Bill's Speeches






It is a special privilege to be here at Garma, where the two waters become one.

To celebrate your culture, everything from: bunggul and didge to manikay.

I acknowledge the Gumatj and the traditional owners and pay my respects to elders past and present.

And I acknowledge all the young people here, the leaders and elders of the future.

And I salute a giant of my party – and a tireless champion of reconciliation who is with us today – Bob Hawke.

The new Garma Knowledge Centre –will be home for the cultural treasures we celebrate today.

Congratulations to everyone who made it possible, and I pay particular tribute to your friend and mine, Jenny Macklin.

In modern Australia, we have gained and grown from embracing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture – in our art, our music, our films and literature.

A 40,000 year old culture daily enriching every facet of our short history together.

But we can do better and we can do more.

This centre – and this festival – show us we can achieve balance and harmony.

When I was here in February, I had the honour of sitting with you, Galarrwuy, and other elders.

It was an uncertain time.

The refinery, shutting down. And a lot of good people under pressure.

But I was inspired by the determination and the high horizons of the leaders I met.

I witnessed in your hearts the same passion that took the bark petitions – and the injustice they sought to overturn – from Yirrkala to Canberra, 51 years ago.

The passion captured in the inspirational words and music of the great friend that this community - and our country – sadly lost last year.

Today I am honoured to return to your country with my family.

My wife Chloe and I wanted our children to see your beautiful, unique homelands.

And your resilient, proud people.

Strong, generous people – working to build better lives for your families.

I am not a stranger to this place – but I seek to learn more and to do more.

Because Closing the Gap, through the recognition and empowerment of the First Australians, is the test of our generation.

I approach this task with humility, knowing that it represents the most profound, enduring challenge of our two centuries together.

Ever since Prime Minister Gough Whitlam said 42 years ago that:

all of us are diminished while Aboriginal people are denied their rightful place in this nation’

National leaders of all persuasions have carried Gough’s statement in their minds as a profound truth.

This truth is unrelenting and will remain un-assuaged in the conscience of our nation for as long as we do not find and restore this rightful place.

I come to Garma not to preach or proclaim, to lecture or dictate.

My colleague Warren Snowdon tells me - and I can see for myself - that the Yolngu know exactly who they are and where they are going.

I know you are anchoring secure, independent economic futures for your people – through your land, through business and industry, and now with the new skills, new jobs and new opportunities of the Rio Tinto mining school.

Friends, I am here to learn.

Partnership and Empowerment

But friends, I know we have been a country and a continent divided in two.

The powerful and the powerless.

The free and the oppressed.

Your people have endured oppression in every form.

Oppressed by settlers, squatters and frontier violence.

Oppressed by segregation, discrimination and exclusion.

Oppressed by a failure to respect cultures, traditions and languages.

Oppressed by racism, prejudice and paternalism - both malign and benign.

Oppressed by short lives and long misery, more diseases and fewer jobs.

At Redfern in 1992, Paul Keating was the first Australian Prime Minister to fully acknowledge these injustices.

His words woke the nation to the haunting stain on our soul.

22 years and 4000 kilometres from Redfern – much good work has been done.

Australia has said sorry for the theft of your children.

And we are on the path to matching words with deeds, to empowering Aboriginal people and Closing the Gap.

Yet too many are trapped in a morass of unfairness and entrenched disadvantage.

We have an opportunity now – and a responsibility always – to gather up the mantle of Redfern and create an accord between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

An agreement based on shared goals and mutual respect, on our common rights and responsibilities.

Because succeeding in this national task means working together, as empowered partners and equals.

For me, Indigenous Affairs has never been a ‘victim study’.

I believe that you, the people who have cared for Australia’s national estate for more than 400 centuries - can thrive and succeed in 21st Century Australia.

That is why you should be in control – not passive recipients of bureaucratic guesswork.

I have heard, many times, that Aboriginal people are the most over-consulted people in Australia.

But far too often, the first policy consultation with Aboriginal people is the last time that the people most affected are involved.

