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Australia Day Address 2000 by Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue

Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue delivered the Australia Day Address in Sydney on 24 January 2000.


First of all I would like to say how very honoured I am to be asked to give this Australia Day address.

The idea that a woman, and an Aboriginal woman at that, should be speaking to the Nation on such an important occasion, would have been undreamt of 200 hundred years ago. And an improbable scenario even in much more recent times.

My presence here today, and the fact that my speech can be accessed around the world on the Internet, is testimony to the speed and possibilities of change.

These issues of time and change are particularly important for Australia - which is after all, both an ancient country and at the same time, in its infancy in determining its contemporary identity.

Indeed, Australia is a country of many paradoxes. It is hospitable and yet vast areas of land are extremely harsh. Its people are warm, open and welcoming, but there are pockets of bigotry and racism.

It is important to acknowledge at the outset, that the fact of my Aboriginality does not mean that I speak for all Indigenous people. There is diversity of opinion among my people, as there is in all communities.

Similarly, my Aboriginal heritage and my own personal history does not mean that I am uninvolved with broad issues facing Australia generally. I wear many hats, and in every one of them I am also an Australian citizen.

Australia Day is I believe, the ideal opportunity to reflect on who we are as a Nation and what values we collectively endorse and can celebrate.

A National day such as this should not simply be an excuse for a holiday – although I am aware that we Australians lead the world in knowing how to enjoy our long weekends!

I think that enthusiastic, but mindless, nationalism can be a dangerous thing – we need look no further than the nightly television news to see examples of this played out in various parts of the world.

And so, it is necessary I believe, to think about our past, present and possible futures in order to embrace those things that we take pride in as a nation - and to recognize the things that we cannot condone.

In the 1999 Boyer lectures, Inga Clendinnen argues that this sort of examination is conducive to civic virtue, and therefore to the coherence of a democratic liberal state.

She outlines three necessary qualities for responsible citizenship in a complex world. These are:

  • An ability to critically examine oneself and one’s traditions.

  • An ability to see beyond immediate group loyalties and to extend to strangers the ethical concern we extend to friends and kin. And,

  • The ability to see the likely consequences of human behaviour, both intended and unintended.

It is this sort of analysis, Clendinnen claims, that helps us to know ourselves more exactly. And I agree with her.

And so I want to begin to examine this tradition of celebrating Australia Day. To reflect on the meanings of it both in the past and present.

Celebrations of special days are important. They symbolise for us the things that unite us as human beings. They are markers that help to define who we are and what we hold dear.

They are part of the glue that binds a society together.

It is therefore very important that a National day of celebration be inclusive of all its citizens. But we must also be very clear about what it is that we as a nation are celebrating.

It is all too glib and easy to think of the nation simply as a collection of "sweeping plains or rugged mountain ranges", a land "abounding in nature’s gifts of beauty rich and rare" (to quote from familiar sources).

Or to wallow in ecstatic celebrations of our many wonderful recent sporting victories. These are indeed things to be proud of – but they do not define who we are.

And they cannot mask the things that divide us – the inequities which are so entrenched in our society – or the ideological differences which we rightly debate.

The quest for an Australian identity and the parallel desire for a National day of celebration go back almost two hundred years.

The historian Manning Clark reports celebrations as early as the 26th January 1808, being observed in the traditional manner with much "drinking and merriment". John MacArthur apparently ensured his soldiers were amply supplied with liquor, that bonfires were blazing and private houses were illuminated.

On January 26th 1838 the harbour foreshores were crowded and there were sailing races and competitions. "Crackers and rockets" ended the day’s festivities.

It would seem that little has changed!

Many Australia Day commemorations have incorporated ghastly historical re-enactments of the arrival of the First Fleet, with Captain Phillip confronting groups of Aborigines who fled in terror. In many of these, Aboriginal people were coerced to participate.

Such re-enactments were powerful and grotesque reminders of the real historical symbolism of January 26th – a day signifying for my people invasion, conquest, dispossession – and (for many), death.

