Toowoomba Chamber of Commerce Business at Breakfast

 In News

Leah Armstrong

Acknowledgement of Country… Acknowledgement of fellow speakers,

Good morning and can I say how lovely it is to be back in Queensland and back in the beautiful city of Toowoomba. I would like to talk to you today about the future.

A future of unity, equality and opportunity.

A future of success for my people, and for Australia.

It is now a certainty that in the next few years there will be a referendum to recognise the first Australians in our Constitution.

From the saltwater country to our vast deserts, in tiny town halls and suburban shopping centres, the people of Australia will be asked to come together in a powerful act of unity.

It will be the day that we proclaim proudly – to each other and to the world – that we are inspired by our beginnings and joined in destiny.

It will be the day that we write the first chapter of Australia’s story into our founding document – officially including it in our shared story.

And it will be the day that finally we complete our Constitution by acknowledging a simple but important fact about our early history: the fact that our people have been here a very long time.

In my mind, those ballots being cast and counted would signal a new intent amongst everyday Australians.

A new intent to live together in this magnificent land with mutual respect. A new intent to put behind us the divisions and exclusions of history. A new intent to find the best in each other, and ourselves. That day is within our power as a people.

And I, for one, want to see it come sooner rather than later.

But before you can understand why I’m so optimistic about the future, I’d like to share with you a bit of my past.

I have to say I truly believe anything is possible.

I’m living proof of this. I am a Torres Strait Islander, who along with Aboriginal people, make up the two Indigenous groups of people in Australia.

I was born in Mackay in the tropical north of this state. Growing up I never dreamed I would live the life I have lived; visit the places I have been to, or met the people I have had the privilege to meet.
Not because being Torres Strait Islander was a disadvantage, but mostly because at that time, the coral reefs and sugar cane fields of Mackay seemed a long way from anywhere.

We lived off the ocean catching fish and crabs, hunting for turtle and dugong, collecting traditional foods and sharing whatever was caught.

Providing for your family are strong traditions passed down through generations.

As entrepreneurs we operated businesses and worked in local industries.

We weren’t rich and at times life was hard but we had a strong connection to the community: a diverse community that as well as Torres Strait Islander people, included people from Aboriginal, South Sea Island, Malay, Indian, Australian, Italian and Greek backgrounds.

My family was involved in setting up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community advancement services.

And of course coming from a large family, we were always well represented in the various football teams — rugby league of course.

I tell you this not to brag about an idyllic childhood but to explain how I came to be here today.

These experiences have shaped who I am and the values I hold: a tolerance for diversity; resilience to achieve goals; and a sense of mutual responsibility to take care of family and contribute to the community where I live.

These experiences gave me a sense of the world beyond Mackay and the Torres Strait, and unlocked the potential in me to achieve what I have.

And this is why I believe anything is possible when it comes to Indigenous equality, quality of life and indeed a successful future.

Over the years, I have seen and experienced many examples of people and communities unlocking their potential and improving their situation or circumstances.

I’ve seen many examples of people turning things around.

In the Sydney suburb of Redfern, the Clean Slate without Prejudice program is a great story of a community turning itself around.

Not so long ago the relationship between the Aboriginal community and police had completely broken down, and the number of young Indigenous offenders, or those at risk, was on the rise.

In 2009 the local police superintendent and community leaders came together to start a boxing program involving police officers and at risk young people, initially as a way to keep them otherwise occupied.

As the program has grown, so too have the relationships between the two communities.

The simple act of having a routine together — sweating it out, where everyone is equal—allowed people to drop their guard and build trust.

Since the start of the program there was a sharp drop in robberies committed by Aboriginal youths, which continues to decline, as has repeat offences.

Those involved in the program are now going to school, involved in work and are giving back to the community as mentors.

Meanwhile, the attitudes of the local police force have changed too.

They care about the community and want to see pride in the participants. The communication lines are now open.

