One Nation. Many Nations


Nyunggai Warren Mundine delivers the 7th annual Kevin Cook Lecture at the Yabun Festival 2015

Speech by Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce to the 7th Annual Kevin Cook Lecture
Yabun Festival, Sydney, 26 January 2015

I am delighted and honoured to be here today to deliver the 7th Kevin Cook Lecture at the Yabun Festival.

Kevin Cook is a great man and a great leader. He was instrumental in delivering Land Rights for Aboriginal people in NSW, campaigning for the introduction of the NSW Land Rights Act.

I first meet Kevin Cook at the 1982 Commonwealth Games protest in Brisbane.  At that time he was Chair of the first NSW Aboriginal Land Council. When the NSW Land Rights Act was passed in 1983, the first body was disbanded and a new NSW Aboriginal Land Council was established under the Act which Keven was also appointed to chair.  I served as a Councillor on the NSW ALC from 1983 to 84.

In 1983 Kevin invited me to be a director, and later Chair, of the Co-operative for Aborigines Ltd and of Tranby College Board of Studies and I served in these roles from 1983 to 1985.

The Kevin Cook Lecture is held every year on the 26th of January. Its purpose is to maintain momentum in the fight for the rights and advocacy for Aboriginal People of NSW and across Australia and to inspire the next generations to continue Kevin’s work.

The Yolngu bark petition was a seminal moment in the journey towards land rights in the Northern Territory. In the same way Kevin Cook’s work in NSW was significant in achieving land rights in NSW and it is important that we recognise and honour that.

Firstly I want to acknowledge that this event is being held on Gadigal land and acknowledge Gadigal elders past and present. I also want to acknowledge my Bundjalung, Gumbaygnirr and Yuin ancestors and elders and pay my respects to them.

Today’s date – the 26th of January – is a significant date in Australia’s history. That’s because that day in 1788 was the first time that Europeans landed on this continent with the intention of staying here. On that day the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson and a thousand or so convicts, naval personnel and their families stepped onto the land of the Gadigal people. Sydney Cove was the first of several colonies the British established on this continent.

In NSW, people have been marking the 26th of January since the early 1800s to commemorate the anniversary of the first British landing. The other colonies celebrated their own founding or other significant dates. They didn’t immediately embrace the 26th of January, reluctant to signal NSW as the senior colony.

The 26th of January wasn’t called Australia Day for 150 years. It was called Foundation Day or Landing Day or Anniversary Day. It wasn’t until 1935 that all Australian States and Territories accepted the 26th of January as Australia’s national day and all agreed to use the name “Australia Day” to mark that date.

Marking the 26th of January had always been about commemorating British occupation of this continent. Over time, it also became a day for the colonies to celebrate their growing self-reliance and lessening dependency on Britain.

So for some time there has been this tension between celebrating British invasion on the one hand and celebrating Australian identity and independence on the other.

Australia was not founded on the 26th of January 1788. It was founded on the 1st of January 1901 when six British colonies united as a single federated nation under the Australian Constitution. Before that, the British colonies were ruled by Britain, part of the British Empire and the people living in those colonies were British subjects.

But in 1901, Australia as a nation was still incomplete. Australia did not become complete as a nation until the 27th of May 1967 when Indigenous people were brought under the Australian Constitution. It wasn’t until then that all the people of this continent became part of a single nation.

Today the government, through the National Australia Day Council, promotes Australia Day as a way of emphasing Australian national character and independence, honouring the achievements of Australians, celebrating multiculturalism and diversity (for example through the special citizenship ceremonies) and incorporating Indigenous ceremony, arts and culture.

However, the day still occurs on the anniversay of British occupation. So that tension – between commemorating a day of British conquest and wanting to celebrate our unique Australian identity, one of diversity, freedom, opportunity and independence – remains.

* * *

On the 26th of January 1938, the State Premiers gathered in Sydney to mark 150 years since the First Fleet’s landing at Sydney Cove.

On the same day, the Australian Aborigines League and the Aborigines Progressive Association held a Day of Mourning and Protest in Sydney to highlight the mistreatment of Indigenous people and to campaign for equal rights, including full citizenship.

