Breakfast and Panel

7.15am – 9am

Friday 31 May

Crown Towers Grand Ballroom

Burswood WA

I think I am almost as emotional as I was last Sunday.

I thank Dr Richard Walley for your Welcome to Country. You are always incredible in the way you talk about the unity of all of us, its importance for our culture and our way of life.

In Noongar language, I say kaya wangju – hello and welcome.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we’re meeting today, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, and pay my respects to our Elders past, present and emerging.

I also acknowledge:

·       The Governor of WA, His Excellency Kim Beazley

·       Minister Simone McGurck

·       Police Commissioner Chris Dawson – what a fantastic initiative you have undertaken in the Police

Service, it is so far removed from the days of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and thank you for your Contribution.

·       Carol Innes and Gary Smith (Co-Chairs of Reconciliation WA)

·       Karen Mundine (CEO of Reconciliation Australia)

·       Glenn Kelly (on the Board of Reconciliation Australia)

·       A food friend and colleague who has taught me much, former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Fred Chaney

·       Russell Gibbs (Chairman of the West Coast Eagles and Chief Executive of Hawaiian)

·       Edgar Basto (BHP Billiton’s Asset President, WA Iron Ore)

·       Liza Harvey MP, representing the Leader of the Opposition. Liza is the one who talked me into going into politics. She saw me at an event and asked me to get a real job, and because of her request I have taken the journey that I have.

·       Zara Fisher (Vice President of HSE for RioTinto Iron Ore)

·       Nolan Hunter (CEO Kimberley Land Council)

·       And all distinguished guests joining us today, in particular all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whose pathways have interacted with mine, who have been there and walked with me on so many issues over the past four decades, I thank you.

I want to share with you last Sunday. Anna and I were just talking about a message that Ben had tweeted about his father, Cedric, my cousin, and he was acknowledging Sorry Day.

After that, we talked about Sorry Day and my mother. Then Anna asked me very pragmatically if I would go and hang out the washing.

I took my phone with me in my pocket and I looked at it and saw that Scott Morrison had come up, and I thought “I’ve probably still got aged care”.

And he started by saying “I want to thank you for the work you’ve done in aged care, you’ve got a big heart. I would like you to become the Minister for Indigenous Australians”.

Because we’d been talking about Sorry Day, I was emotional and I couldn’t answer. He heard two sort of gasps and it took me about two minutes before I said: “Yes, Prime Minister”.

I realised what he was asking, I realised the implications of the journey that I would take over the next three years, in leading and walking with not only our people, but our fellow Australians whose passion and commitment are about improving outcomes.

So, what an amazing gathering – it warms my heart to see more than 1300 people together here this morning, to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and contributions.

To celebrate our deep past and enduring presence, across this great state and our vast country.

What a privilege that I have been made the first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians, during National Reconciliation Week.

This morning I want to reflect on how far we’ve come on the journey of Reconciliation - how I got here, with a bit of my story - and how far we’ve come as a nation.

Any of us who are old enough to remember the 50s and 60s will tell you it’s a long, long way.

I was born in 1952 on Roelands Mission, the eldest of 10 children. My father was a railway ganger. My mother was a member of the Stolen Generations.

In those days, they had to get permission to marry. Permission to travel. They could be arrested if they were out after 6pm and not back in the designated sites which were Aboriginal Reserves.

If the Department of Native Welfare came around and thought you weren’t providing good care, they could take your children away.

We moved to a tiny town called Nannine, just 26 miles west of Meekatharra. My schooling at first was by correspondence – working a radio with a foot pedal, like an old sewing machine, for two hours at a time.

Soon afterwards, my parents moved down to Corrigin. At that point, my life changed.

It’s no exaggeration to say I’m standing here today because of my parents’ dedication to our family and their commitment to going to school and getting an education – and that started with my Year One teacher, Miss Abernethy.

She saw that I was behind the other children, so she asked me to come to school half an hour earlier every day. When I was home with whooping cough, she came over every afternoon to bring lessons and reading books so that I could keep with my peers.

She believed in me, supported me and never gave up on me. And fifty years later, she even campaigned for me in the seat of Hasluck!

While she was building my confidence – and my vocabulary – there was a petition being circulated to have us moved out of the town, but people refused to sign it. They held to an ethos of giving them a go, so it failed. The townspeople wanted us to stay.

Just a few years later, Australia voted overwhelmingly for inclusion in the 1967 Referendum.

I was in high school in Perth, and Fremantle had the second highest ‘Yes’ vote in the nation.

Things were changing. We were making progress. For the first time, we had a sense that as Australians we were indeed walking together.

Four years later, Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal person in parliament as a Senator for Queensland.

The next year, 1972, saw the creation of the first Department of Aboriginal Affairs - the precursor to the new Agency I will now lead.

In the mid-70s, the Commonwealth Government introduced the Racial Discrimination Act and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.

These were landmark reforms that opened the way for every move toward rights and equality that have followed.

In fact, between the 1960s and the 1990s, the law of the land changed so much.

And in the decades since then, I know we’ve seen a significant cultural shift.