In central Australia, the NPY Women’s Council is one of Australia’s oldest and most respected Aboriginal organisations.

It was established more than 30 years ago by the women of the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankungtjatjara lands covering South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia to strengthen and promote the health, safety and culture as well as economic, emotional and social wellbeing of women and families in these communities.

At last year’s Indigenous Governance Awards the NPY Women’s Council was recognised for their commitment to good governance which is driven by culture, by values and by principles.

The Council provides advocacy and human services to their communities in innovative ways that address the unique circumstances of their environments—including isolation, tri-state jurisdictions and cultural differences.

It was borne out of a need to do things differently and make things better. Without the NPY Women’s Council, communities and families in the region would be more vulnerable and at-risk.

These are just two of the many examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who are making positive changes for the future.

Now it would be easy to say these are the exceptions and the reality remains that the gaps that still exist between Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians are wide. And the life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, however you measure it, is still on average significantly below that of other Australians. I’m not here to gloss over the real challenges faced by some people and communities—chronic health issues; lack of quality education; housing; and limited employment opportunities.

But this is why we need innovative solutions and real partnerships—so people and communities can own their change.

It is my firm belief that if we continue to see ourselves through the lens of disadvantage it becomes self-fulfilling.

So we need to look for the positives. We need to nurture and support community initiatives.

We need to inspire and we need to create environments for those initiatives to succeed.

And nurturing success is part of the work of Reconciliation Australia, the organisation I have the privilege to lead.

What we see in the two examples I have given are communities that not only want to make a difference but who are also building on cultural values to give back to the community and raise future generations to have a better life and who can imagine a better life for themselves.

Both of these communities didn’t do it alone. Part of the success has been working with, and being supported by, non-Indigenous people and communities to create outcomes that benefit the nation.
This is where reconciliation is important.

Reconciliation Australian’s core business is to create the right environment for stronger relationships, national pride and shared prosperity for all Australians.

Stronger relationships that are built on shared knowledge and respect are key to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples closing those gaps that still exist and creating a fairer and more equitable future.
To achieve this aspiration we work closely with governments and the private sector, including some of Australia’s biggest corporations such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, KPMG, and the National Australia and Commonwealth banks.

The main pillar of this work is the Reconciliation Action Plan—or RAP— program where organisations develop business plans that document what they will do within their sphere of influence to contribute to reconciliation in Australia.

RAPs outline practical actions that an organisation will take to build strong relationships and enhance respect between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians.
A RAP also sets out the organisation’s aspirational plans to drive greater equality by pursuing sustainable opportunities.

Put simply, the RAP program is about working with organisations across Australia to turn their good intentions into real actions.

The benefits of the RAP program to reconciliation, and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are clear.

A recent evaluation of the nearly 400 organisations partnering with us in the program found that:

  • RAP organisations are employing close to 19,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • They have purchased more than $58 million worth of goods and services from Indigenous suppliers.
  • They have provided more than $14 million towards scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
  • And they are also providing over 213,000 people with cultural awareness training.

But RAPs do more than provide opportunities. Compared to the general community, employees in RAP organisations:

  • have much higher levels of trust between each other than the general community (71 per cent compared to 13 per cent);
  • are far less prejudiced (9 per cent compared to 70 per cent);  and have significantly higher levels of pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture (77 per cent compared to 51 per

This is how we are creating an environment that respects difference to strengthen relationships; builds pride; and unlocks potential to generate prosperity.
Of course RAPs are not the silver bullet answer.

But if we take the principles of the RAP program—building mutually respectful relationships to create meaningful opportunities; if we value what Indigenous communities bring to the table—then we stand a much better chance of success.

And as the saying goes, “success breeds success”.

One way to build mutually respectful relationships, and supporting this success, at a national level is through constitutional change.

It will unlock pride across all of the generations and give our young people the opportunity to grow up with the knowledge that their culture is important to this nation and recognised by all Australians. This is an important task for all of us.

