Address on the Tenth Anniversary of the National Apology

 The Honourable Kevin Rudd

26th Prime Minister of Australia

Great Hall, Parliament House


13 February 2018

For many of us, ten years may seem like an eternity.

For our long-suffering indigenous brothers and sisters, it is not.

The national apology to indigenous Australians came fully 220 years after European settlement, when these lands, their lands, were taken from them.

And European settlement had come some 60,000 years after our first peoples first came to this ancient continent, Gondwanaland, or the nation we now call Australia.

We have lived, therefore, through little more than the blinking of an eye.

So when taken across this great arc of time, what is it that we sought to do in this place in what was said here a decade ago?

Of course, the answer we are quick to give is reconciliation.

Or at least with the national apology, one long step along the road to reconciliation, whereby we could begin to look each other in the eye without recrimination, and instead with respect, and as equal members of our national family.

No one can deny that this is good.

Particularly given where we have been in the past on race in the history of white Australia.

Yet the uncomfortable truth is that it is only one part of the answer, and perhaps, in the larger part, a white-feller’s answer.

As if it was as much a need for indigenous Australians, who had done no wrong,  to be reconciled with white Australians, as it was our need as white Australians to be reconciled with our indigenous brothers and sisters, whom we had so demonstrably wronged.

Remembering all along that the power in this relationship remained comfortably in the hands of those of us who are white.

So to go to the heart of the matter, therefore, the time has come for us to listen to the considered voice of our indigenous peoples themselves, rather than our interpretation of what we think indigenous Australians ought to be saying about their future, including the long national discourse we have had on constitutional recognition.

And for this we must turn to the Statement of the Heart, from Uluru, just a few months ago, a statement from the very heart of this great continent itself, however discomforting many Australians may find it.

The confronting truth of Uluru is that it is a call for the recognition of indigenous sovereignty.

As the statement says:

“Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Tribes were the first sovereign nations of the Australian continent and adjacent islands…This sovereignty is a spiritual notion, the ancestral tie between the land and the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples…It has never been ceded, or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.”

The Uluru statement continues:

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”

The statement concludes with its now famous call for the constitutional recognition of a “First Nations Voice”, the establishment under law of a “Makaratta Commission”  with the ultimate object of a treaty.

These are large claims.

They certainly shocked the government.

They also shocked the rest of Australian polite society.

But these nonetheless were now the considered claims of indigenous Australia.

The core logic is that reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and enduring justice for indigenous Australians,  can only be achieved through the recognition of this form of sovereignty, and then given concrete expression though three specific institutions: a First Nations Voice; a Makaratta Commission; and through that, a treaty between Australia’s First Nations and the Crown.

It is unfortunate that these were so casually brushed aside by the Prime Minister after so many months of silence.

The beginning of wisdom in the difficult processes of reconciliation in this country over more than half a century is to treat the considered requests of indigenous Australia with respect.

Rather than rejected out of hand, because they were not what was expected.

Uluru should instead have become the beginning of a new national conversation about an indigenous national Voice, rather than the doors to that conversation slammed shut.

The argument has been made that these recommendations would lead to an unequal Australia.

This begs the question of the unequal nature of Australia as it stands right now.

The argument has also been made that the creation of a First Nations Voice under the constitution would create a third chamber of the parliament.

This is a nonsense, given that under the proposals made, this body would have advisory powers only.

Moreover these advisory powers would relate only to the exercise of the existing constitutional powers of the executive government to make laws for indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, this First Nations Voice, unlike the House or the Senate, could not legislate. It could only advise.

The question arises, therefore, as to why such a First Nations Voice could be seen as so constitutionally obnoxious.

Or is it just a question of being seen by some as politically obnoxious, which is a different matter altogether.

The same I fear applies to the question of a treaty.

Other settler societies around the world have treaties with their first peoples.

One of them lies just across the water from us.

And that country does not seem to me to have been rent asunder.

It seems that we are all too fearful in this country of anything that is new.

Rather than realising that perhaps old problems may indeed require new solutions if we are to deal with them at their heart.

And at its heart, Uluru is a request for shared sovereignty, not white charity, for therein lies essential dignity.

So as a former Prime Minister, my request, respectfully, of our current Prime Minister, is reopen this dialogue with the first Australians on this Statement from the Heart.

None of this is easy.

All of it is hard.

It’s been like that all along.

It was like that with the 1967 referendum.

All hard. Until it was done.

It was like that with E.G. Whitlam, the Northern Territory Land Act, and the Racial Discrimination Act.

All hard. Until it was done.

It was like that with P.J Keating, Mabo and the Native Title Act, the act that we were told would destroy the mining industry, the decade before the greatest boom in mining history.

All hard. Until it was done.

It was like that with the Bringing Them Home Report, the Stolen Generations, and the National Social Day marches.

All hard. Until it was done.

So too with the National Apology.

So too with Closing the Gap.

All hard. Until it is done.

And so too will it be with Uluru, the First Nations Voice and Treaty.

All hard.

Until it is done.

What is necessary in all these is political resolve.

All it takes is leadership.

And we will get there.

The Australia of the future.

An Australia fully reconciled with its past.

An Australia where we are truly equal and where the gap has been closed

An Australia where our sovereignty is shared with our first peoples.

And become a beacon to the world.


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