Even if Aboriginal people in 1938 had wanted to join in the celebrations of Australia Day, how could they?  They were not counted amongst Australia’s citizens.Back then the Constitution of Australia excluded Indigenous people from being counted in the census and effectively left Indigenous people under the sole control of the former colonies – the States.

Jack Patten from the APA opened the Day of Mourning and Protest conference with the following words:

“On this day the white people are rejoicing, but we, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday. Our purpose in meeting today is to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines of this continent live. This land belonged to our forefathers 150 years ago, but today we are pushed further and further into the background.

The Aborigines Progressive Association has been formed to put before the white people the fact that Aborigines throughout Australia are literally being starved to death. We refuse to be pushed into the background. We have decided to make ourselves heard.

White men pretend that the Australian Aboriginal is a low type, who cannot be bettered. Our reply to that is, “Give us the chance!”

We do not wish to be left behind in Australia’s march to progress. We ask for full citizen rights., , including old age pensions, maternity bonus, relief work when unemployed, and the right to a full Australian education for our children. We do not wish to be herded like cattle, and treated as a special class.”

The Conference passed the following resolution:

“We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community. “

In the same year Jack Patten, together with Bill Ferguson, also from the APA, wrote a detailed manifesto they titled Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights!.

This manifesto called for Aboriginal people to be given equal rights as citizens of Australia and an end to State government “protection” regimes that segregated Aboriginal people into missions and reserves and condemned them to poverty and degradation. I’d encourage all of you to read the full manifesto, noting you do need to make an allowance that it’s is written in the language of 1938.

large_bb1a4a5dThe manifesto makes a powerful statement that calls for real self-determination – wanting to be allowed to make their own way and wanting governments to get out of the way. It said:

“The value of the Aborigines Protection Acts in “protecting” Aborigines may be judged from the fact that at the 1933 census there were no Aborigines left to protect in Tasmania; while in Victoria there were only 92 full-bloods, in South Australia 569 full-bloods, in New South Wales 1,034 full-bIoods.

The Aborigines of full-blood are most numerous, and most healthy, in the northern parts of Australia, where white “protection” exists in theory, but in practice the people have to look after themselves! But already the hand of official “protection” is reaching out to destroy these people in the north, as it has already destroyed those in the southern States. We beg of you to alter this cruel system before it gets our 36,000 nomadic brothers and sisters of North Australia into its charitable clutches!”

Later it expresses this theme in even stronger terms:

“We do not wish to be regarded with sentimental sympathy, or to be “preserved,” like the koala bears, as exhibits; but we do ask for your real sympathy and understanding of our plight.

We do not wish to be “studied” as scientific or anthropological curiosities. All such efforts on our behalf are wasted. We have no desire to go back to primitive conditions of the Stone Age. We ask you to teach our people to live in the Modern Age, as modern citizens. Our people are very good and quick learners. Why do you deliberately keep us backward? Is it merely to give yourselves the pleasure of feeling superior? Give our children the same chances as your own, and they will do as well as your children!

We ask for equal education, equal opportunity, equal wages, equal rights to possess property or to be our own masters– in two words: equal citizenship! How can you honestly refuse this? In New South Wales you give us the vote, and treat us as equals at the ballot box. Then why do you impose the other unfair restriction of rights upon us? Do you really think that the 9884 half-castes of New South Wales are in need of your special “protection”? Do you really believe that these half-castes are “naturally backward” and lacking in natural intelligence? If so, you are completely mistaken. Give us the same chances as yourselves, and we will prove ourselves to be just as good, if not better, Australians, than you!

Keep your charity! We only want justice.”

At the Day of Mourning Bill Ferguson similarly observed:

“Aborigines do not want protection. We have been protected for 150 years, and look what has become of us!”

The Day of Mourning was about acknowledging the loss arising from 150 years of British occupation and highlighting the ongoing mistreatment of Aboriginal people.

But it was also about demand inclusion and recognition – Aboriginal people wanted to be part of Australia with the same opportunities as other Australians and with the ability to fully participate in this nation and to progress with other Australians as part of a modern and successful nation and to do so independent of government control.

