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Address to the Garma Festival, Northern Territory

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Address to the Garma Festival, Northern Territory August 10, 2013


Galarrwuy, thank you so much for making me welcome on Yolngu land. Thank you so much for that passionate and heartfelt plea. I acknowledged the Yolngu people and I acknowledge that this is Yolngu land and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

But I basically want to say, a thank you to you Galarrwuy for making me welcome here today and I also want to say thank you to everyone who has made the effort to travel up here to the Garma Festival. I do have prepared speech and I am wondering

whether I shouldn’t just dispense with the prepared speech and talk to you from my heart because Galarrwuy has spoken form his heart to me and the least I can do is to do my best to reciprocate.

Look we are all on a journey; we are all on a journey. Individually and as a nation, and as peoples, communities and families we

are all on a journey. Where we want it to lead, is to a country where all of us can realise our dreams, where all of us can be ourselves, all of us can come closer to being our best selves. That’s only going to happen if each one of us, as Australians

becomes better in the years to come than we have always been in the years that have been, at opening our hearts to one and another. It is very, very important that white fellas and blackfellas open their hearts to one and other.

What that requires is not just fine talk, not just academic studies, not just the writing of endless words, important though that is.

What that requires is a new engagement, between black and white people such that we can walk forward into the future arm in arm together as brothers and sisters. That’s what this requires. Now Galarrwuy, you asked me about land rights, land rights are

very important, Aboriginal people derive so much of their sense of self, their sense of peoplehood, from the land, they have, you have a deep connection with the land, a deep and ancient multi-generational connection with land. Which people like myself have

probably long lost. But I do appreciate how important it is to you, I do appreciate how significant it was when former governments gave land rights to the Aboriginal people of Australia.

Our challenge, as you say, is to make land rights more real in the future than it has been in the recent past. It is all very well

having the right to live on your land, having the right to walk over your land, having the right if necessary to exclude people from your land. But land has to be an economic asset as well as a spiritual asset and I will do whatever I humanly can in government to

bring this about, should we win the election.

But most of all I want to talk today about this new partnership between black and white Australian that I hope to foster should I find myself in government after the 7th of September. If I may, as this is my first time on Yolngu land give you something of my

personal story.

Like so many people growing up on the North shore of Sydney in the 1960s I had no contact whatsoever that I was aware of with Aboriginal people. My first contact was on the banks of the Fitzroy River in Rockhampton after what would these days be

described as schoolies. A bunch of school kids from Sydney, we were broke, we were hungry and we were thirsty. Well a bunch of local Aboriginals people turned up and the thing that struck me more than anything else was their generosity; because they

willingly shared their food and more importantly their drinks with those thirsty kids from Sydney. But ever since then I have been doing everything I can to try and deepen my involvement and my engagement with the first Australians.

When I was a new Member of Parliament I travelled regularly to Alice Springs and to some of the communities around Alice

Springs such as Hermannsburg, in particular I would try to take the time and learn from the experience from the insights of Charlie Perkins, one of Australia’s great Indigenous leaders of an earlier generation. And then once I became a Minister I tried to ensure

that every year I spent at least a week actually in some of the more significant Indigenous communities in which I had substantial responsibility.

And yet by 2007 despite, 14 years in the Parliament, despite then nine years as a Minister. I figured out that I had visited dozens

and dozens of Aboriginal places but never spent more than 18 hours in a single one of them. So with Noel Pearson’s help, I tried to rectify that situation. In 2008, I spent three weeks as a teacher’s aide in Coen in Cape York, working in the local school. In

2009, I spent 10 days as a truancy officer in Aurukun on Cape York working with the truancy team. 2011, I spent three days as a builders mate on a bush building project near Hopevale on Cape York and last year myself and a team of people including I’m

pleased to say Warren Mundine, who is in the audience today, and Elizabeth who is in the audience today, Elizabeth Henderson,

Tony Abbott Federal Member for Warringah | Leader of the Opposition

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we spent four days helping to refurbish the library of the local school at Aurukun.

The problem if I may say so between white Australia and Aboriginal Australia is not lack of good will, it’s not lack of money, but in recent times it’s been a lack of engagement. Now I shouldn’t say that to you because every one of you, by your presence here,

has indicated a deep and sincere desire to engage meaningfully with Aboriginal people. You are perhaps 400 here in this gathering, there is probably going to be 1,000, probably 2,000 here at Garma over the next few days. Over the 15 years this

Festival has been going maybe some 30,000 people have been here. That is great, that is a tribute and a credit to everyone who has made the long trip here but that is not enough. There is 23 million of us and all of us need to engage better and more deeply

with Aboriginal people if the soul of the country is to be made whole as it should be.

So my pledge, should I become Prime Minister is that I will not neglect, I will not neglect spending a week a year in an Indigenous place so that I can sit down with people and talk with them in their country not simple in my office building and not my Parliament

House office. That I can learn from my own experience what it is like to live in a remote Aboriginal place and I can sense something at the heart and soul of the people who live in places like this and who still have a beating heart of tradition, who still

have everything that makes up the living cultures, of the oldest living cultures in our world, in our universe. That is what I want to do, that is what I want to do Galarrwuy and why not if you will permit me. Why shouldn’t I if you will permit me spend my first week

as Prime Minister, should that happen on this, your country?

