Leah Armstrong – Perpetual Private

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Leah Armstrong

Speaking notes for Perpetual Private Conference Sydney

The historical background to reconciliation

  • I want to start by asking a couple of rhetorical questions; why do want to reconcile First Australians with Australians that came in more relatively recent times; and what are reconciling about?
  • To answer these questions it is essential to take just quick look at the history of this amazing country which we are all fortunate enough to call home.
  • To understand the importance of Australia’s modern movement for reconciliation it is essential to start with a basic understanding of the country’s long history before 1788; before first contact.
  • When the British Australia arrived in Port Botany in 1788 Aboriginal peoples had lived on this continent for at least 60,000 years.
  • Estimates of the population of Australia vary but it is generally accepted that there were somewhere between 750,000 and 2 million people speaking around 260 distinct languages.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people thrived in every ecosystem in Australia; desert, alpine, rainforest; temperate and tropical.
  • Their scientific and ecological knowledge of their country was extensive and they developed a set of extremely complex religious and cultural values which reflected the climate and landscape of where they lived.
  • Sadly it is really only in the past few years that non-Indigenous Australia has begun to recognise the huge value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, culture and law.
  • Indeed rather than recognition and respect the First Peoples of Australia were subject to dispossession, well-documented frontier violence including massacres of entire clan groups.
  • Indeed the last documented massacre in Australia was the killing of between 31 and 110 Walpiri people on Coniston Station in the NT in 1928; within the lifetime of some Australians!
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were also subject to extremely repressive policies which, in many cases, controlled every aspect of people’s lives including where they could live, who they could consort with, what language they could spoke, what cultural ceremonies they could practice, and even who they could marry and whether they could raise their own children.
  • Despite the pioneering myth of peaceful settlement Australia was wrested from its original owners in a violent and brutal war of conquest.
  • The lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians today are affected by these experiences and the experiences of their parents, grandparents and of their ancestors over the past 230 years since Europeans arrived.
  • I don’t refer to these elements of our history to create a “black armband” view or even less to encourage a sense of shame or guilt among our non-Indigenous fellow Australians but rather to enable all of us to put the importance of reconciliation into a context.
  • If we can understand our shared history then we can certainly understand the critical importance of reconciliation as part of a nation building exercise.
  • Understanding our shared history is not just about discovering past atrocities but also about discovering the many respectful friendships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and others.
  • Because, despite the brutal nature of the colonisation of Australia there is another side to the coin; from the beginning of modern Australia origins many non-Indigenous people stood up against the atrocities and injustice and recognised the importance and complexity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
  • William Dawes, astronomer to the First Fleet, for example refused a direct order from Governor Phillip to join a punitive expedition against local Aboriginal people.
  • Anglican missionary John Gribble had for many years in the 1850s and 60s led a campaign to expose the killings, mistreatment and slavery of Aboriginal people in the Gascoyne area of West Australia.
  • Others who campaigned against the violence of the frontier and advocated for better protection for Aboriginal people included Lancelot Threlkeld, Louis Giustiniani and Robert Lyon in the 1830s and 40s; David Carley in the 1880s; and Ernest Gribble and Mary Bennett in the early part of the 2oth century.
  • Like the leaders of the Aboriginal resistance to their dispossession these European Australians are almost unknown and unacknowledged in Australia’s written history.
  • It can be argued then, that, even as the war of colonial conquest was underway so too were the efforts of some white Australians for mutual respect and reconciliation.
  • Despite a shared history often characterised by violence, brutality, insensitivity and ignorance many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, friendships with non- Indigenous Australians based on true respect and understanding.
  • As much as the negative aspects these positive relationships and experiences also reflect our history and it is on this fine historical tradition that the contemporary movement towards reconciliation, recognition and respect is built
  • What we now recognise as the formal modern reconciliation process began after the 1991 Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which recommended that all political leaders and their parties recognise that reconciliation between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians must be achieved if community division, discord and injustice to Indigenous Australians were to be avoided.
  • Soon after, the Commonwealth Parliament voted unanimously to establish the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation who was tasked with promoting reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community.
  • The Parliament noted that there had been no formal process of reconciliation to date, and that it was “most desirable that there be such a reconciliation” by the year 2001—the Centenary of Federation. This was the beginning of a formal process of reconciliation.
  • In 2000, at the end of their term, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation established Reconciliation Australia as the non-government, not-for-profit foundation to continue the national focus for reconciliation.

Why reconciliation is important to Australia

  • Reconciliation aims to encourage cooperation and improve harmony between Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders and other Australians.
  • It involves improving relationships by improving understanding of our shared history, of the beauty and uniqueness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander culture and advocating for change to overcome the legacy of previous dispossession and discrimination against our First Peoples.
  • Reconciliation is not just about Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people but about Australia’s future as a cohesive nation.
  • One example of the challenge to our national cohesion is the current Australian Constitution which, while not recognising the unique position that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people hold in our society, still contains clauses which allow for discrimination on the basis of race.
  • One of the key tasks facing the movement for reconciliation is ensuring the success of a proposed referendum to change the constitution.

