Sean Gordon at UTS: The New Reconciliation

On 15 May 2017, I delivered the Occasional Address at the University of Technology Sydney Graduation, which was obviously short and sweet. The full address below provides greater detail to support my summarised Occasional Address.

Firstly, I acknowledge that we are on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their ancestors. I bring heartfelt greetings from my people of the Wangkumarra and Barkindji Nations.

Today, I want to tell you about a revolution in the long battle for a fair go for Indigenous Australians – for a meaningful reconciliation between the First Peoples of Australia and their fellow Australian citizens.

I think I am on safe ground to assume that most of you, if not all of you, hold ideals of equality and fairness in your hearts.

That fills me with hope. Individually and collectively, you have the power to build a more equal and fairer country. Your careers, be it in Education, Social Policy, Architecture or Communication and Design, etc., have social impact in their DNA.

The movement I am going to talk about is built on more than five decades of political combat between the First Peoples of Australia and the Commonwealth of Australia. That, in turn, was built on the billions of tears that flowed from the diseased eyes of generations of First People over the preceding 200 years.

We all know that where we are today is way short of where we need to be. We know that the terrible gap between the life outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is completely unacceptable. We know that continuing to do what we have done to date is not going to get us anywhere.

The emerging movement that I am part of is about ending this madness of doing the same thing and expecting different results. We can’t do that. This is truly a life-and-death matter. My people are dying out there. Sorry business is becoming business as usual in our communities. Those of us left behind are growing sadder with every passing.

In this time of crisis, we need to get very serious about solving the so-called“Indigenous problem”. Things can get a lot worse from here, if we do not act quickly.

Yes, in many ways, things are getting better. Recently, Stan Grant pointed to the rapidly increasing Indigenous middle class. He pointed to the steadily rising ranks of Indigenous millionaires. Yes, in some ways, the lot of my people is getting better.

But as you move out from the cities and urban centres, through the outlying suburbs, across the rural expanse, and into the remote communities, the picture grows dark.

I don’t think I need to go into detail with you about what is happening out there in Indigenous Australia. I am sure that you all have a pretty good idea. And I am sure that you want things to change, and change quickly.

You will be very familiar with the concept of reconciliation. It has been the official ‘brand’ for Indigenous matters for decades. The concept of reconciliation is accepted wisdom for most Australians.

But the concept, the word itself, is an incomplete thought in the national mind. We don’t really know what it means. Like any ‘catch all’, it has weakened over time, nice words for public occasions. Practical measures, such as corporate “Reconciliation Action Plans” have started to look like ‘feel good’ efforts.

The truth matters, and, as has been realised in other parts of the world, reconciliation needs to be preceded by “truth”. This was the whole point of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after Apartheid ended: first comes the truth, then the reconciliation. But that is a tough one for Australia. The truth of relations between Australia’s First Peoples and Australia governments, and indeed non-Indigenous Australians more generally is not pretty.

Let us not forget that we are talking about people that, for decades, were thrown in the same bucket as flora and fauna. Non-citizens in their own country. Strangers in their own land.

Owning up to the truth, recognising the whole truth, must happen before we can genuinely talk about reconciliation.

That is why “recognition” is the first word in the mantra driving the new movement.

Following recognition is empowerment.

After empowerment comes cultural embrace.

That’s the mantra – Recognition, Empowerment, Cultural Embrace.

This is the new movement, the new thinking, the renewed demands of my First Nations People.

We want these three things. Nothing less, nothing more.

Through all three, we can “fix the problem”.

Although undetected by the media, and hence unknown to most Australians, this movement is building. The recognition, empowerment and cultural embrace vision is fueling a new resolve across Indigenous Australia. And there is no reason for non-Indigenous Australians to feel threatened by this movement.

Over the past few months, and you could be forgiven for not knowing about this, an unprecedented gathering of Indigenous Australians has been underway. Never before have we witnessed such a coming together of First Nations people.

Across Australia, a series of Indigenous Dialogues have been led by the Referendum Council, the body set up to guide the nation to a successful referendum for the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our Constitution.

At these gatherings, more than 1,000 First Nations people, representing many more, have been building a consensus around how we want to be recognised in the Constitution, or more accurately, if we want to be recognised in the Constitution.

The results of this unprecedented consultation will be known after the final Convention to be held at Uluru later this month, around the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.

That referendum, as you probably know, stands as the most successful ever. Considering that only 8 out of 44 referenda have been passed, the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in 1967 was extraordinary with 90.77% support, that’s more than a pass that’s clearly an “high distinction”.

I will not go into detail about the 1967 referendum here. Hopefully many of you know a fair bit about it already. If not, I think you should. It is an important moment in our nation’s history.

The general attitude in Indigenous Australia today toward the 1967 referendum is that it was a great moment and an important step away from the brutality and indifference that we have laboured under. But it is certainly not seen as the great turning point that some media represent it as.

