Launch: “Claiming the Common Ground for Recognition”
On 20 September, Stan Grant, Chris Kenny and Michael Rose AM launched Sean Gordon’s essay, Claiming the Common Ground for Recognition, at the Commonwealth Bank’s Colonial Theatre.
In his essay, Gordon seeks to find common ground in the debate about the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. Thankfully, there is now a modest package of reforms - nicknamed “the voice to parliament” - that can ensure Indigenous aspirations are realised in a way that addresses the concerns of constitutional conservatives and liberals.
Claiming the Common Ground for Recognition is available to download via this link. Below is an edited transcript of Sean Gordon's speech from the launch.
In the essay, I talked about growing up in a little community named Brewarrina. I was a foster child. I grew up in a home with 36 other Aboriginal kids on the Brewarrina Mission. I had a fantastic life growing up. We lived 10 kilometres out of town, 150 metres away from the river. We had sheep; we had cows; we had horses. We would milk the cows every morning to provide fresh milk for the day. It was a wonderful life. I had 36 brothers and sisters that were constantly there. You would travel with them to school; you would travel with them on holidays; they would always be there. Today, at the age of 47, those people that I grew up with are still my brothers and sisters. We have a very strong and very close relationship and strong ties to each other.
Although I grew up in a great environment, there was something missing. I went through a long process in my life of dealing with rejection. Why would my parents would give me up? Why would they give me away? Not only did they give me away, they also gave my brother away, who was only a year older than me. Unfortunately, they gave him away to a non-Aboriginal family is Sydney. So, here are these two brothers, one growing up among Aboriginal kids in an Aboriginal community in Brewarrina on the original Mission, the other growing up on the Georges River in Sydney, raised by a migrant family. He grew up with different experiences to what I grew up with. I grew up with a strong identity, strong sense of culture, strong sense of belonging, people that would back you up when you got yourself into trouble. In my community, we had a very strong religious upbringing. My adoptive father was the local preacher. His brothers were preachers.
As a teenager, dealing with rejection – like anyone, as a young person, you’d get into trouble, you’d get onto drink, you’d try to express yourself in different ways. One day, after a bender, not so long ago - it was a little bit over 10 years ago in Newcastle - I got up one day, and I said, “Well, I’m just going to jump in the car, and I’m going to go for a drive out to Mount Druitt, and I’m going to go and knock on my birth-mother’s door.” So I turned up, and I knocked on the door, and as I opened the door, it was almost as if she knew what I was there for. She just said, “Come in, sit down, and I’ll tell you the story.” And we went and sat down, and I heard the story.
For such a long time, I worked to try and prove these people wrong. I wanted to prove to them that they did the wrong thing in giving this child away and separating these two brothers. So I worked hard and did everything to demonstrate to them that they made a mistake. It wasn’t until I sat down with her that I learned her story. I learned the story of her dad going away to fight in World War Two and that fighting with all of his non-Aboriginal army mates was a fantastic life. He come back a hero to the community. But then he went and settled back on the Mission up at Burnt Bridge, where he was isolated from his army mates and from the rest of the community. After that, he got caught up in drinking, to the point that it severely played on his mind. During one of his drinking episodes, he killed my birth-mother’s mother. My birth-mother had to then raise her siblings. She got married at a very young age. She was quite young when she had my brother and myself. She wasn’t able to also raise these two kids, so effectively, she gave them away.
As I sat down and heard her story, I was quite relieved. I was pleased. I was also really appreciative of the people that she’d given me to. As I said, I had a fantastic upbringing. I also learned that she later had three more kids. Her oldest son after me and my brother recently passed away from a drug overdose out at Mount Druitt - a tough little community. Her other two kids - my brother and my sister also live at Mount Druitt - are alcoholics and drug addicts today. I thought to myself, I was probably fortunate to grow up where I did.
My brother who grew up in Sydney dealt with a whole range of other issues that I did not have to deal with. He dealt with growing up in a non-Aboriginal family. He dealt with the isolation, with not being a part of an Indigenous community. A few years ago, he also died from a drug overdose. It's tough. He was my only brother - my only blood brother that I knew at the time.
All this started a need to drive change, to drive reform, to begin to say that where we’re at as a country isn’t acceptable. It is not good enough. It is not good enough to know that Aboriginal people are living in despair, with the government continually making excuses, saying, “We want Indigenous people to lead this!” This is not exclusively about Indigenous people. Yes, we have a role to play. Yes, we have a space within this conversation as it rolls forward, but it is not really about Indigenous people. It is about the country; it is about the nation; it is about Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people coming together to say that the current circumstances of our people are not acceptable. We can't sit back and listen to the Prime Minister say that it’s a big idea but it lacks detail. I emphasised this to the Prime Minister: it is not Indigenous people’s responsibility to come up with the detail.
Indigenous people have been leading this process now for quite some time. We’ve led it through the reconciliation process, through the Recognise campaign. We’ve led it through the dialogues. We’ve led it at Uluru. We’ve come up with a position and a strong statement to say, “This is what we want as Indigenous people: we want a voice, we want to be empowered.” That voice isn’t a veto, but that voice absolutely guarantees that Aboriginal people will have a say when it comes to legislation, programs and policies that impact Aboriginal people. It is about government working with us to ensure that those policies don’t have a negative impact, to ensure that we don’t end up with the Northern Territory Intervention type strategies that, 10 years on, still fail to deal with the issues within those communities. They still fail to empower those communities to drive reform and lead change.
So, I’m trying to find the common ground in the debate about recognition. If anyone can feel hurt in this country for the wrongs that have been committed on my people and my immediate people - my birth-mother, my birth-father, my brothers, my grandfather coming back from World War Two and not being allowed to go to the RSL club and drink with his war mates - if anyone can have hate, can have anger, can be frustrated with this whole process, one would think that I would be one of those people. But I can tell you that I’m not. I’m not angry; I don’t have hate. In fact, I think that we’re a good country. We’re just missing some fundamental things that would take us from being, I guess, a good country to a great country. We have the potential to be a great country; but to do that, we must recognise the 65,000 years of Indigenous history and not just recognise it but celebrate it, embrace it, engage with it and become a part of it. That way, it becomes not just a part of my identity but a part of your identity as well.
We have a responsibility to celebrate the people that came from England and took those long journeys and finally landed on these shores, because they contributed to this country. We can’t just push aside and whitewash the statue of Captain Cook. He played a role in this country, absolutely. What’s missing within that statue or next to that statue is our story. The question is now, how do we set our story alongside that statue? We must be able to say, “Yes, Captain Cook did this, but something else was also here, and this needs to be recognised as a part of our history.” We have to embrace and celebrate Indigenous culture, the oldest continuous culture on the planet.
I know that we can achieve this common ground, because I’ve found common ground in my life. I know that many Indigenous people as well as some of you in this room have found common ground in your life; but I can say there are a lot of our people that haven’t found it yet. They’re still struggling to find their space within this country. They’re still struggling to find their identity. They’re still struggling to work out where they fit within their communities, within their families. We’ve got to get beyond politicians saying that this process of recognition is Indigenous-led: “We will stand back and allow you to lead it!” Recognition is about the whole country, for it is the country that must ensure that Indigenous people are recognised and accorded their rightful place.