What does Perpetual need to understand about the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?

  • The levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander poverty are well documented as is the gap between First and other Australians in education, employment, health and earnings.
  • However what is little understood is that collectively Aboriginal people are holders of substantial assets.
  • The Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations or ORIC as its known reported that the total income of the top 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations, registered with ORIC, for 2008–09 was $1.18 billion.
  • This is an increase of $101 million from the 2007–08 financial year.
  • It’s important to note that not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations are ORIC registered so these figures do not reflect the total value of assets held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations
  • The total value of assets held by the top ORIC-registered 500 corporations was $1.22 billion.  The average income of these corporations in 2008–09 was $2.37 million.
  • With the advent of native title in the early 1990s and the legal right to be consulted about use of their land that the High Court’s Mabo decision conferred on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we have witnessed the negotiation of agreements worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.
  • To illustrate the fundamental shift brought on by Mabo and the Native Title Act it is timely to remind ourselves that Professor Jon Altman of the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research has estimated that Aboriginal people now own, under a variety of tenure systems, close to 30% of the entire Australian land mass.
  • Not all of this land is valuable for its mineral content and the unfortunate truth is that the return of land under the Native Title process often does little to alleviate they poverty of the newly acknowledged Aboriginal land owners.
  • Native title and most other tenures under Aboriginal ownership provide little opportunity for raising the capital which is so necessary for Aboriginal enterprise development that private land ownership confers on other Australians.
  • This poses a serious challenge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander entrepreneurs; a challenge which banks and other financial institutions may be in a position to help overcome.
  • Father Frank Brennan recently wrote about his concerns with the problems of an increasingly land rich but capital poor Aboriginal community.
  • He wrote; “My fear is that an ongoing policy of land purchases and native title determinations without the prospect of economic development will leave native title holders marginalised from the economy, while becoming the envy of other Australians beholding an increasing land stock unavailable for development even when such development is sought by the traditional holders.
  • The financial circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are far more complex than is generally understood and will require some dexterous advice and policy development in coming years.
  • There may be a role for companies like Perpetual in helping to solve these challenges.
  • Apart from general actions through our RAP, what could our vision or contribution be to reconciliation, given who we are?

  • Reconciliation Australia warmly welcomes Perpetual’s initial interest in formally joining the movement towards reconciliation and there is in my mind no question that a strong partnership between Perpetual Private and Aboriginal and Torres Strait organisations and people has the potential; for great benefits accruing to both sides.
  • However, it is essential that before you start planning specific actions or initiatives that you spend time developing relationships, deciding on your vision for reconciliation and exploring your sphere of influence.
  • Get to know the views and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and carefully consider what contributions you can make that will best support the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander themselves.
  • Our people know the challenges they confront and they understand the obstacles to success.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also understand the solutions to many of these challenges and obstacles.
  • What is often missing from the equation is the ability of non-Indigenous people to listen with an open mind to the voices of the First Australians.
  • The success of a RAP, indeed the success of any partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is as much about listening as anything else.
  • The RAP framework is based on three key areas:
      o Relationships.
      o Respect.
      o Opportunities.
  • The prerequisite for a successful RAP is the development of respectful relationships.
  • From respectful relationships come opportunities and the time invested in developing relationships will mean the difference between a RAP that is mutually beneficial and sustainable and one that is more about box-ticking.
  • I want to provide a couple of examples of really successful partnerships between finance sector members and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities;
    • The microenterprise loan scheme established by a leading Australian bank which is assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with business development loans. This has been a great success in providing a service that has been largely unavailable. There are some wonderful anecdotes about how this scheme, relatively tiny as it is, has provided start-up capital for successful enterprises and provided families with their first- ever hand-up from intergenerational poverty.
    • Five years ago there were precisely two qualified Aboriginal financial counselors in Australia; then another leading Australian bank partnered up with a small Cairns-based NGO, the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN) to develop the unique Indigenous Financial Counseling Mentorship Program. The program provides support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to undertake accredited training in the Diploma of Community Services (Financial Counseling). This program has now graduated more than 20 fully-accredited Indigenous financial counselors who, based in communities across northern Australia, are no assisting their own people in developing financial literacy and all the opportunities arising from that.
  • These examples are evidence that partnerships between the finance sector and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are both important and extremely valuable.
  • I urge Perpetual to take the time to listen to our people; to speak with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations concerned with business and finance and to seek advice from others in your sector that are already on this journey.
  • Finally, keep talking to Reconciliation Australia; we’ve been doing this for a while now and we may have some useful ideas.
  • I am delighted to be invited here today to speak to you about these challenges and welcome Perpetual Private into the reconciliation movement.
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