Thursday, October 11, 2007

Big News: Our Prime Minister repudiates his past and promises a referendum to recognise Aboriginies as the first Australians.

Within the first 18 months.

Get a load of this - spoken by the PM at the Sydney Institute:

Tonight my focus is another topic of utmost national importance; one that transcends the past, the present and the future of Australia and that goes to the heart of our national identity and shared destiny.

For my generation – Australians who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s – it has been ever present; a subject of deep sorrow and of great hope. The challenge, and unfinished business, of our time.

It is the place of Indigenous people in the profound, compelling and unfolding story of Australia...

In the speech where I launched the Australian History project last year I spoke at length on the secret of the modern Australian Achievement – our national sense of balance.

I said then that: ‘Balance is as crucial to a well-ordered society as it is to a full human life. It should not be mistaken for taking the middle road or splitting the difference. Nor does it imply a state that is static or a nation at rest.

‘Quite the opposite. A sense of balance is the handmaiden of national growth and renewal. It helps us to respond creatively to an uncertain world with a sense of proportion.

‘Keeping our balance means we reform and evolve so as to remain a prosperous, secure and united nation. It also means we retain those cherished values, beliefs and customs that have served us so well in the past.’

The sense of balance Australia has found in 2007 allows us now to go further and to aim higher. The time is right to take a permanent, decisive step towards completing some unfinished business of this nation.

A little more than 100 days ago I spoke at The Sydney Institute on the topic of the Government’s emergency intervention in Northern Territory Indigenous communities.

This intervention – and in particular the public’s reaction to it – has been a watershed in Indigenous affairs in Australia. It has overturned 30 years of attitudes and thinking on Indigenous policy.

The response from people around Australia has again highlighted to me the anguish so many Australians feel about the state of Indigenous Australia and the deep yearning in the national psyche for a more positive and unifying approach to Reconciliation.

A new paradigm

This new Reconciliation I’m talking about starts from the premise that individual rights and national sovereignty prevail over group rights. That group rights are, and ought to be, subordinate to both the citizenship rights of the individual and the sovereignty of the nation.

This is Reconciliation based on a new paradigm of positive affirmation, of unified Australian citizenship, and of balance – a balance of rights and responsibilities; a balance of practical and symbolic progress.

It is this balance which holds the key to unlocking overwhelming support among the Australian people for meaningful Reconciliation.

Some will say: Surely we’ve been here before. What’s different now? Good question.

I’m convinced we are dealing today with a new alignment of ideas and individuals; a coming together of forces I have not witnessed in 32 years of public life.

As always, the Australian people themselves are the best guide.

Let me quote from just one of the many letters I have received since the Government announced the Northern Territory intervention.

It is from Mrs Terry Meehan, now living in Melbourne. Her late husband, Dr Ken Meehan, was the sole doctor of Yarrabah Aboriginal Community in Queensland for many years, looking after some 2,000 indigenous people.

She writes that:

‘His whole life was dedicated to the welfare of mankind but especially indigenous peoples both in New Guinea and Australia. … During my time as his wife in Yarrabah I watched with frustration and anguish at the devastation alcohol abuse caused.

‘The local canteen only served full strength beer and of course was run by the local council. The number of alcohol related deaths was great – but we weren’t allowed to speak about it publicly at that time.

‘You have taken a much needed step in order to make a difference to help these wonderful people become a proud people.’

A major catalyst for the new alignment I spoke about is the rise of the Indigenous responsibility agenda and the intellectual firepower which a new generation of Indigenous leaders has brought to Australian politics.

I’ve been reminded that, in fact, the Indigenous responsibility agenda is an old agenda; the agenda of Faith Bandler and Neville Bonner among others.

At its core is the need for Aboriginal Australia to join the mainstream economy as the foundation of economic and social progress.

This is at the heart of the work the Australian Government is pursuing under the Federal Minister Mal Brough’s leadership.

The central goal is to address the cancer of passive welfare and to create opportunity through education, employment and home ownership.

We seek partnerships which respect communal land rights of Indigenous Australians, but with a view to encouraging wider economic opportunity based on those rights.

Towards a better balance

I’m the first to admit that this whole area is one I have struggled with during the entire time that I have been Prime Minister. My instinct has been to try and improve the conditions for indigenous people within the framework of a united nation and unified Australian citizenship.

I have never felt comfortable with the dominant paradigm for Indigenous policy – one based on the shame and guilt of non-indigenous Australians, on a repudiation of the Australia I grew up in, on a rights agenda that led ultimately and inexorably towards welfare dependency and on a philosophy of separateness rather than shared destiny.

This nation spent (and wasted) a lot of time in the last 30 years toying with the idea of a treaty implying that in some way we are dealing with two separate nations. To me, this goal was always fundamentally flawed and something I could never support.

We are not a federation of tribes. We are one great tribe; one Australia.

I still believe that a collective national apology for past injustice fails to provide the necessary basis to move forward. Just as the responsibility agenda is gaining ground it would, I believe, only reinforce a culture of victimhood and take us backwards.

I said a couple of years ago that part of my problem with the old Reconciliation agenda was that it let too many people – particularly in white Australia – off the hook.

It let them imagine they could achieve something lasting and profound through symbolic gesture alone, without grappling in a serious, sustained way with the real practical dimensions of indigenous misery.

There had to be a fundamental correction to the unbalanced approach to rights and responsibilities. This in no way diminishes the importance of government responsibility in providing resources and services.

I acknowledge that my own journey in arriving at this point has not been without sidetracks and dry gullies.

There have been low points when dialogue between me as Prime Minister and many Indigenous leaders dwindled almost to the point of non-existence. I fully accept my share of the blame for that.

