Chris Bourke's First Speech

Chris Bourke - Australia's first Indigenous dentist, and the ACT's first Indigenous representative - gave his inaugural speech to the ACT Legislative Assembly yesterday. Full text below.
Dr Chris Bourke MLA
Member for Ginninderra
ACT Legislative Assembly
Inaugural Speech 21 June 2011

I seek leave of the Assembly to make my inaugural speech.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank my Assembly colleagues for the opportunity to deliver my inaugural speech today. I am pleased to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, on whose land we meet.  I cherish their continuing contribution to the life of our community and pay my respects to their elders and to those present today.

I am humbled and privileged to represent the people of Ginninderra and the Australian Labor Party in the Assembly.  To take up the seat vacated by Jon Stanhope is a particular honour. My background, skills and knowledge are different from those of my Assembly colleagues and it is my intention to use them to enhance the decision making in here to build a better Canberra.

Vision is best gleaned with hindsight – when time has sieved the mundane from the magnificent.  Looking back in time within the Australian polity two extraordinary figures stand out to me – Don Dunstan and Gough Whitlam.  The extent of their vision for Australian society, as evidenced by the reforms which they promulgated, has changed our social and political landscape forever.  They are the heroes who inspired me to join the Labor party.

During Dunstan's premiership South Australia was socially transformed. His reforms in the fields of Aboriginal land rights, equal opportunities, consumer protection, town planning, the environment and the restructuring of electoral law are close to my heart.  His support of the arts, particularly for the Adelaide Festival Centre, the State Theatre Company, and the establishment of the South Australian Film Corporation were also inspired.

The Whitlam Government, led by my other great hero, fostered Australian participation in international agreements and became an active player in international organisations.  By ensuring Australia was party to these agreements, the Whitlam government initiated Australia’s first federal legislation on human rights, the environment and heritage.  Whitlam laid the foundations of modern Australian life with the Family Law Act, the Australian Legal Aid Office, the Consumer Affairs Commission, the Racial Discrimination Act, Medibank, the Trade Practices Commission, and the Australia Council.

On 16 August 1975 Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister formally handed the Gurindji people at Wattie Creek in the Northern Territory title deeds to part of their traditional lands.

Could we imagine an Australia without these progressive social changes?

Progressive social change was also a hallmark of Jon Stanhope’s ACT Labor Government with the long struggle to legislate for civil partnerships.

Jon spoke out against the Howard Government’s attacks on personal liberties and human rights describing the NT intervention as racist; and he justly criticised the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

The ACT Human Rights Act, also a Stanhope initiative and an Australian first, introduced important new duties for the Executive and the Legislature to ensure all policy, administrative action and legislation could be compatible with human rights principles.  Consideration and debate about human rights are now an integral part of government action and all Canberrans will benefit.

Jon Stanhope’s achievements for Canberra in economic development and social justice coupled with his championing of human rights have established his reputation as another great Labor leader. I now look forward with anticipation to being part of the new Labor team in the ACT under Katy Gallagher as Chief Minister.

The journey to where I stand today began a long time ago.  My Aunty, my father’s sister, celebrated her 78th birthday this year.  It is remarkable to consider the Australia of her childhood.  In 1928, five years before her birth, Mounted Constable Murray, a Gallipoli veteran, lead a punitive raid against the Warlpiri in the Northern Territory.  70 Aborigines were shot dead.

In Victoria and New South Wales Aboriginal protection laws were on the books; they controlled the movement, association and employment of Aborigines.  The laws said where you had to live and whether your children could be taken away to State institutions to be trained as farm labourers or domestic servants.

My aunty completed her secondary schooling at Wangaratta High School in Victoria and then went on to Geelong Teachers College in 1953, the first of our family to achieve a tertiary education.  She provided the example and inspiration for my father to follow in her footsteps.  Together they inspired my cousins, my siblings and me to aspire and achieve.

My mother and father were committed to life-long learning before it became a slogan.  During the 1960s and early 1970s my father completed degrees in Commerce and Education at Melbourne University.  My mother, who had only received a primary education to grade 8 in country Victoria undertook and completed a teaching degree.  From an early age I was immersed in a home where education, achievement, and community service were highly prized.

Our home also embraced multiculturalism.  I am personally proud of the cultural diversity of my own ancestors.  My great great grandparents came from Ireland, England, China, and the Kamillaroi nation.

The cultural mix of my family was further enriched in the 1960s when two aunts married men from Italy and the Netherlands.  I was shaped by my close experience of cultural diversity.  Of course, we should remember that this country has been multicultural for more than 40,000 years with 300 different language groups and diverse geographic conditions of islands, deserts, mountains and rivers.  It has continued to be multicultural despite the support, denial or antipathy of Government policy since 1788.

In high school I was attracted to science and I enjoyed working with my hands. Coupled with a strong desire to help others, these interests led me to dentistry.  And looking back after more than 30 years that decision was extremely sound.

When I began dentistry at Melbourne University in 1977 the environment was very different to my aunty and father’s times at Geelong Teachers College in the 1950s.  By this time it had been recognised that education, and in particular tertiary education, was essential to the sharing of Australia’s wealth and opportunity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.  Support for Indigenous tertiary education had been instigated by the National Union of Students in the mid 1960s in a program called Abschol. I was able to benefit from these initiatives and with hard work and determination completed my dental degree in 1982, becoming the first Aboriginal dentist in Australia.