Recognition of the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—the kind of recognition that has been extended to Indigenous peoples in the US, Canada and New Zealand—has enormous practical implications. It is the basis on which people can take control of their own lives.

It provides the only real basis for lasting reconciliation.

Right now in our nation’s history, we have a chance to take that important step in the reconciliation journey.

We have a chance to be part of the change and be the ones to make things right for the future.

As Lowitja O’Donoghue has put it: “Constitutional recognition of the first Australians would be good not only for our own heads and hearts, but also for the nation’s soul.”

I agree.

Constitutional recognition of the first Australians would unite our nation as never before. That new sense of unity would be an inspired gift to future generations.

But to get to that referendum day, and to have the chance to forge this new accord, we all need to work together to help make it happen.

We, the people, have to create this opportunity together.

And we have to demonstrate to political leaders that the groundswell of popular support is there for them to commit a referendum confidently to the ballot.

Recently, I was pleased to read an article in the Chronicle that reported that back in 1967 more than 90 per cent of voters in Toowoomba said YES to the “Aboriginal question” on May 27. And in the weeks leading up to the vote there were letters to the editor in paper arguing for the change.

As the people of Toowoomba and the Darling Downs did back in 67, so you will again in the next couple of years when we are all asked to vote to finish the job Australia’s constitutional writers started in over one hundred years ago.

I hope that all of you will play your part in this critical national movement; become Toowoomba’s own Recognition Ambassador’s, talk to your friend, neighbours, families and work colleagues, Facebook and Tweet your support and let Toowoomba know how you feel.

For our part at Reconciliation Australia, we’ve joined our sister organisation, Recognise, in a unique method of getting our voices heard; we have organised and participated in a trip across the whole of Australia.

The Journey to Recognition as this mammoth task has been dubbed has so far involved recognition campaigners and supporters walking more than 700kms, cycling over 1200kms, driving over 2700kms, and paddling 7 kilometres. The journeyers have stopped in 50 communities and involved thousands of Australians along the way in a trip that has so far travelled a total of 4711 km.

We have signed up more than 150,000 Australians to support the campaign and it continues to grow as we travel the country, including a growing base who are engaging with the campaign through social media.
The support we have seen from communities across Victoria, South Australia and Northern Territory is both humbling and encouraging.

Research released last week showed that public awareness has risen by 5% since March this year and 9% since September last year, which shows our hard work is paying off.

Support for constitutional recognition has risen by 4% since March. According to research done by Auspoll, 61 percent of all Australians support constitutional recognition.

But it’s not over yet! The Journey will head west in late September, after the federal elections and will eventually reach every state and territory – including my homeland the Torres Strait!

Recognise recently launched new youth-led campaign, Recognise This, which will build a strong base of young recognition campaigners and support a new generation of impressive younger Indigenous leaders as they take on more public leadership roles.

During a hard and often bitterly fought federal election and at a time when of serious political division in Australia it has been particularly heartening to see the broad cross-party support that exists for constitutional recognition of the first Australians.

Both leaders have made very strong statements repeatedly in support of constitutional recognition – as have Greens leader Christine Milne and Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce. Only last week Nationals Leader Warren Truss reiterated his party’s support in a speech to the National Press Club.

Kevin Rudd says that the Apology was about getting things right for the past, while recognition is about getting things right for tomorrow; Tony Abbott says this is important to him personally and to his party, and he believes it could be a unifying moment for the nation like the 1967 referendum.

In March, Tony Abbott announced that, if elected, he would release the draft wording of the model within 12 months. In July, Kevin Rudd said he wanted to see it put to a referendum within two years of this election.

Whoever wins the election, we need the political parties to reunite after the campaign in a shared determination to finalise this work this term.


So in closing, I ask you to imagine about a day when all Australians are treated equally and when we can proudly, and confidently say we live in the land of the ‘fair go’.
Let’s work together to get there. Thank you.

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