It is not surprising that indigenous people and their non-indigenous supporters have countered with protest marches, the Tent Embassy on the lawns of Parliament House in 1972, Days of Mourning, the Freedom, Justice and Hope march in 1988, and competing celebrations such as the Survival concerts.

It is also not surprising that many of my people continue to boycott this celebration. Many would oppose my participation here today or the acceptance of Australian of the Year awards by a number of indigenous Australians, including myself.

I understand and respect their position. I know where they’re coming from and I too come from the same place. I hope my people also respect my choice, for our differences are ones of response only.

For me, the most important first step to reconciliation is dialogue. For me, this means participating in mainstream national events and ensuring that the indigenous voice is heard. And my dearest hope is that I may be able to contribute to positive change, even if this does involve encroaching on a few comfort zones and rocking the boat a little.

I would however make a strong plea for a change of date.

Let us find a day on which we can all feel included, in which we can all participate equally, and can celebrate with pride our common Australian identity.

Not a day of particular significance to any one group. But a neutral date – one on which first Australians, older Australians and more recent Australians can come together to tell our stories and share our dreams.

Many Australians went through their entire school years learning only one version of Australia’s history – and that was the history of white settlement. The history of the oldest living culture in the world was invisible in the curriculum.

Rarely, if ever, were the consequences of settlement for Indigenous people mentioned – much less analysed. And therefore, to do so is inevitably seen as rocking the boat.

It has been enormously important to Indigenous people, that as the truth of our past has been revealed, hundreds of thousands of Australian people – from all sections of the community – have expressed their sorrow and commitment to working together towards reconciliation and a better future.

Over one million Australians added their names to the Sorry books around the country. Unfortunately however, it is still the case that many people believe that what happened to our people happened 200 years ago - and as such, it should now be put behind us.

It is implied that to talk of the consequences of white settlement is to be negative – to be clinging to a ‘black arm band’ view of history.

Sadly, these perceptions are fuelled by some of the most prominent leaders of our Nation. And, in economic times when many people are experiencing hardship – damaging and divisive myths are perpetuated, and become taken for granted.

Myths such as: ‘People having difficulties have only themselves to blame’.

Or that ‘anyone can succeed simply by wanting to’.

That ‘winners deserve to win and losers to lose’.

What many of our political leaders have failed to understand – or chosen not to acknowledge – is that the racist policies and practices of the past continue to affect every aspect of every indigenous person’s life.

The past is still with us.

To claim that there is no need for apology, on the grounds of no personal responsibility, denies that the price of European prosperity was the near destruction of Indigenous culture. Several months ago I said that I thought that the Prime Minister had come a long way when he expressed his ‘deep and sincere regret’ about the stolen generations. I felt that he had opened the door towards reconciliation and that this should be acknowledged.

Now I feel as if we’re still waiting on that doorstep.

I now believe, as do many of my people, that reconciliation will not proceed unless our Prime Minister can bring himself to say that simple S word – Sorry.

His refusal to do so on behalf of the Government of the day, diminishes him as a person and Australia as a Nation.

Acknowledgement of the past is the first step towards reconciliation.

Acknowledgement that since white settlement - or invasion, as our people experienced it - we have been dispossessed of land and the life that was lived on it. New diseases have ravaged our communities. Many died and for those who survived, life was altered in every imaginable way.

Dispossessed of land, of children, of traditional ways, indigenous people faced a life on the sidelines of white culture.

And they were exposed to the most destructive aspects of this culture - its introduced disease, its high fat and sugar diet, its alcohol, and perhaps worst of all, its violence, hostility and complete disrespect towards cultural difference.

The consequences of this experience are felt in every sphere of life.

It is surely blindingly obvious, that we can predict dire social consequences:

  • If a group of people have not been thought of, or treated as human

  • If they have been brutalised

  • If their families and communities have been torn apart

  • If they have been dispossessed of their lands and cultural traditions

  • If they live economically impoverished lives.

  • Certainly this is evidenced in the profile of the indigenous population in Australia - just as it is in most indigenous cultures throughout the world who have suffered dispossession.