As we all know, it took 30 years for this to change when in 1967 a Referendum was past to remove the exclusions of Indigenous people from the Constitution. It was only then that Indigenous people obtained the same status under the Constitution as all other Australians.

On the 31st of January 1938,  5 days after the Day of Mourning gathering,  Jack Patten of the APA and William Cooper of the AAL led a delegation of 20 Aboriginal men and women to meet then Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. They gave the Prime Minister a copy of the APA’s 10-point Plan for Citizens Rights (the text of which can be found here). This outlined a long range plan for Indigenous policy aimed elevating Indigenous people to citizenship and equality and addressing socio-economic disadvantage, and to be managed by the Commonwealth.

The interesting thing about reading that 10 point plan now is that almost all of the 10 points have largely been delivered over the past 30 or 40 years. In fact, Indigenous people have secured far more than Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson or William Cooper might ever have imagined. For example:

  • Governments have legislated for Indigenous land rights and for compensation for dispossession.
  • The High Court in the Mabo and Wik decisions acknowledged that Australia was populated in 1788 by established societies and regognised the native title rights of traditional owners.
  • Both sides of politics – conservatives as well as progressives – are working to have Indigenous Australians formally recognised in the constitution as the first peoples of the Australian continent.
  • Australian governments and businesses are actively working to close the gap – setting aside jobs for Indigeous people and targets on Indigenous contracting.
  • Traditional owners and their lands are acknowledged in public events and ceremonies.
  • And far from being excluded, Indigenous ceremony, music and dance has become embedded in official government and national events, including Australia Day.

These things would have been unimaginable to attendees of the Day of Mourning in 1938.

And yet despite all of this, the socio-economic problems that the Day of Mourning organisers campaigned so hard to redress have not been resolved. There are still Indigenous people living in sub-standard housing, not being educated, in poor health and utterly dependent on government. And many areas are getting worse – rising rates of suicide, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and incarceration being some of the most alarming areas where Indigenous people are going backwards.

To paraphrase Bill Ferguson, we have now had been protected for 225 years, and look what has become of us.

Eighty years ago the APA wanted the shackles and burdens removed so Indigenous people could take matters into their own hands and work, live and thrive in a modern Australian society. They thought governments were the problem and that government control of their lives was ruining their communities. Today it is often the opposite with people looking to government for the solution to the problems.

Last year I spent some time in the remote community of Ampilatwatja, about 350 km north east of Alice Springs. This town was the central location for John Pilger’s film “Utopia” which I am sure many people in this audience have seen. For those that have not, the film presents a damning criticism of Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Australians. The Ampilatwatja scenes show third world living conditions in which preventable diseases thrive. Pilger’s message is “apartheid is deep within Australia’s past and present”.

Ampilatwatja isn’t actually in Utopia. It’s about 100km further north in Alyawarr country. And like his geography, Pilger’s depiction of the problems in Ampilatwatja, and his understanding of the root causes, were off the mark.

Utopia has been watched by people all over the world, most of whom have never been to a remote Indigenous community. Few understand what they’re seeing in Pilger’s film, how it has arisen and persisted or how it can be remedied. Without this understanding they’re left to fill in the gaps themselves. Most will arrive at one of two conclusions.

Some viewers will conclude communities like this aren’t viable and should be closed. The film paints a picture of such despair that some will think the only compassionate thing to do is shift the Alyawarr people to a larger population centre where they can have a better standard of living. We know from history that this would be disastrous.

Others will conclude that government hasn’t invested enough in Ampilatwatja and needs to go in and spend whatever it takes to improve the community. This was essentially the message that Pilger wanted to convey.

The problem with this theory is that government has invested huge sums into that community.  And if you ever wonder how governments could have spent over $40 billion in the last decade on Indigenous-specific programs, without improving the lives of Indigenous people, pay a visit to Ampilatwatja because the experience there is happening all over the country.

When I visited Ampilatwatja I was shown numerous examples of pointless government spending. The most ridiculous one was the donkey proof fence which I wrote about in an article in the Australian last year.

