National Sorry Day

I spoke in parliament yesterday, recognising National Sorry Day.
National Sorry Day
13 February 2012


It was William Faulkner who said: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' Today, we are so reminded of how apt that line is in considering the national apology. The national apology to the stolen generations on 13 February 2008 saw the Australian parliament acknowledge the pain and suffering caused by previous policies and finally say, 'We are sorry'. It is an honour for me to follow in this debate the member for Hasluck (Ken Wyatt), somebody who I have a great admiration for on this issue and many others. I count myself among those in this place who has been fortunate to have benefited from his wisdom, and I hope to learn more from him during our times here.

Today is a day to remember but it is also a day to acknowledge the need for continued action to close the gaps. Today the minister launched a testimonies website, www.stolengenerationstestimonies.com. It is a moving website on which Australians can see many of the stories of people from the stolen generations—an important way of ensuring that what is past continues to be remembered for a portion of our history. I want to acknowledge today the work of the National Stolen Generations Alliance and the National Sorry Day Committee in doing so much to recognise the stolen generations.

One of the things that I would like to speak about today is the important role that education can play in closing the gaps in Australia. When I was an academic at the ANU, one of the projects I worked on was looking at the Indigenous test score gap in Australia. My co-author, Xiaodong Gong, and I found that, when Indigenous children reach school, they are on average a year behind their non-Indigenous peers but that by the end of primary school, the gap has widened to two years. That is in some sense a depressing message, because we can see Indigenous children falling behind their non-Indigenous counterparts. But, on the other hand, it is an optimistic message because schools, frankly, are easier to fix than the complexities of family background.

When I was up in Cape York as part of the House Economics Committee's inquiry, we heard much about the work that is being done in Cape York to improve schools, to take the best of what is occurring elsewhere in the world. One witness, Phyllis Yunkaporta, from Noel Pearson's Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy, told the committee:

'I guess in time we have to have expectations for our children to be educated in a way where they have to balance both worlds—the Western world and the traditional way. Of course we want them to hang onto the traditional way because that is where they are going to be identifying themselves for the future. And with them having to venture out into the mainstream, we want them to compete. It is a competitive world out there. We want our black little kids to start taking on the world.'

I commend to the House Noel Pearson's Quarterly Essay on education, 'Radical hope', which speaks so articulately on the importance of high standards and the importance of combining good literacy and numeracy education with high-quality cultural education as well. It is also an essay which speaks very carefully to the balance between teacher quality and curriculum, an important balance to get right in Indigenous communities, as in non-Indigenous communities.

Another form of educational investment that can help close the gaps is in the area of higher education. It was my pleasure on 7 November last year to represent the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations in presenting Indigenous higher education staff scholarships. Among the recipients of those scholarships were Ann-Maree Hammond, from the University of Southern Queensland; Luke Halvorsen, from the Wollotuka Institute at the University of Newcastle; Catherine Taylor and Wayne Applebee, from the University of Canberra; James Charles and Elizabeth Cameron, from the University of Newcastle; Cheree Dean, from Charles Sturt University; and Jonelle Green, from La Trobe University. It was terrific for me to hear their stories and how they are helping to transform Australian higher education for the better.

On the evening, there were also awards presented to elders for their outstanding contribution to the higher education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Awards were presented to Aunty Ruth Hegarty, from the Australian Catholic University; Aunty Rosmund Miriam Graham, from Griffith University; Aunty Joan Vickery, from Monash University and the University of Melbourne; and Ms Rose Guywanga and Reverend Dr Dinyini Gondarra, from Charles Darwin University. Waymamba Gaykamangu, a retired lecturer from Charles Darwin University, was also presented with a 2010 Elders award. All of these awards are part of ensuring that Indigenous higher education is as good as it can be.

We are speaking today about Sorry Day, but I want to end with a message of optimism. One of the great things about this country is our Indigenous heritage. For me as a non-Indigenous Australian, it is a great source of pride to live in a country which has a people with the oldest continuing link to the land. We need to speak about the wrongs that have been done but we also need to speak about how great it is for us as Australians all to participate in part of that culture.

There are many Indigenous constituents of whom I am enormously proud. Peter Radoll, Director of the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre of the Australian National University, is a font of great stories about Indigenous success at the ANU. Julie Tongs, the director of the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Centre, in Narrabundah, has done extraordinary work to improve the health of Indigenous people in the ACT. Mr Duncan Smith, the Wiradjuri artist who I understand carved an artwork that was presented this morning, is an amazing role model to Indigenous youth in the ACT and somebody from whom I have learned a great deal in the time that I have known him. Matilda House is a wonderful Indigenous woman who is there at so many functions in the ACT, reminding us of the importance of welcoming to country. That is a reminder which I particularly see opening the eyes of overseas visitors, who are sometimes hearing about the tradition of welcoming to country for the first time and, in the case of some US visitors, will turn around afterwards and say, 'Why don't we do more of that back home?'

So it is a day to say sorry but it is also a day to look forward with optimism to an Australia that closes the gaps and engenders a great sense of pride in our extraordinary Indigenous heritage.

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