The state of indigenous health is a national disgrace.

I do not exaggerate when I describe it as third world health within a first world nation. On average, indigenous Australians live twenty years less than other Australians.

But this statistic, shocking though it is, doesn’t convey the grievous effects on people’s lives – for example, families losing children in their infancy, young parents dying prematurely of heart disease or renal failure, a whole generation of grandparents missing.

In the area of education we see similar disadvantage, with very few indigenous students reaching their full potential or completing further education or training.

Unemployment amongst indigenous people is almost three times higher than in the general population. And of those adults employed, two thirds have incomes under $12,000 a year. Indigenous people are drastically over-represented in custody and arrest statistics.

And there are a wide range of social problems such as substance misuse, homelessness and a frightening rate of youth suicide.

These are major social problems. They are not exclusive to indigenous people, but on any social indicator, my people are drastically over represented at the wrong end of the scale. It is important that indigenous people work towards solutions in their own contexts, but they need the support of government and other agencies.

One inspiring example of such a partnership is the Co-operative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health, in the Northern Territory.

Set up in 1997, with financial support from the Commonwealth Government, it is a joint venture between a number of universities and Aboriginal Medical Services – who work together to undertake research and educational activities for the improvement of indigenous health outcomes.

I am proud to be its founding chairperson and proud that we have a majority Aboriginal Board.

We have a strong emphasis on applied research with an uncompromising focus on outcomes and user needs. Our priorities are:

  • Social and emotional well being (particularly substance misuse, stress and youth suicide)

  • Infectious diseases

  • Chronic diseases, and

  • Maternal and child health.

Over the coming year we will commission new important research in these areas, to be undertaken always in partnership with indigenous people.

It is important, I believe, to take stock of achievements such as this.

I also want to acknowledge some key milestones of the twentieth century – some positive steps towards redressing the cycle of damage set in motion many years earlier.

For example:

  • The 1967 referendum which for the first time recognized indigenous people as Australian citizens, and which was passed by an overwhelming 90% of the population.

  • The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, which bans discrimination against people on the basis of race.

  • The establishment in 1990 of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

  • The 1991 Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

  • In 1992, the Mabo decision. The notion of terra nullius – Australia as an empty, unowned land – died on that day (at least in legal terms).

  • The Native Title Act of 1993 which gave legal protection to Native title and allowed for pastoralists and indigenous people to negotiate to use land cooperatively.

  • And of course, the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report on the Stolen Generations, which told for the first time, the shocking and moving stories of the many children who were taken from their families and raised in institutions, or fostered out to white families.

I myself was one of five children taken from my mother. And to this day I still do not have a birth certificate.

The report was a watershed in Australian history. It ended the silence around these experiences – and told stories that were so important to the thousands of people who have been affected.

Many found that this was their first tentative step on a journey of healing.

It was the catalyst which drew thousands of Australians from all walks of life to formally express their sorrow, and commit to working towards a just and equitable future.

And for me it has been a time of forgiveness and a renewal of my Christian faith.

I have personally been tremendously encouraged by the strength and energy of many groups and individuals who work tirelessly for change. And by the attitudes and social awareness of many of the young people with whom I have spoken.

These energies need to be harnessed if we are to seriously address some of our current challenges.

The challenges are many, but one of the most pressing – and complex – is to move to a new paradigm in the way we think about Indigenous peoples.

We need to get past the idea that indigenous people are a problem – a blemish on the nation. Where there are problems, they are Australian problems.

We need to move beyond the old assimilation mentality – the idea that with a bit of support, indigenous people can become part of ‘mainstream’ Australia.

This view is often well intentioned, but has its basis in paternalism.

It assumes the superiority of one culture over another, rather than embracing true diversity. And, there needs to be sensitivity about tokenism. Too often, Aboriginal cultural traditions are wheeled out as an exotic form of entertainment or tourist attraction.

This is particularly problematic in situations where there is no understanding of Indigenous history or culture and no interest in contemporary social issues.

Similarly indigenous athletes, artists, writers, film-makers, musicians and dancers are feted for their talents – their very prowess and vitality masking the daily tragedies of indigenous lives wasting away in town camps, cities or prisons.