The fence was conceived, built and funded by government to keep the local herd of wild donkeys out of the town and at the same time provide unemployed adults with something to do in building it.

However, the bureaucrats, service providers, consultants and contractors involved in the fence’s construction never thought to install cattle grids on the roads and it was never finished. So the donkeys still wander freely through the town. I had one baying outside the window of my bedroom every night when I was there.

The donkey-proof fence was a waste of money. It didn’t help people move from welfare to work. It didn’t create real jobs or contribute to building a real economy. It didn’t even stop the donkeys.

There are many, many examples like this in Ampilatwatja.

One is the BMX track that was built to give the kids something to do. The track is built in the open sun in a place where temperatures reach 45 degrees in summer. And the BMX bikes are locked in a storage container the keys to which are kept in Alice Springs.

There is a basketball court which a few years ago some government agency thought should be shaded so they built a very expensive roof above the court. The roof is made of metal and is not insulated. In summer it acts like a radiator of heat down onto the court making it virtually unusable.

A focal point of Pilger’s film was the poor state of housing. And yes, housing is inadequate in Ampilatwatja – it’s in a poor state of repair and there’s not enough housing for the population. Most houses are overcrowded with several families living in them. But the root cause of that problem is not a lack of money, but incompetence and poor management and planning

For example, in 2012 the government built 9 new houses in Ampilatwatja. An Environmental Health Assessment earlier last year inspected 31 houses in Ampilatwatja, including 6 of the new houses. Not one of those 31 houses has a compliant effluent disposal system. However, they all have new satellite dishes installed during the conversion from analogue to digital TV.

Pilger’s film features a home with an outhouse bathroom that has a blocked toilet and no sink. I went to that house. It also has a new satellite dish.

The 9 new houses replaced 9 existing dwellings which were demolished and dumped at the tip. They were solid structures which could have been repurposed. This would have been sensible in a community where some small homes sleep 30 people. No-one asked the community if they wanted the existing houses demolished.

The new houses were part of the previous government’s Indigenous housing initiative which cost the government billions across the country.

And the result of that initiative in Ampilatwatja was houses that don’t meet building codes, no net additional housing and money in the hands of external contractors who didn’t hire locals.

The abysmal state of housing in Ampilatwatja isn’t from a lack of spending. It’s from poor planning and management by people who aren’t from the community, don’t understand its needs, frequently don’t follow through and who don’t think locals are capable of doing it themselves.

Ampilatwatja has an Indigenous Engagement Officer, Centrelink office and Jobs Services Australia provider stationed in the community. These service providers tell you there are no jobs in Ampilatwatja – apart from the jobs they and other non-locals do, of course. What are they all doing there then?

Ampilatwatja has a school, with several full time staff. It has an art centre with two staff. None of these jobs are performed by locals.

Every time something needs repairs someone comes in from Alice Springs or Tennant Creek or beyond. I don’t know what Jobs Services Australia is doing there every week.

The attitude to communities like Ampilatwatja hasn’t really advanced beyond the mission-manager mentality of the 1960s: that Indigenous people need a caretaker.

Whether that caretaker is a Protector,  government department, Indigenous Engagement Officer or Government Business Manager, the same mindset sits behind it – Aboriginal people are incapable of taking care of their communities, their families or themselves.

On the Day of Mourning in 1938, Jack Patten lamented that Aboriginal children on the Government Stations were badly feed and poorly educated. He said:

“The result is that when they go out into life they feel inferior to white people. This is not a matter of race it is a matter of education and opportunity. That is why we ask for a better education and better opportunity for our people.

We say that it is a disgrace to Australia’s name that our people should be handicapped by under nourishment and poor education and then blamed for being backward.

Incompetent teachers are provided on the Aboriginal Stations. That is the greatest handicap put on us. We have had 150 years of the white men looking after us and the result is our people are being exterminated.”

That was 1938. But he could easily be talking about some Indigenous communities today.

Some people say that the solution is for governments to hand over responsibilities for government services to Indigenous communities themselves or that or that regional-based Indigenous groups manage the government money rather than Canberra.