I know there will be people who say, ‘now as Prime Minister you can’t do that, you are goofing off, you’re not doing your job’ but the fact is that if these places are homes to the first Australians why they shouldn’t be home even if only for a few days to the

Prime Minister of our country. And why should the prime minister of our country, why shouldn’t the senior officials of our country be prepared to devote a week a year just one week to an overwhelming focus on the issues of Indigenous Australia. Surely that is

not too much to ask to ask of our government, of our Prime Minister, of our senior officials. So Galarrwuy I believe things will be different, if there is a change of government. I have said before, let me repeat, it is my hope that I could be, not just a Prime

Minister, but a Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The first I imagine that we have ever had.

I will have, as well as that, a Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Cabinet and Nigel Scullin who is as a regular visitor at Garma and is here today. What’s more, Indigenous programmes and policy will come within the Department of Prime Minister and

Cabinet because Indigenous policy and programmes should not be an add on, they should not be an afterthought, but they should be at the heart of a good Australian government.

But I don’t want to stop there, too often Indigenous policy has been white fellas turning up in black places and dispensing their

wisdom and announcing their decisions. I’m not saying that government can abdicate its responsibilities in every respect to locals, of course it can’t. Empowered communities yes I believe in them but government has a job and as far as I’m concerned

government must to its job effectively and well.

We must govern the country, rather than subcontract that job out to others, but I do want to make sure that the decisions of any government that I lead are fully informed by people who know Aboriginal policy who know Aboriginal issue and who have lived an

Aboriginal life, in all of its ups and downs, in all of its different circumstances. I am very proud to say today that the Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Council should I be elected will be Warren Mundine who is sitting in the front row today.

Now, I have known Warren for a long time along with Noel Pearson. Warren and I have been on a journey together. I have got to

say Warren when it comes to Indigenous things, you have taught me far more than I’m sure has been the reverse. I want that journey to continue. I want us to walk this path as brothers, as people of like mind and but different political traditions. Because

whilst I am proud that the first Aboriginal Member of our National Parliament was a Liberal Senator, Neville Bonner. While I’m proud that the first Aboriginal Member of the House of Representatives was also a Liberal, my friend Ken Wyatt. I don’t believe

that Indigenous policy or Indigenous peoples should belong to either side of politics. That’s why I want us, Warren you and I. I want us, I want you and me to walk down this path together as brothers because I’m confident that the decisions that government

make will be so much better if they are informed much more than ever before by the lived experience of our Aboriginal people.

There is a lot to do; there is so much to do. Yes, as my friend Noel Pearson was saying yesterday here, we need to empower communities, but we can’t really empower communities without also empowering the individuals, the people, the families that

make them up.

You know Galarrwuy, that in some respects, particularly here in the Territory, that we have had a lost generation, a generation maybe even two generations. Kids didn’t go to school, adults didn’t go to work, the ordinary law of the land didn’t apply, women

cowering in their houses or in their huts, in fear of what some drunken relative might do. Men who should have been looking after people, instead sometimes a deadly threat to them. Well empowerment starts when the kids go to school, when the adults go to

work, when everyone is safe in his or her own community and whether the kids go to school, whether the adults go to work and whether there is effective policing will be, will be the test of success of an incoming government. We will know that reconciliation

has been achieved, when Aboriginal people have the same educational attainments, the same life expectancy and the same employment prospects as everyone else. We will know that reconciliation has been achieved when Australians understand that

their Indigenous heritage, that the Indigenous heritage that all of us now share in, is just as important as the British heritage that

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came ashore in 1788. The interesting thing is that the Indigenous heritage is living and evolving with us, whereas that heritage was something that happened in the past.

So, it is a long journey that we are on. It is a long journey that we have got ahead of us and speaking of journey I should conclude

by acknowledging the fact, that the Recognise people have come a long way. It’s great to be here at the Garma Festival. I want to say that as far as I am concerned, one of the most important things that any new government could achieve would be the final

recognition of Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution.

As far as I’m concerned, speaking now as a conservative, the great unfinished business of the Constitutional process back in the 1890s. The great gap in what was done then was that it didn’t involve a single Aboriginal person and yes that failure was a failure

of those times. But our duty, our responsibility, is to remedy the failure of the past according to the best standards of these times. Which we like to believe are better standards than those times, because as time goes by, we do understand better. We do know

more, hopefully our hearts are more opened to our brothers and sisters. As far as I am concerned Indigenous recognition would not be changing our Constitution but completing our constitution; and until this is done our country will not be whole.

Should there be a change of government there will be a lot to do. There will be border protection issues to address, there will be

budget issues to address, there will be all sorts of questions are that need as a matter of urgency to be addressed. But within 12 months we will publish a proposal for constitutional recognition and we will establish a bipartisan process to try and bring that

about as soon as possible. This should be a great unifying moment for our country; a unifying moment perhaps to surpass the 1967 referendum or the national apology. Let’s us hope so, it is more important to get it right. That to rush but by god we will have

failed, if we do not do it, because until we do it, our country will be torn. Our country will be incomplete. If we do it, if we do it well and I believe we are capable of doing it well then more fully than at any other time in our history, black and white people can

march as brothers and sisters, arm in arm into a brighter future. Thank you, very much indeed. It is a great honour to be here.


© Tony Abbott MHR 2010 | Authorised by Tony Abbott MHR, Level 2, 17 Sydney Rd, Manly NSW 2095

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