Individual success works as an alibi for collective impoverishment.

In this new century, it is important to recognise that Indigenous people have been central to this nation for over 50,000 years. We are fundamental to the national character and being. If we as a nation can come to grips with this truth – and its implications for how we behave.

I believe that we will have taken a huge step towards achieving the sort of ideals that are often associated with Australia.

Ideals of an open and egalitarian society where the ethos of a ‘fair go’ prevails. And where our precious environment is protected, as Phoebe Fraser so eloquently advocated in last year’s address.

We should not celebrate such an identity without doing the hard work of ensuring that it is true.

So what does the future hold? The Commonwealth of Australia will be 100 years old in 2001.

This will be another time to take stock:

  • to reflect on our evolution as a parliamentary democracy

  • to take pride in our record of tolerance and freedom of expression

  • to value the rich culture and heritage of indigenous Australians, and

  • to recognise the enriching contribution of those who have come from all over the world to settle in this great country.

    The National Council for the Centenary of Federation has stated that inclusiveness is a priority. Their theme is threefold – reflecting on Australia’s heritage, taking pride in the present, and looking to the future with confidence.

    This is surely a strategic opportunity for all Australians to learn from the past and redefine ourselves as a harmonious and just society – to map our future as a reconciled nation.

    It will inevitably be another time for soul searching but there must not be mindless self congratulation.

    Indigenous leaders are determined that this will not happen and we intend in the next year to campaign vigorously for:

  • constitutional change

  • for a comprehensive framework of agreement leading to a meaningful reconciliation process (perhaps embodied eventually in formal documents of reconciliation)

  • and for the recognition of a Statement of Indigenous Rights.

    Such a statement will encompass rights regarding for example, law, culture, religion, education, land, and economic and social development.

    We will be seeking to have these rights legally enforceable, which will require legislation and constitutional change. And this of course will require a groundswell of public opinion and bi- partisan political support.

    There is much talking and much work to be done.

    Another part of our strategy will be the establishment of an alternative dispute tribunal to assist members of the stolen generations in their claims for compensation through conciliation and negotiation, rather than litigation. This proposal was recently passed in the Senate.

    The strategy will also seek to set up adequately funded mechanisms to:

  • Provide counselling

  • Record the testimonies of members of the stolen generations

  • Educate Australians about their history and current plight

  • Help them to establish their ancestry and to access family reunion services, and

  • Help them to rebuild links to their culture, language and history.

These were all recommendations of the Bringing Them Home Report, but the adequacy and effectiveness of the Government’s response to the report are far from satisfactory. It is significant therefore that such mechanisms will be re-examined in Parliament later this year. We need to keep a balance between ensuring practical action and concrete outcomes on the one hand – and on the other hand, keeping the big picture issues at the forefront of our thinking.

Despite all the rhetoric about mateship and egalitarianism, Australia is in fact a society of haves and have nots.

The entrenched privilege and wealth of some, stands in stark contrast to the millions of others caught up in a cycle of disadvantage and despair.

There is no question that in Australia, the rich are getting richer – and more are becoming poor.

It is estimated, for example, that I% of Australians own around 25% of the country’s wealth and the top 5% hold around 50% of this wealth. The 30% at the bottom owe more than they own.

The rate of poverty in Australia has in fact almost doubled in the last quarter century. Two million Australians now live in poverty. Over 105,000 Australians are now homeless – a 50% increase over the last decade.

And yet at the same time the Captains of Corporate Australia are feather-bedding their futures and those of their families with exorbitant salaries, superannuation deals and perks. I read with disbelief and dismay the Prime Minister’s New Year comments in which he claimed (and I quote) that "whether we have come to Australia through the dreamtime or through the dream of a new beginning we share equally Australia’s great legacy and its promise"..

Dream on Mr Prime Minister!

I doubt that the eight hundred thousand kids growing up in families where no one has a job, feel all that equal.