If you read my article in the Koori Mail this week you will know that  I don’t agree that “empowerment” or “self-determination” is achieved simply by communities stepping into the shoes of government.

If government pays the bills then it controls the money, no matter how much bureaucracy sits between the government and the recipient.  There is an old saying – the golden rule is whoever has the gold makes the rules. There is nothing self-determining or empowering about being tied to government assistance. Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson and William Cooper understood that.

What I care about is who is performing the government contracts, who is doing the work on the ground.

In my Koori Mail article I used the example of a portfolio of public housing in an Indigenous community managed by Government agencies.

Government employs department staff who make decisions on maintenance spending. But the maintenance itself is performed by external contractors, usually non-Indigenous people from outside the community who travel because the locals don’t have the skills or training to do these jobs. And the government money leaves the community in the hands of those contractors.

Now – government could transfer the management responsibility – or even ownership – for the housing to a community based Indigenous authority. I don’t regard this as empowering because it does nothing to enable community members to participate in the real economy.

That community authority will still need to engage external contractors to maintain the housing.  And because there are no locals capable of doing those jobs, it will do exactly what the government did – bring in non-Indigenous people from outside the community.

Real empowerment would be community members having the skills and training enough to do those jobs themselves, to work as contractors or operate small businesses and be awarded the maintenance contracts.  No longer relying on welfare, earning their own money and spending that money in the community. That’s how a real economy operates.

It’s not so important who the contracts are awarded by.  It’s far more important who the contracts are awarded to.

Indigenous people could be winning these contracts today. You don’t need government’s permission. There is no need to wait for someone to empower you or give you self-determination. You can exercise the power you already have to get education and skills needed and you can start doing that today.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we also need to ask ourselves what we are going to do with the freedoms and opportunities we already have, freedoms and opportunities people like Jack Patten could only dream of.

We have it within our power as Indigenous people, as Australians and in our communities to make changes that will improve our lives today. How are we going to go about this?

How do we get all our kids to school? And what can we do to ensure those schools are teaching our children properly – and if they aren’t – how else can we secure decent education. If you live in a community that has a lousy school – what are you doing about that?

I’ve told the story many times of what Djambawa Marawili did to ensure that his community in Baniyala had a fully staffed and resourced school. He lobbied, he met with ministers and government officials, he engaged with the teacher’s union, he reached out to people like myself who could help him in his campaign, he got housing built for teachers and a proper school building. No-one in government was going to bestow that on him. He had to fight for it and it took some years. But he wasn’t prepared to accept the kids in his community not having access to a proper school.

How can we make our communities safer? What can we do to reduce violence and dysfunction? In Cape York the communities introduced alcohol bans. Governments didn’t impose them from Brisbane or Canberra, the communities demanded it.

The Alywarr people are also not waiting for government where they don’t have to. The Ampilatwatja Health Centre is already owned and controlled by Alyawarr traditional owners. Like other health providers across Australia its gets revenue from bulk billing patients. It hires a CEO and other staff and is well resourced and equipped. In the past few years it has hired 8 locals who are now completing vocational training certificates. The traditional owners also own the store, a small supermarket as good as any you’ll find in small town Australia.

The Alyawarr people have done more than the government or JSA or multiple service providers and bureacrats have achieved – creating real jobs and real businesses.

Pilger misread what he saw in Ampilatwatja. Poverty doesn’t persist there because of segregation or “apartheid”. Poverty persists because we treat communities like Ampilatwatja like dependent children and smother them in a bureaucratic mire.

Poverty doesn’t persist in those communities because government isn’t spending enough, it persists because those communities are too dependent on government for too many things.

Whenever Indigenous spending or programs are cut our communities and leadership cry foul. What I rarely hear is a discussion about whether the funding was being put to good use in the first place and whether the programs were achieving anything.

Everyone here today knows examples like the donkey proof fence; everyone here knows of money being spent on activities with no focus or accountability for outcomes. But every dollar spent on a donkey proof fence is a dollar that is not available for things like school resources.

If only people could be as indignant about waste and inefficiency as they are about cuts.

