Speech to the Australia Day National Conference

Opening Remarks at the Australia Day National Conference

Old Parliament House

13 June 2013

Thank you very much Andrew [Gill], for that wonderful welcome to this historic building. This really is a place where you think, ‘if only the walls could talk’.

I’d like to of course acknowledge we’re meeting on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I want to acknowledge Aunty Agnes Shea and Tom Calma who are here today.

I want to also acknowledge Adam Gilchrist. I don’t know if Ita Buttrose is here but I certainly did see Ian Frazer before.

Welcome, everyone, to Canberra. I have the privilege of representing the north half of Canberra in Federal parliament and I really reckon this is the best city in Australia.

I love the place. It’s got a great sense of history about it. Australia’s history is embodied in the names of our local streets.

And it’s got a great sense of community about it too. My family hold a street party every year and that community spirit is something that burns strong in Canberra.

You all though, come from different parts of Australia; we’ve got people here from everywhere from Tennant Creek to Boorowa, from Margaret River to Melbourne.

We’ve got a great variety of people here representing councils across Australia. And you will all have that pride in your part of Australia that I feel in my part of Australia.

I’ve enjoyed chatting this morning with some of you about Australia Day events that you’ve got planned and I guess the thing that everyone in the room has in common is you’re not planning to take January off.

You’re going to be working hard getting those events together and working out what it is that’s going to be unique about your events.

And on Australia Day, you’re going to be putting on events which, if this year was anything to go by, will attract around 5 million Australians.

There’s huge participation in Australia Day events, organised by 780 local Australia Day committees, the 8 state and territory organisations and the national body.

So that sense of local pride and national spirit that engendered by the Australia Day celebrations is, I think, enormously important.

For me, Australia Day is a chance to spend a little bit of time thinking about who we are and recognising that being Australian isn’t about conforming to a stereotype.

Sure, you can be an Aussie if you eat vegemite, drive a Holden, play cricket and enjoy a VB.

But to be Australian isn’t to be part of a stereotype; it’s to believe in a set of values.

And for every generation Australia Day, I think, should be about, I think, updating those values for a new generation.

And for me, these three key values that sum up what it is to be Australian. The first is egalitarianism.

This is the notion, as Russell Ward said in the Australian Legend, “that Jack isn’t just as good as his master, but probably better.”

The notion that we as Australians are a country where people sit in the front seat of the taxi, where we don’t stand up when the Prime Minister enters the room.

A country that believes in fundamental equality of Australians and which has put that into place through policies which helped ensure that the neediest Australians are looked after.

The second value is mateship.

Now, mateship goes back, I think, for many of us to legends of Simpson, and to Weary Dunlop making sure that Aussies in prisoner of war camps shared what they had with their mates so that they could survive.

But there’s a sense in which mateship needs to be renewed and replenished by each generation.

It was renewed by Vincent Lingiari in 1975 when Gough Whitlam poured the red dirt into his hands and Lingiari said, “We’re all mates now”.

But it’s important that modern day mateship also recognises that we’re a more multicultural Australia than we’ve been in the past, that mateship includes all Australians.

And the third notion that I think sums up Australian identity is the ‘fair go’.

The ‘fair go’; a notion that we ought to give everyone a fair shot regardless of their race, their colour, their gender.

The ‘fair go’ needs to recognise too that there was nothing fair about some of the episodes in Australian history. There was nothing fair about the Stolen Generations.

And so if we were to update the ‘fair go’, it needs to be a ‘fair go’ that recognises that half of all Australians were either born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas.

It needs to be a ‘fair go’ that recognises that the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is now the world’s biggest Mardi Gras.

It needs to be a ‘fair go’ that covers us all.

These things, these notions of the spirit are difficult to talk about but I think they’re important.

It was said that in the 1980s when Bob Hawke began to talk about national identity, Neville Wran shook his head and said, “mate, if the greedy bastards wanted spiritualism, they’d join the Hare Krishnas!”

But I think Wran’s wrong.

I think Australians do have a yen for talking about these issues of identity, about their spirit, about who we are.

I think it’s incumbent on us, on today’s generations of Australians, to update and replenish those values of egalitarianism, of mateship and the ‘fair go’, so that they fit a modern Australia.

Best of luck to all of you for the next couple of days. You’ll learn a great deal.

I’ve certainly learned a lot from you. For example, after to talking to some of your NT colleagues, I’ll be seeing what we can do to incorporate a saltwater crocodile into Canberra’s Australia Day celebrations.

Thank you all for being here today and have a great conference.

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