I doubt that two hundred thousand Australians who have been unemployed for over a year, feel especially equal. They don’t see much promise in the burgeoning economy or the booming stock market.

And those who are now in their family’s third generation of chronic unemployment must wonder what sort of legacy they’ve inherited.

And those in depressed regional economies, where unemployment far outstrips the national average, must also feel left out of the Prime Minister’s grand dream.

The youth of a nation are its future – its most valuable asset – and yet in Australia today youth unemployment and homelessness are increasing in alarming proportions. A recent report indicated that over twenty -one thousand 12-18 year olds are homeless.

Australia has one of the highest levels of youth suicide in the world, particularly amongst males between the ages of 15 and 24 from rural or remote areas.

And these major problems – homelessness, poverty, unemployment – are often correlated with alcohol and drug misuse. 5000 Australians die each year as a result of drug and alcohol misuse – this is 5000 too many.

And not only is there a huge social cost but also a financial one. Drug and alcohol related problems cost Australians over 16 billion dollars every year.

It is time to ask whether traditional approaches to drug misuse have failed. It is time, I believe, to try some new, possibly controversial, approaches, especially to heroin use. Zero tolerance simply isn’t working – what we need is some lateral thinking about ways of minimising harm.

I do not wish to exaggerate the severity of these problems. Nor do I wish to imply that they are insoluble. For I do have optimism that we can work together for social improvement.

But it seems to me that the current atmosphere is one of blame towards the recipients of social welfare – rather than looking to the roots of problems to find solutions.

It is unproductive and divisive, for example, to blame the victims as Acting Prime Minister Anderson has been doing lately. Gambling and drinking in rural areas are symptoms of unemployment, boredom and depression.

The solution, surely, lies in concerted and creative efforts to boost regional economies. Mr Kennett has been taught this lesson – it is time others learnt it too.

No one aspires to welfare dependency – for it erodes our sense of dignity and self worth.

We indigenous leaders are just as concerned about it as any other group. And we want to work constructively with government to find creative solutions to the destructive welfare syndromes that we all recognise.

It is crucial that we move from a ‘welfare approach’ to a ‘rights approach’.

The difference here is that in a welfare approach people hope that their needs will be met. In a rights based approach, a job, good health, education, and housing are rights, which as citizens of this country, we are all entitled to.

The Government’s explicit commitment to remedying social disadvantage in its second term of office is welcomed.

However it is important that the proposed social coalition between business, government and welfare organisations does not become a smokescreen for the scaling down of government responsibility or intervention.

Australia Day this year carries a special significance. It is the first Australia Day of the century and of the new millennium. (Yes, I know that’s debatable but I won’t go down that well worn path today!)

We are at a pivotal time in our history. Australia – host of the Year 2000 Olympic Games, is centre stage for a world audience.

The spotlight is on us before the sporting contests even begin.

The rest of the world is interested in how we, as a nation, are going to deal with issues such as indigenous health, native title and reconciliation.

They have also been fascinated (and I believe astounded) at how we have dealt with the republic – monarchy choice. But that’s another story – and a battle for another day.

We won the Olympic Games bid partly on a platform of Australia as a culturally diverse and environmentally aware nation.

We are only a year away from celebrating the Centenary of our Federation as a united nation.

Issues of identity and citizenship have never been higher or more publicly on the agenda. We are coming of age as a nation.

Fellow Australians, I urge you to make the most of this rite of passage.

Let us seize the day – acknowledge our history, confront our problems, celebrate our shared humanity and our cultural differences, take pride in our sizeable achievements and look to the future with confidence.

And prove to ourselves and the world that we are a nation to be admired and envied – not just for our prosperity, our environment and our quality of life – but more importantly for our human rights record.

This is not because we are a lucky country.

Progress is about good management more than good luck. It is about commitment, creativity and hard work.

If reconciliation is to occur in this nation we need action not just words or pieces of paper. Indigenous people need the goodwill, the political understanding and the resources to achieve cultural autonomy, self determination and social and economic equity.

Only then can we have a truly reconciled nation.

Surely this must be the great challenge and the great hope of the 21st century. Thank you.