Let’s face it, there is not much evidence that suggests the 1967 referendum really changed the lived experience of most First Nations people. If anything, things have got worse.

At the very least, the changes in 1967 are unfinished business. We are still an incomplete Commonwealth.

That is why constitutional recognition is important. As the birth certificate of our nation, the Constitution is largely silent on the original people of this continent. It does not mention that First Nations lived and thrived on the continent for tens of thousands of years.

Where it does mention us, it merely allows for us to be denied the vote. Yes, it does impose sanctions on any State that goes there, but it does leave the door open for what is surely unacceptable in our times. It is widely accepted that this bald-faced discrimination needs to be removed.

Until 1967, it also mentioned that we were not to be counted in the census, although thankfully this provision was removed 50 years ago.

The Constitution still allows the Commonwealth Parliament to makes laws for “the people of any race”. Until 1967, this excluded Indigenous people, but since 1967, they have been included within the races power. It is widely accepted that, although the Commonwealth Parliament needs to retain the power to make laws concerning Indigenous affairs, such as native title and heritage protection, it should no longer make laws that depend on the idea of “race”.

As countless polls reveal, most Australians, and a majority enough to pass a referendum, agree that our Constitution should recognise Indigenous Australians as the First Peoples. The “Recognise” campaign has done a good job building that support, especially considering they have not had an actual model or question to gather support around.

A key reason for insisting on the Indigenous dialogues, and we did have to insist, when faced with a reluctant Government, was that politicians had already decided how we should be recognised.

They are thinking some poetry up the front of the Constitution, in the form of a preamble. Some flowery words about how we were here first.

I think I am on safe ground to say that the outcome of the Indigenous Dialogues will be a complete rejection of any proposal that reduces recognition to poetry in the Constitution. We don’t only reject it because it is simply not enough recognition, we reject it because it would not pass, or pass only after being edited into a completely meaningless statement.

We know that because the very people that can mount a successful ‘no’ campaign told us that they would fight tooth and nail to ensure that, in their minds, there was not a single word in the preamble that could be used by “activist” High Court judges to usurp the power of the Parliament.

The Dialogues appear to have rejected the ‘minimalist’ model for no other reason than it will end up being either worthless because it says too little to satisfy the First Peoples, or rejected because it says too much, at least in the eyes of the very powerful constitutional conservatives who would stop it at the first hurdle, the Coalition party room.

The Referendum Council is now kicking off wider consultations, asking non-Indigenous people and organisations how they think Australia should recognise its First Peoples. I have always believed that the Australian people, being good and fair, will want to hear what Indigenous people want and be open to supporting us, so long as what we call for is fair and reasonable.

On that, and I don’t want to seem to pre-empt the outcome of the Indigenous Dialogues, it is a good bet that the final position will be for much more significant reforms. I know that the concept of a representative body enshrined in the Constitution has been widely supported.

That idea, for us to have a voice to Parliament, stems from our belief that it must be recognised that we are a disempowered people. We have such little power to influence the policies and programs that are designed to support us, and we have so little power precisely because of the way we have been treated for the last 200 years.

We want full recognition beyond our status as the original inhabitants. We want recognition that we remain powerless to turn our situation around. We want recognition that the future must be different from the past.

Hence, alongside recognition, we need empowerment. And the Constitution needs to provide us with some kind of guarantee that we won’t be disempowered in future.

For all the shortcomings that our Constitution currently has in the eyes of our First Peoples, we should not forget that, in many ways, the Australian Constitution provides us with a system of government that is the envy of the world, and this is something to be proud of. Sir Samuel Griffith, Sir Edmund Barton and their colleagues did something remarkable when they drafted the practical and pragmatic charter of government that is our Constitution. It is a rulebook that provides good rules for government. 

But there is one respect in which they failed to make necessary rules. They didn’t include any rules that empowered the First Peoples. An Indigenous advisory body of the kind we are likely to talk about at Uluru could provide the necessary rules for Indigenous empowerment. As Julian Leeser MP has written, such a proposal “sits most comfortably with the nature of the Constitution. It is the kind of machinery clause that Griffith, Barton and their colleagues might have drafted, had they turned their minds to it.” It is an understatement to say that it is a pity that they did not turn their minds to it. But I agree with Julian that a machinery clause like this “can sensibly sit in the Constitution, where it can have its intended practical effect.”

Having said that it is crucial that recognition of First Peoples brings with it empowerment, through a constitutionally guaranteed Indigenous advisory body, you should not think that I underestimate the power of poetry. Poetry alone cannot empower our First Peoples. But poetry and symbolic statements are still important for our national life in their own way. Symbolic statements of recognition should happen outside the Constitution, where they can be free of unintended legal consequences. If, and only if, we can establish such a body in the Constitution, then I am also excited about the idea of an Australian Declaration of Recognition outside the Constitution. 