The problems impacting Indigenous people can’t simply be addressed by looking to governments for more. It’s obvious from reading a newspaper or watching the news that the Australian government doesn’t have any more and is under immense pressure to take some back. I am assuming this will be a bigger challenge in the 2015 budget than it was in 2014.

People need to focus on efficiency and eliminating waste and pointless spending so funds can be redirected to initiatives that are proven to deliver real outcomes in education, jobs and safer communities. Because the only source of new funding in the next budget will be funds freed up from eliminating waste and failing programs and doing things more efficiently.

* * *

At the end of the film Utopia, Pilger addressed the camera and calls for a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. He spends barely a few minutes on this topic and presents it as if it is a simple and obvious remedy for all the ills his film highlights.

Again, Pilger gets close but misses the mark.

People in Australia have been talking about a treaty for decades. But when you move past the “thought bubble” it doesn’t make sense to have treaty between Australia and Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people as one amorphous group. Who would sign such a treaty? There are no individuals who speak for Indigenous people as a whole.

Any treaty or other a formal declaration or agreement would need to be between Australia and each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional nation. And each traditional nation would have to have a choice about whether to sign the document.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a “nation” as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory”.

When the British first came to this continent in 1788 there were hundreds of nations – hundreds of groups of people united by common descent, history, culture and language and inhabiting particular geographical areas.  These groups had their own kinship systems, systems of law and governance, customs, culture and arts. They knew what was their country and what was the country of another group.

Of course there were similarities and areas of overlap. Just like there are on any other continent. Boundaries can be blurred, people move around and marry into different groups, people learn neighbouring languages. But the kinship systems could deal with those complexities.

I’ve proposed is that governments formally recognise these traditional nations and fast-track settlement of their native title claims by agreement. I’ve also proposed that governments dispense with the requirement of proving continuous connection to land. Rather, governments should recognise the native title rights of the groups in the areas we know they occupied before British colonisation, regardless of whether those groups have been able to remain on country or not.

I’ve also proposed is that traditional nations be formally recognised with clear rules for membership and governance and that the traditional nation be the single governance entity and authority for matters particular to that nation, including land rights, native title and cultural and heritage rights.

Only members of a traditional nation should speak for that nation and be involved in decisions. Think about this in relation to your own mob. Who speaks for your country?

The backbone of each treaty or agreement would be the formal recognition of the traditional nation and settlement of their native title. This has both symbolic and practical benefits.

The practical benefits are facilitating Indigenous participation in the real economy through their rights to land, sea and cultural heritage. The removal of the continuous connection to the land requirement means Indigenous people are not discouraged from leaving their traditional lands for fear of jeorpardising their native title. If Indigenous Australians are going to fully participate in the real economy they need to feel free to move about the country – whether permanently or temporarily – without fear of losing their land like everyone else in Australia.

I have spoken about this extensively over the past 18 months and my speeches and articles are available on the internet.

There was a time when Aboriginal leaders chose to frame Aboriginal people as one group in campaigning for Aboriginal rights. We saw this in the equal rights movement of the 1930s.  This pan-Aboriginal movement became particularly strong in the 1960s in line with the politics of the time. It mirrored the Black Panther movement and set Aboriginal people within the broader context of a global black movement – a black consciousness. Unity was strength. And as a united group Aboriginal people achieved a great deal.

That didn’t change the fact that we were separate nations with distinct and unique heritage, language and culture. Indigenous people are united by our shared history since 1788. We are kindred spirits. But we haven’t forgotten our mobs or our countries.

Australia has moved a long way beyond those times. The Mabo decision re-focussed land rights back to the original nations. I believe this country is now at a stage of maturity where Indigenous Australians can seek recognition of their traditional nations without compromising the broader struggle against racism and exclusion.

Alyawarr elders have a vision for the future of their communities, one where the Alyawarr people are responsible for their own destiny, for decisions affecting their land, for culture, heritage and the continuation of their language, for the education of their children and for the conditions of their communities. One where people have jobs and the community has small businesses.