My first job as a dentist was with the Victorian Aboriginal Dental Service, travelling country Victoria and southern NSW with a dental caravan.  It was the beginning of 10 years in public dentistry working in Aboriginal dental services, school dental services and public dental clinics.  I also involved myself in community work on Aboriginal education committees and community health.  I wanted to capitalise on this experience with additional qualifications so I completed the Graduate Diploma in Public Health at Adelaide University.  My unease about the career potential of public dentistry and my developing political awareness were heightened during this postgraduate study.  This led to two key decisions.  I decided to seek employment in private practice dentistry and I joined the Australian Labor Party.

In 1991 I travelled to Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory for a two year contract providing a private dental practice to the manganese miners and their families and public dentistry to the Andilyakwa people.  The contrast between the dental surgeries provided for the predominately non-Aboriginal mining community and the Andilyakwa people was stark.  In the Aboriginal communities the equipment was old and dilapidated; the emphasis was on blood and acrylic – extractions and dentures.  It was outrageous and a situation which I complained about loudly. I am pleased to say that the NT Health Department was able to refit these clinics with proper equipment during my contract.

In 1993 it became clear to me that I needed to be here in Canberra where my ex-wife had moved with our children.  She had grown up in Canberra and many of her family members are Canberra residents.  I bought a dental practice in Turner and later moved to Civic.  This financial commitment sharpened my appreciation of the ups and downs of running a business with employee relations, overdraft financing and cash flow management. I sold the practice in 2009 and stopped working there in January this year in order to make a career change; although I was not expecting the one which brought me here today!

Outside business my community involvement in Canberra was initially with the ACT Branch of the Public Health Association.  In 1997 the ACT Government, under Kate Carnell, decided to establish an Indigenous Education Consultative Body.  I applied to join this body because of my commitment to the improvement of educational outcomes for Indigenous children.  I was elected as the inaugural chairperson.

During my term as chairperson the Consultative Body signed a Compact between ACT Indigenous families and the Department of Education and Community Services; this agreement acknowledged the past and set out significant commitments by Indigenous families and the Department to achieve improvement in Indigenous education.

I helped found the Indigenous Dentists’ Association of Australia in 2004 and was the inaugural President.  The principal objective is the promotion of good oral health for Indigenous Australians through supporting Indigenous dentists and dental students.  With no resources, other than the personal sacrifice of its members, the Association has been able to influence policy development at the highest level.  Oral health goals are now integral to national Indigenous health policy.

For the last two years I have been Chairman of the ACT & Southern Highlands division of the Australian Dental Association.  I am proud of two initiatives which this division instigated.  Firstly, in conjunction with the Salvation Army and ACT Health we have reached out to a group of people here in the ACT who cannot afford to seek dental treatment.

I want to pause here to acknowledge the work of volunteer dentist Dr Colin Seaniger, and I also want to acknowledge Liz Dawson whose untiring efforts have supported this program.

The second initiative has been about introducing dental assistants into the school based apprenticeship scheme. This meant that dental practices could take on year 11 or 12 students who want to be dental assistants – they work part-time, continue with their year 11 or 12 schooling and attend CIT for the Certificate III qualification.  This is a great opportunity for Canberra dentists to find a solution to the perennial problem of staff shortages.  I enjoyed my visit to one of these CIT classes last week.

I am a strong supporter of the Arts in Canberra, especially through my role as a Board member of the Capital Arts Patrons Organisation. CAPO has raised nearly 2 million dollars over the last 28 years to support Canberra artists.  This effort is the direct result of generous donations by Canberra businesses and artists.

Great cities include public art as an integral part of the urban landscape.  The diversity of works - in style, theme and scale - engages citizens and visitors with their urban surroundings and enhances their experience of the city.  In Canberra through public art we can enjoy the works of some of Australia’s best Indigenous artists.  I personally applaud the role of contemporary public art to engage, delight, and question.

I am proud to have been elected during Reconciliation week, the first Indigenous Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly.  It is an important event not just for Canberra’s Indigenous community but also the half a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia who continue to be under-represented in our democracy.  It is the opportunity to provide an Indigenous perspective in the Assembly.

For me the purpose of reconciliation is nation building.  In 1788 this country was invaded and the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders began. This knowledge is a whispering in the heart of the Australian conscience.  How long can we continue to pretend our history was different?  A better Australian story, the story we want to tell our children, eludes us.  We cannot change our history, as much as we might desire it.  We cannot ignore our history, because it has made us.  But we can change our future to become an Australia without shame, embarrassment or the anger of dispossession.  Reconciliation will be the nation building task of this century - a nation building that redefines what is Australia and what it means to be Australians.  As Phillip Pepper, Gurnai elder, said “We are what we make ourselves to be”.

In her speech last week to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples Linda Burney talked about consensus decision making and the capacity for narrative - story telling - and how her craft as a politician has been enhanced by these Indigenous attributes.  Being a good local member for the people of Ginninderra begins with listening - it’s also about finding solutions and explaining policy.

I would not be here today if it were not for the support and encouragement of a large number of people. There are too many to thank individually but I would particularly like to acknowledge my wife Julie; my 2008 campaign team led by Ross Maxwell and Michael Pilbrow; the wise advice of Bob McMullan and Bill Wood; the members and affiliates of the Australian Labor Party, particularly Matthew Cossey, former ACT Branch secretary; my sub-branch—the Belconnen branch; and the ACT Indigenous Labor Network.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

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