This leads to alienation.

To the frustration and angst that comes from feeling your voice has not been heard.

To further disempowerment - or focusing negative energy on the wrong issues.

In education, in health, in childcare, in employment, in legal aid, in communal safety and in land use for economic development- Aboriginal people must be valued, respected and engaged at every stage.

Wherever and whenever Australians – Indigenous or non-Indigenous – are exercising their normal responsibilities to themselves and their families, there is no justification for intervening in their right to manage their own lives.

The great majority of Australians who receive welfare income are responsible.

There are two non-negotiables for Labor here:

  • Welfare measures must not discriminate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; and

  • Measures must not interfere with the dignity of the majority of Australians who are exercising their responsibilities and who do not deserve any intervention in their domestic, private lives.

It is time for us to give new thought to formal mechanisms to ensure broad-based representative input – and meaningful engagement with Parliament.

Not just self- appointed committees and one-man bands.

My goal is to build partnerships of mutual recognition, respect and shared responsibility.

Partnerships where the first instinct of government is to listen and learn, not to merely lecture.

Partnerships that recognise that wisdom is not imported from Canberra – it grows here in this earth, what is known as mother earth.

Partnerships that empower Aboriginal people to own their destinies.

Partnerships that see Aboriginal people as part of the answer – not a problem to be solved.

This means moving away from a ‘deficit model’ and towards recognising Indigenous excellence - nurturing achievement and valuing the strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It means engaging with Aboriginal people as cultural beings, capable of navigating the modern world – and of adding value, contributing to, and enhancing the Australian society we all share.

This was the co-operative, community-driven spirit at the heart of the Closing the Gap targets.

This is the cause Labor recommits to today.

We will work with you, we will seek your guidance.

Not out of insincerity, or false morality.

But because we respect your knowledge.

The alternative: a return to top-down, ‘one size fits all’ bureaucratic dictation - is no alternative at all.

We cannot fall back into the old trap of ‘we know best’.

You know – we all know – the problems that arise when the decisions that affect your community, your family, your futures, are made 4000 kilometres away in Canberra - without your participation.

You should be the ones making the informed decisions – at a local and regional level.

You should have the choice and control to build a better life.

You should be able to leverage your resources and your land to develop and create opportunities.

And decisions about the future must draw on the ‘free, prior and informed consent’ of people and communities –upholding the Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights.

We will not overcome Indigenous disadvantage by undermining Indigenous diversity, or Indigenous rights.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, Australia cannot afford a 19th Century view of Indigenous Affairs.

We cannot go back down that road – especially when we are at last making real progress.

Education and Early Childhood

Last year, we met the first Closing the Gap target.

Today, every precious unique child living in a remote community has access to early childhood education.

And that first step leads to the next – boosting reading, writing and numeracy, guaranteeing that more Indigenous students will complete school.

Leading to more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with university degrees and training qualifications.

Leading to good and rewarding jobs.

This is the life-changing, potential-fulfilling power of education.

Education begins when we enter the world at home, and we must weave it right through childcare, school, apprenticeships and university.

We must invest in the skills, knowledge and potential of this generation.

Success depends on community leadership – on parents, older siblings, uncles and aunties, elders and role models.

That’s why, in Government, Labor supported frontline, locally-driven services, including Community and Family Centres.

We believe local decision-making requires real dollars – and empowered communities.

Government has to replace control with collaboration.

Labor believes in funding innovation in the delivery of frontline services – not defunding them.

In providing stability and certainty, for communities pursuing long-term solutions

And in always asking whether government is working for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Incarceration and Justice

Looking at all the hopeful young faces here today, it is hard to believe that an Aboriginal boy leaving school is more likely to go to jail than university.

For far too many Aboriginal people, a first offence means a prison sentence.

Prison too often leads to unemployment, unemployment to alcohol abuse, alcohol abuse to family violence – and to reoffending.

And re-offending leads to more incarceration.

It is a vicious, hope-killing cycle – and we have to smash it.