I spent several hours siting down with Alywarr elders, both men and women, where they spoke to me about wanting to “wake up” the Alywarr nation. They drew me a picture to illustrate what is within and what is outside the Alywarr nation and they talked to me about how the nation would be governed.

The Alywarr people are not seeking a treaty between Australia and Indigenous people as a whole. They see themselves as Alywarr, not as Aboriginal.

Nelson Mandela once said:

“If you speak in a language they understand, you speak to their head. If you speak in their own language you speak to their heart.”

Talking about a treaty between Australia and Indigenous people  as a whole is like speaking to us in a language we understand. That speaks to our heads. But talking about the traditional nations, is like speaking to us in our own language, because that is how we think about ourselves. That is how you speak to our hearts.

* * *

For Indigenous people, the 26th of January is a day that is difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate. We feel anger, sadness and grief about the chain of events that began on that day. The 26th of January 1788 was the day our ancestors began losing their lands, their ability to speak their languages and practice their ceremony and cultures, to live under their kinship systems. And in turn, we as their descendants lost our birthright. That chain of events continued to deliver hardship, loss, sadness and grief for Indigenous people for many decades. Our forbears living as second class people on their own lands or worse, as second class people driven from their lands.

Most Indigenous people refer to the 26th of January as Invasion Day and have done so for as long as I can remember. In recent years we’ve started to call it Survival Day. In that sense the day is evolving for us from a day of mourning to a day where we recognise our achievements and commemorate the survival of our peoples, cultures and languages.

However, Indigenous people will never celebrate the 26th of January. It’s not a date that we associate with happiness. It’s not a date that we will ever rejoice.

That doesn’t mean Indigenous people won’t celebrate Australia or being Australian. Quite the opposite. Remember the call of APA and AAL – to be raised to full citizen status; to not be left behind in Australia’s march to progress. In the extracts I read earlier there is a clear longing for inclusion within Australia; a longing to be treated as Australians. Indigenous people campaigned tirelessly to be recognised as fully Australian, to be truly part of this nation. And when we were in 1967 we celebrated.

All Australians – including Indigenous Australians – should be able to celebrate this country and its achievements. The sentiments people want to express on Australia Day are largely good sentiments and they are sentiments that most Indigenous people feel too. But the anniversary of a day of conflict and conquest has been chosen to mark a day that should be about unity.

If it were up to me, Australia Day would not be celebrated on the 26th of January. That tension between commemorating British invasion and celebrating unity and Australia’s unique character and achievements casts a permanent shadow over that date. People try to forget it, ignore it, hope they can fill the day with so much good that the tension will not be noticed. But it is always there.

And it will continue to be unless the date of Australia Day is changed or something else happens on that date that is a true source of celebration for Indigenous people. If, for example, the first treaty signing occurred on a 26th of January – as it should have back in 1788 – then that could build a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives of that date.

* * *

The men and women who came before us in the fight for equal rights and land rights – people like Kevin Cook, Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson and William Cooper – dreamt of time when Indigenous people could fully participate in this great nation of Australia as well as having rights to their traditional lands restored so they could again participate in their traditional nations. They dreamt of one nation and many nations.

Australia is one of the youngest nations of the world. And our traditional Indigenous nations are the oldest. All Australians can share in, and be proud of, the unique heritage and history of this continent. We are one nation and we are many nations. And in that we can come together.

kevin cook

Kevin Cook


William Cooper


Bill Ferguson


Jack Patten










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  1. Shane T Hendry says:

    I have felt a connection and a better understanding of history past and present. I felt gaps of knowledge filled I have felt similarities in my own experiences In life as I struggle to fit in and belong .I have seen the end result of my Father because of the times he lived in .The things he seen he heard he experienced all affected the Man and our lives . Nyunggai’s speech has help me get a perspective on fact and a heading for our Peoples. The wasted money’s opportunities by contracting outsourced was a polight way to describe money funded for Indigenous peoples not actually reaching the hands of Indigenous peoples and insuring it goes directly to none Indigenous peoples and away not remaining in the hands of Indigenous peoples,A conspiracy you might say . However a lot has been achieved but we still have a ways to go .

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