Truth, Celebration and Reconciliation
The Canberra Times, 1 February 2023
To understand the history of First Nations people is to hold two big facts in our minds.
One is the remarkable history of those who first occupied a continent. At least sixty thousand years ago, people settled in Australia, creating what is now the oldest known civilisation on earth. By the time Ancient Greece and Rome were getting started, First Nations people had already occupied Australia for tens of thousands of years.
The other big fact is what happened after settlers arrived and proclaimed British sovereignty on 26 January 1788. Over the next century, Australia’s Indigenous population declined, due to violence, disease and starvation. In 1788, there were around 800,000 First Nations Australians. By 1900, there were fewer than 100,000.
Just imagine a catastrophe that killed 7 out of 8 of the people you love. Imagine a disaster which reduced Australia’s population from 26 million to 3 million. Imagine a disaster whose impact was worse than the Bengal Famine, the Siege of Stalingrad, or Pol Pot’s killing fields.
The settlers failed to recognise the complexity of First Nations societies, and their deep connection with this ancient land. Until the High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992, the official judicial position was that Australia prior to 1788 was terra nullis – a latin phrase that literally means ‘land of nobody’.
Reconciliation requires truth-telling. And reconciliation also requires a sense of celebration – a recognition of how lucky we non-Indigenous Australians are to share this land with its first peoples. What a history. What resilience. What achievements.
Nowhere is that truer than on the sporting field. From the Indigenous cricket team that toured England in 1868 to Cathy Freeman winning gold at the Sydney Olympics; from Johnathan Thurston captaining the Cowboys to their first NRL Premiership to Ash Barty winning Wimbledon, Indigenous Australians have caused our hearts to swell with their success. Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Adam Goodes showed us the meaning of grace when they responded to racism with compassion and kindness.
Six years ago, the Uluru Statement from the Heart asked Australians to walk together on the journey towards reconciliation. As the statement noted:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Just 439 words in total, the Uluru statement is as generous as it is powerful. That is why I will be campaigning for a yes vote in the upcoming referendum.
A First Nations Voice to Parliament will not be a third chamber. It will not have a veto right. It will simply allow the voices of Indigenous Australians to be heard on matters that affect them.
For my own part, listening to Indigenous Australians has made me a better politician.
As a supporter of the Indigenous Marathon Foundation, I have had the chance to run alongside young Indigenous leaders and hear their stories. I’ve run dozens of marathons in my Indigenous Marathon Foundation supporter singlet, and when things get tough, I’ll often glance at my shirt to remind myself of one of the reasons I’m out there.
In my own electorate, the First Nations community of Wreck Bay occupies an idyllic corner of the Jervis Bay Territory, working with Parks Australia to manage the Booderee National Park. Spending time in this unique community, I’ve learned about how Indigenous rangers mix traditional ways and modern science.
Locally, I have been privileged to learn from local Ngunnawal leader Tyronne Bell how to speak an acknowledgement of country in Ngunnawal language. When I am in Canberra, this is how I begin most of my speeches.
We have nothing to fear and everything to gain from listening to First Nations Australians. Hearing their stories, understanding their dreams, and recognising their perspectives will make us a richer nation.
On 27 May 1967, Australians voted in favour of changing the constitution to give the Federal Government power to make special laws for Indigenous Australians in states, and to include Indigenous Australians in population counts for constitutional purposes. As the official argument for the Yes case put it, ‘Our personal sense of justice, our commonsense, and our international reputation in a world in which racial issues are being highlighted every day, require that we get rid of this out-moded provision.’
The referendum received 91 percent support – the highest vote ever recorded in an Australian referendum. In every state, a majority voted yes. It stands now as a proud moment in Australia’s reconciliation journey.
A yes vote in 2023 will be a similarly proud milestone. Not only will it strengthen Australia’s decision-making process, it will also acknowledge the central role that First Australians play in our nation.
Like the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act and the 2017 marriage equality reform, a Voice to Parliament will lift people up, without bringing anyone down. It promises to unite our nation, and show to the world how Australia values inclusion and celebrates diversity. It will recognise the two big facts that are at the heart of how First Nations people have been treated.
In writing this piece, I am keenly aware of the irony of a non-Indigenous politician talking about the need to listen. I am honoured to write alongside First Nations leaders such as Marcia Langton and Tom Calma, whom I deeply admire. Their voices – and those of other Indigenous elders – should be central in this important national conversation.
Originally published in the Canberra Times on 1 February 2023.