December 12, 2012
By Reconciliation Australia Co-Chair, Melinda Cilento.
Twenty years ago Paul Keating delivered his famous Redfern speech; five days ago one of Australia’s greatest living musical performers, Gurrumul Yunupingu, was denied access to a Melbourne taxi; two decades earlier his uncle Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer of internationally-acclaimed band, Yothu Yindi, was refused a drink in a Melbourne bar, and last week the Government tabled the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 to the Australian Parliament.
These four events all point to Australia’s ongoing struggle to achieve reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian community.
When Prime Minister Paul Keating gave his speech in Sydney’s Redfern Park he became the first Australian political leader to publically acknowledge the devastating impact of both colonial and contemporary government policies on Australia’s First Peoples. In his speech Keating spoke frankly and honestly of the dispossession, violence and discrimination suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the course of modern Australia’s creation. He explicitly spoke of the need for “an act of recognition” by non-Indigenous Australians of the First People’s history, culture, and their historical exclusion from Australian democracy.
While we have made progress over the past twenty years Gurrumul Yunupingu’s treatment in Melbourne last week reminds us that Aboriginal people still suffer from racism and discrimination and Australians have some way to go in achieving reconciliation.
However, despite the experiences referred to above there remains strong support for reconciliation from both non-Indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and we are currently being offered the opportunity to make a significant step forward in this process with the proposed referendum on recognising our First Peoples in the Australian constitution.
It is ironic indeed that only a week before Gurrumul experienced what is a daily occurrence for so many of Australia’s First Peoples, a Bill for constitutional recognition was tabled in the Australian Parliament. The tabling of this Bill is a critical step towards a referendum to update the Australian constitution to recognise the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within Australia.
Queensland, NSW and Victorian state Constitutions all recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Keating ended his Redfern speech by expressing his strong view that Australia would succeed in the challenge for reconciliation and, twenty years on, I agree with his assessment and am confident that current efforts for constitutional recognition will also succeed. As Keating told the Redfern audience, “we cannot imagine failure”.
Last week in Melbourne a very positive footnote to Mandawuy Yunupingu’s Melbourne experience took place when he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame and in his acceptance speech declared that Australians should “come together for a better future by recognising Aboriginal people in the constitution”.