We need a new justice target, developed in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and legal aid groups.

We must reduce the growing numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – especially young men – who are arrested, tried and incarcerated.

The increasing number of Aboriginal men in custody is a national disgrace.

Here, in the land of the fair go and the second chance the colour of your skin should never determine the sentence you receive.

We must support front-line legal aid services – providing qualified advice and proper representation.

We must stop the ‘rivers of grog’ - through community-driven alcohol management plans and local leadership.

We must speak out against family violence, uniting with communities to end cowardly attacks on women and children.

We must support family violence centres and counselling services.

This is about building respect and instilling hope - respect for the very essence of a safe and happy family.

Respect for kinship, respect for community – and self-respect.

And hope that our goals can still be achieved –  our targets can still be met – that the gap can be closed in our lifetimes.

Constitutional Recognition

Labor believes in according Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a place of honour in Australia’s Constitution.

Redressing historical injustice – and facing dark historical truth - demands every ounce of our national will.

I understand that Australian history did not begin at Botany Bay, or Eureka, or Anzac Cove.

Our Australian story begins with you and your ancestors, the oldest collective race of people in the world.

And the sooner our Constitution honours the people who have shared an unbroken connection with this ancient continent – the better.

But constitutional recognition has to involve more than a token gesture.

We need substantive and substantial change.

Symbolic change is not good enough – preambular change will not suffice.

Many Indigenous people have made it clear to me that they believe banning racism in our Constitution is vital.

The Expert Panel on Constitutional recognition proposed a new section 116A for this very purpose.

We are some way from finalising any referendum proposal.

But imagine, striking out old laws tainted by imperialism and prejudice - and replacing them with a safeguard against racial discrimination.

What an uplifting moment for all Australians – not just our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters.

A reminder that, apart from you, the very first Australians, all of us balanda are migrants.

A tribute to both the world’s oldest living culture – and our multicultural society.

A reflection of our Australian soul.

I believe Recognition will succeed– but I am conscious of the difficulties before us.

If we rush, we might move too fast to build community support.

If we wait too long, division, denial and cynicism may fracture this moment of national unity.

The only way to overcome these risks, is to unite behind Recognise.

Ultimately, we will only succeed, if both major parties agree.

The Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Recognition – led by Ken Wyatt and the outstanding Senator for the Northern Territory Nova Peris – is taking a bipartisan approach.

And Liberal and Labor must reach a consensus before the next election so that whether I am Prime Minister – or Tony Abbott – all Australians have certainty.

Be assured, Labor - the party of land rights, of Native Title, of Redfern, of the Apology, of Closing the Gap – will devote its energy to making recognition happen.

I know the Prime Minister will have to deal with more scepticism and less understanding from within the conservative moment.

Today, I offer to help him where I can.

And Labor will lead when we must.

Recognition should be a political priority – but it should be beyond politics.

It is a historical wrong that must be made right.

Right now, there are some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people asking:

‘What good is recognition if I cannot find a job?’

‘What good is a statement of equality, when I battle inequality in health and education every day?’

‘What is the point of historical justice, if I am denied basic, natural justice?’

‘What is the value of being included in the Constitution – if I am still excluded from society?

These questions are more than fair.

But Australia does not have to choose between ‘practical’ and ‘symbolic’ reconciliation.

They are tied together – just as our destinies are tied together.

We share a common goal and we must share a future.

Working together, sharing power to achieve success.

I will be back here, in East Arnhem.

And my Shadow Minister Shayne Neumann, my Caucus colleagues and I will be meeting with Indigenous people right around Australia – in remote communities, in our cities and in our regional towns.

Your ideas, your goals, your hopes, your aspirations and your dreams will always be close to Labor’s heart.

Your cause will always be important to Labor – it will always be our cause.

We will listen to you, we will work with you, we will trust you with the power to build better lives for your families.

And we will not rest until the job is done.

Until the gap is closed, until the promise of Australia is fulfilled – until opportunity belongs to all of us.

Until the day when, as Galarrwuy says, our two waters are one.