This would provide Australia with a powerful and poetic statement of all that matters about Australia - our Indigenous heritage, our British institutions and our multicultural achievement - as well as an opportunity to recognise those aspects of the past that will always be painful memories for our nation. But perhaps even more importantly, recognising these painful memories could provide the basis for our reciting in the Declaration of Recognition our aspirations for the kind of nation that we hope to become in the future.

As I say, we should never lose sight of our national aspirations. But, in doing so, we also need to remain mindful of the painful memories of the past. Since colonisation, our First Peoples have been disempowered. For much of the time, we have been completely bereft of power. Our elders past, and some still present, lived under the complete and persuasive control of governments, churches, and, in many places, lawless groups of white settlers.

In the 1970’s, we saw the oppression begin to be replaced from what we might call the “rights agenda”.

To understand how that rolled out, I recommend Peter Sutton’s book, The Politics of Suffering. It is a comprehensive, first-hand account of the damage caused by the rights agenda, which has guided Indigenous policy across the last three decades.

Spoiler alert - the book details how the tunnel vision around rights robbed our people of the very thing we needed to be doing – taking responsibility. We were disempowered, robbed of the basic human right to chart our own course. As the saying goes, we ended up having things done to us, not with us.

One dreadful outcome of the rights agenda has been the “soft bigotry of low expectation”.

At the core of the endless failed policies and programs is low expectation. It is where compassion is dashed up against the rocks of reality. It is where good intentions of others become our prison, leaving us with poverty and despair.

The focus on “problems” has created a low expectation narrative that casts my people as victims with little personal agency.

But we need to be raising the bar. We need to set our sights much higher.

We need to move from rights to responsibility, to quote Noel Pearson. First Nations people and our communities need to be empowered to take responsibility for the policies and programs that are supposed to be helping us.

Right now, we have little power to do this.

Alongside many Indigenous leaders across the country and top thinkers in the corporate world and public service, I was heavily involved in the development of the Empowered Communities Design Report, released two years ago. I invite you to read up on it. It is a comprehensive plan for how governments can empower Indigenous communities.

With the support of the Federal Government, we have been working to implement some of the reforms, the ones that our communities can work on. We haven’t been able to get governments to accept crucial components of the reform. These are about how governments can change, how they can cede power to us. So, it is not surprising that they are reluctant to support them. What government wants to give up power?

But it will only be through ceding of political power to us will we be truly empowered. If our people are to have political agency, then we need political power. This could all be achieved without disturbing the basic structures set in place by the Constitution.

The third part of our mantra is perhaps the hardest for people to grasp. It is easier to understand the need for recognition and empowerment. It appears harder for many Australians to fully understand our cultural needs. Certainly, when we look at the funding for the preservation of our culture, our nation is yet to accept how important it is.

But it is vital. Not only for First Nations Australians. But for all Australians.

Australia is home to the world’s oldest continuing living culture. To have the oldest of anything is a big thing. An ever-growing number of tourists seek out anything that can make such a claim.

Before the horror of war in Syria, tourists flocked to Dura-Europos Church, the world’s oldest church built around AD 235. St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, built in AD 333, attracts millions of visitors every year.

Remarkable though these oldest places are, it is also remarkable that they were built more than 50,000 years after the First Australians crossed the land bridge and settled in our ancient continent and set about building a rich and sophisticated culture.

And, how much more important is a living culture compared to a building? I stress “living culture”. Across Australia, the First Peoples are actively engaged in the same cultural practices that they have been practicing for millennia. They are still talking ancient languages.

But our culture and languages are disappearing as we speak. Every year, we are losing the last speaker of languages. We are losing the old people who know the stories and ceremonies passed down over thousands of years.

If for no other reason, we must protect our ancient culture and languages for the economic benefits of tourism. We know that international visitors are seeking Indigenous experiences and that many Australians would love to make their own “first contact”.

Surely it is our most valuable right to live long and prosper on this earth? For our culture to live on, be revitalised, and for this to be shared with the rest of world, including all Australians.

We must also protect and energise our culture and languages because they are central to our personal wellbeing. Our ongoing connection to culture and speaking our languages is what has allowed us to survive, despite everything that has been thrown at us. It is our pride in our culture that has allowed any of us who have survived to overcome the generational trauma embedded deep in our psyches.

It will also be the thing that allows us to step up and take responsibility, to accept recognition, and overturn the dreadful misery besetting so many of our people.

So, that is our new movement – Recognition, Empowerment, Cultural Embrace.

My hope is that you take some time to consider these three interconnected demands, read up on them, and then, across your careers, you champion and support the movement.

Finally, I wish each and every one of you absolute success in your future and endeavours.

  Sean Gordon , Chairman of Uphold & Recognise

Sean Gordon, Chairman of Uphold & Recognise

Uphold & Recognise