Dignitary Address to the 42nd Session of the Human Rights Council

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Kaya wangju – hello and welcome in my language, Noongar.

To celebrate the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages I speak to you in the language of my ancestors and my children.

I am Ken Wyatt, Australia’s first Aboriginal Cabinet Minister and Minister for Indigenous Australians.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the Human Rights Council in this session.

There is power in telling the truth.

In Australia, we are starting a national conversation about truth telling around the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

To me, truth-telling is not a contest of history, but an acknowledgement of what has been, and sharing what was seen.

So let me start here by talking truth with you.

It’s been 10 years since Australia joined the global community to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The truth is, Australia did not support the Declaration when it was first introduced. Over two years we considered the implications, and like other countries, we are still on our journey of what the Declaration means for us.

To us the Declaration reflects economic, social, cultural and political rights. Rights that should guide our policies intended to deliver change that is sustainable and embraces Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture.

Although we have already started walking our journey to change the way we protect and uphold the rights of Indigenous people, we know healing won’t actually start until we recognise and acknowledge where our country began. To this end we have set ourselves a goal to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia.

This is too important to rush, and too important to get wrong.

As everyone here would know, the declaration itself was the product of almost 25 years of deliberation between UN member states and Indigenous groups.

To achieve our goal we must focus on rediscovering our differences, our incredible history and culture, and integrating traditional knowledge and systems in our current way of life.

We acknowledge that our long struggle to recognise and realise traditional Indigenous systems has been made more difficult by the truth that we interrupted the connection long ago.

This is a terrible and hard fact to face. We cannot change it. But we are trying hard to heal and reconnect.

To achieve our goal it’s vital we have unity in our solutions. This demands all voices be heard respectfully. It requires us to solve the problem together to ‘co-design’.

Soon we will be talking to our elders and communities about what co-design looks like.

The truth is we have problems, some serious problems. High rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and high rates of suicide, particularly of young Indigenous Australians are just two of these problems.

But we are working to change the statistics.

Australians pride ourselves on being honest, hard-working and loyal people. We know we must all contribute to enjoy better outcomes for all of us.

We are resetting our relationship between Australia’s governments and Indigenous Australians. We are partnering with Indigenous Australian people and communities to develop joint solutions to our problems.

Our Closing the Gap framework, focuses on community safety, education and employment as enablers for better futures.

By addressing the underlying issues we hope to reduce the unacceptably high rates of suicide and incarceration.

Economic rights are also at the heart of our strategies. Our strategies covering demand and supply are designed to cultivate growth and sustainability.

We are offering targeted funding support and leveraging our own government spending to drive demand for Indigenous goods and services, and consequently drive business growth and create jobs.

For example, the Australian Government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy started four years ago. In this time over 16,280 contracts, worth more than $2.47 billion, have been awarded to 1,780 Indigenous businesses across a variety of industries and sectors.

On the supply side we’re nurturing the Indigenous corporate sector through a 10-year plan to improve access to business and financial support.

We also recognise the additional struggles Indigenous women can face setting up a business. To address this we have provided culturally-safe spaces for women to seek business support and we have funded the first Indigenous Women in Business conference.

Economic participation is just one element of the declaration.

Australia’s truth is that while our Indigenous culture and systems are one of the most ancient, sophisticated and complex in the world, they are also evolving…blending our Australian nations together in a peaceful but challenging journey. Similar to our journey towards realising the Declaration.

We are headed in the right direction but we are cautious not to run before we have first learned to walk.

We are on that journey, walking together.

We embrace the opportunity to be part of this global community here.

Thank you.

[ENDS]