The Reconciliation movement, and the work Senator Pat Dodson and many others did all those years ago, has driven a great deal of that change.

It started small, but its ripple effect outwards has been tremendous.

It’s had an incredible impact not only at the local level, but in the way large corporates have embraced it, and undertaken commitments in Reconciliation Action Plans that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago.

I believe it’s been one of the major social reforms driven by ordinary Australians and Indigenous people in Australia.

Its impact shows up in Reconciliation Australia’s recurring study.

Every two years since 2008, the Australian Reconciliation Barometer has measured attitudes and perceptions towards reconciliation on five overlapping dimensions: Race Relations, Equality and Equity, Institutional Integrity, Unity, and Historical Acceptance.

What the latest study shows is that the overwhelming majority of Australians believe that the linkages between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are important, and that knowing our history and truth-telling are vital to this relationship.

80 per cent of Australians support formal truth-telling processes, and 86 per cent believe it’s important to learn our shared history.

Still more encouragingly is that 95 per cent of people agree it’s important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a say in matters that affect them.

This echoes the ‘Yes’ of 1967 Referendum and it resonates with my appointment as Minister for Indigenous Australians.

The days of complete control by the police or the bureaucracy over Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives are gone, but there is still much more work to do.

Since those days we’ve travelled more or less steadily towards greater freedom, autonomy, and equality.

And, crucially, we’ve travelled together.

As I said after my swearing-in this week, policy won’t be made in my office. It will be made in conjunction with Indigenous Australians at all levels, from the grassroots to the peak representative bodies.

I firmly believe it’s only through genuine partnership, through walking together, that we will solve our problems.

We need to jettison forever the historic mindset of our people as passive recipients of services and programs.

We need instead partnerships based on mutual respect, mutual resolve - and mutual responsibility. Indigenous Australians must be truly regarded as equal and active partners, involved and informed.

One of my priorities in this role is working on a refreshed Closing the Gap framework.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier this year, the original Closing the Gap process was good-hearted and well-intentioned, but it took a top-down approach, not one based on true partnership. It failed on its own tests.

In refreshing that approach, we now have an opportunity to do things differently. To do things in partnership.

We’ve established a partnership with a coalition of peak organisations, and a Joint Council through COAG.

But of course the key is partnering with people on the ground, so that they can drive local, community-led solutions.

And though the approach has changed, the heart and soul of Closing the Gap has not.

We want to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children getting the best start in life, the same opportunities, schooling, healthcare, and life outcomes as their peers.

As well as Closing the Gap, we remain committed to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution.

We will continue to work with Indigenous communities to design a model for constitutional change that reflects their needs and aspirations, and we will hold a referendum once we’ve settled on the right model.

This is a long-term process. We need to get it right. If we don’t, we risk putting this issue on hold for another 30 or 40 years.

In keeping with the Australian Reconciliation Barometer finding that a majority of Australians support learning about the past and undertaking a formal truth-telling process, we have committed to work on that with Indigenous communities.

And as part of that process, we will support the establishment of a National Resting Place.

For more than 150 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains were removed from Country and placed in museums, universities and private collections in Australia and overseas.

The National Resting Place will be a central place for commemoration, reflection and healing. A place for ancestral remains to rest in honour and peace, where all Australians can celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. 

In all this work, we will be partners, walking together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Looking back across this shared journey - my own and the much larger story of reconciliation - I can see the progress we’ve made.

Ensuring the barriers and barbs in life do not become bollards.

For example, the primary teacher who told me I should leave school and get a job, because nobody would employ me as an adult.

The birthday party where a number of the invited children didn’t show up because I was invited too.

The comments and emails I got when I was running in Hasluck – just 10 years ago, not back in the 1950s.

But those aren’t the stories that have shaped my life.

Many of you in the room today will have similar stories to tell.

Those things scar you. Of course they do.

But they don’t define you.

I apply the same lens to our larger journey of reconciliation. Yes, we acknowledge the suffering and the wounds. Indeed we can’t go forward unless we tell the truth about the past.

But every step we take, every progression we make, is because of hope.

It’s because of optimism - because we choose trust over distrust, and courage over fear. 

As I said at the beginning of this Reconciliation Week – we must ensure the greatness of our many nations is reflected in the greatness of our Australian nation, now and forever.

I believe with all my heart that the only way forward is together. I’ve seen the power and strength of sitting together, of listening and talking together, and of walking and working together.  Grounded in truth. Walking with courage.

As we say in the traditional Noongar of the country on which we are meeting:

“Ngyung moort ngarla moort, ngyung boodja ngarla boodja.”

Meaning: “My people our people, my country our country.”

That’s the reason we’ve come so far.

All of us, as leaders, we will all walk together – and not ahead or behind - that’s the force that will take us forward.

And I thank Reconciliation Australia and every one of you in this room for the journey that we have undertaken thus far with reconciliation and the way in which your genuine commitments and efforts have pulled together all, in a way that unifies us for having dreams and aspirations for a better future for all of our children, and those who come after us.

I thank you for everything today.