the bond between a mother and her child, I was deeply moved by these accounts. This connection between a mother and her child is a divine and mysterious one that should never be broken, excepting only to protect a child from serious harm. As others thought of those they have known while this apology was taking place, Indigenous people and their communities, I could not get the image out of my mind of my own wife and child and what I would have thought had this happened in my own family. So it is a very simple thing for me to stand here today and share the views of others in supporting this apology. When the time came, I could proudly stand with my colleagues in this place to support the motion.

An apology is an act of grace. It involves putting aside your own issues and reservations, however justified you may think they are, and standing in the middle ground exposed, vulnerable and seeking forgiveness. The apology is not given on the guarantee of such forgiveness but rather is provided without reservation. This is what this parliament has done. This parliament has crossed the Rubicon on this matter and I want to pay tribute, as others have in this place, to the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, but particularly to the Leader of the Opposition, for bringing the coalition to the table on this issue. The challenge now is what the member for Berowra spoke of earlier in this debate when making reference to the moral rearmament movement of postwar Europe.

If our Indigenous communities wish to move forward from this point then forgiveness is the only way. The forgiveness does not need to take the form of a national ceremony or even a public statement. It must take place in the hearts and minds of Indigenous people in their own communities. It is the same process that Desmond Tutu championed through the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa and that was then subsequently adopted in Rwanda where eight million Rwandans had to deal with the brutal massacre of some 900,000 of their own citizens in just 100 days.

Grief, sadness and regret are part of every national story. How we deal with those defines our national character. Forgiveness is difficult, far more so than saying sorry. It requires a laying down of grievance and picking up the cause of reconciliation. It is my hope that this motion will lead a path for forgiveness, that our actions by this motion will empower Indigenous communities. That is when we will be able to make progress on this issue. This is when we will really be able to equip Indigenous communities to confront and deal with the problems they face, whether they be economic, social or even moral.

Several weeks ago, I attended a very similar ceremony to that which took place in this House today—the welcoming of the World Youth Day cross. The ceremony was conducted at Kurnell in my electorate of Cook. The focus of the ceremony was an acknowledgement that this was the site of Cook’s landing where the Gweigal people first came in contact with European culture. I think it is highly relevant that this cross, being a symbol of forgiveness, was taken to this place because it is the same forgiveness that we must now seek and pray for. Our focus is now clear: to address the many issues of disadvantage in Indigenous communities.

In conclusion, it is my hope that, as a consequence of this motion, our debate in this place will no longer be about the past but what we do in the present and will do in the future to address this disadvantage. Whether the solution is in the liberating programs of microfinance—where a good friend of mine has been involved for many years providing small business loans to assist Indigenous communities get ahead, start businesses, employ people, take control of the events that surround them and provide a future for themselves—in the intervention in the Northern Territory or in the prayers and generosity of everyday Australians, let this be our focus. These are topics for another day; today I rise to support the motion.