On the night of the 1998 election I publicly committed myself to endeavouring to achieve Reconciliation by the year 2001. In the end, that did not happen.

I recognise now that, though emotionally committed to the goal, I was mistaken in believing that it could be achieved in a form I truly believed in. The old paradigm’s emphasis on shame, guilt and apologies made it impossible to reconcile the goal with the path I was required to tread.

The challenge I have faced around Indigenous identity politics is in part an artefact of who I am and the time in which I grew up.

I have always acknowledged the past mistreatment of Aboriginal people and have frequently said that the treatment of Indigenous Australians represents the most blemished chapter in the history of this country.

Yet I have felt – and I still feel – that the overwhelming balance sheet of Australian history is a positive one. In the end, I could not accept that Reconciliation required a condemnation of the Australian heritage I had always owned.

At the same time, I recognise that the parlous position of Indigenous Australians does have its roots in history and that past injustices have a real legacy in the present.

I believe we must find room in our national life to formally recognise the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of our nation.

We must recognise the distinctness of Indigenous identity and culture the right of Indigenous people to preserve that heritage. The crisis of indigenous social and cultural disintegration requires a stronger affirmation of Indigenous identity and culture as a source of dignity, self-esteem and pride.

This is all the more so at a time when the blossoming of Indigenous art and dance – and the way it gives unique expression to Australian culture – is something we all celebrate and share.

A rare convergence

The Australian people want to move. They want to move towards a new settlement of this issue. I share that desire which is why I am here tonight.

I announce that, if re-elected, I will put to the Australian people within 18 months a referendum to formally recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution – their history as the first inhabitants of our country, their unique heritage of culture and languages, and their special (though not separate) place within a reconciled, indivisible nation.

My goal is to see a new Statement of Reconciliation incorporated into the Preamble of the Australian Constitution. If elected, I would commit immediately to working in consultation with Indigenous leaders and others on this task.

It would reflect my profound sentiment that Indigenous Australians should enjoy the full bounty that this country has to offer; that their economic, social and cultural well-being should be comparable to that of other Australians.

I would aim to introduce a bill that would include the Preamble Statement into Parliament within the first 100 days of a new government.

A future referendum question would stand alone. It would not be blurred or cluttered by other constitutional considerations.

I would seek to enlist wide community support for a ‘Yes’ vote. I would hope and aim to secure the sort of overwhelming vote achieved 40 years ago at the 1967 referendum.

If approached in the right spirit, I believe this is both realistic and achievable.

I see this as a dignified and respectful Reconciliation process. It is founded on the notion that we are all Australians together; bound by a common set of laws which we must all obey and from which we are entitled to equal justice.

It rests on my unshakeable belief that what unites us as Australians is far greater than what divides us.

A positive affirmation in our Constitution of the unique place of Indigenous Australians can, I believe, be the cornerstone of a new settlement.

I sense in the community a rare and unexpected convergence of opinion on this issue between the more conservative approach which I clearly identify with and those who traditionally have favoured more of a group rights approach.

It is a moment in time which should be seized, lest it be lost.

Reconciliation can’t be a 51-49 project; or even a 70-30 project.

We need as a nation to lock-in behind a path we can all agree on.

I hope the steps on Australian History that I announced today can also make a practical contribution. As I said at the time of the Australian History Summit, you can’t have a proper comprehension of Australian history without an understanding of indigenous history and its contribution to the Australian story.

Summit participant Jackie Huggins has written that an Australia where all our young are taught the continuing story of indigenous Australians as part of our nation’s history ‘may not seem like such a remarkable outcome but it is’.

Indeed, she argues, ‘the teaching of our shared story is the key to reconciliation because it allows us to understand each other and to build healthy, respectful relationships’.

There is a window to convert this moment of opportunity into something real and lasting in a way that gets the balance right. But I suspect it is small.

Noel Pearson has made the point to me that Australia seems to go through 30 to 40 year cycles on indigenous affairs: periods of reorientation and attempts to find new solutions (assimilation in the 1930s; equality and self-determination in the 1960s and ‘70s) followed by decades of denial of the lack of progress in between.

Some will no doubt want to portray my remarks tonight as a form of Damascus Road conversion. In reality, they are little more than an affirmation of well-worn liberal conservative ideas.

Their roots lie in a Burkean respect for custom and cultural tradition and the hidden chain of obligations that binds a community together. In the world of practical politics they owe much to the desire for national cohesion Disraeli spoke to in 19th Century Britain – another time of great economic and social change. And in a literary sense they find echoes in Michael Oakeshott’s conservatism and the sense of loss should precious things disappear.

In the end, my appeal to the broader Australian community on this is simpler, and far less eloquent. It goes to love of country and a fair go.

It’s about understanding the destiny we share as Australians – that we are all in this together.

It’s about recognising that while ever our Indigenous citizens are left out or marginalised or feel their identity is challenged we are all diminished.

It’s about appreciating that their long struggle for a fair place in the country is our struggle too.


I am a realist. True Reconciliation will become a reality only when it delivers better lives for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That, quite frankly, will be the work of generations.

I’m also an incurable optimist about this country. I always have been. And I always will be. I’m in no doubt that if we continue to get the big things right Australia’s best years are still ahead of us.

My optimism has always found its greatest nourishment in the character of the Australian people. Reconciliation – at its best – is, and must be, a people’s movement.

Now, for the first time in a long time, we can see the outline of a new settlement for Indigenous policy in Australia.

It stands at a point of intersection between rights and responsibilities; between the symbolic and the practical.

It is, to be sure, less an end point than a point of light that can guide us to a better future.

We’re not there yet. But if we keep our balance, we can get there soon.