Address to the National Apology Breakfast, Sydney

Address on the 12th Anniversary of the National Apology to Indigenous Australians

The Honourable Kevin Rudd, AC

Parliament House, Sydney, 13 February 2020

The Future of “Closing the Gap”

I begin by acknowledging the first Australians, our First Nations, on whose lands we meet and whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history. It is an honour to be among you.

I also acknowledge Auntie Yvonne, Auntie Matilda, Michael, other members of the stolen generations who are among us this morning. Again, it is our great honour to share our morning with you.

Kodi Galleghan, thank you. I’m sorry about what happened in Kempsey that day. I would have come up and given the guy a biff. But here’s the deal, maybe next anniversary of the Apology, you and I go back to Kempsey, and we grab the half hour version of the Apology and we sit down with the school and watch it together. How about that? Bianca, it’s been a rough trot. Thank you for your story. But you, like so many of those who’ve gone before, are a tough survivor. You’ve got guts. Adam Goodes, where are you mate? You’ve got guts too mate. You’ve had the occasional rough day at the office I’ve noticed. Give them heaps mate, give them heaps.

To all of you who have been part of this movement, I encourage you to continue. Pat Turner who is with us, Jackie Huggins, members of the National Apology Foundation’s board who are also here. My co-chair, someone who’s name is Thérèse Rein, I’ve known her for some time. I thank you darling for the work you are doing through the foundation which we’ve set up. It’s evolving mission is this: how do help tell the stories of the heroes of indigenous Australia through books, stories and recordings. There is a great narrative tradition to be unfolded for the entire nation and the world.

To the New South Wales minister, Don Harwin. Don thank you for the work done by the New South Wales government. I’m Labor, you’re Liberal, but I’m basically from Queensland and up there we call a spade a shovel, and so my view is pretty simple. If a government, whatever its political complexion does the right thing by indigenous people, I acknowledge them. And I thank the Berejiklian government for continuing that tradition here in New South Wales, and I acknowledge your work as Minister. So, Thank you. The shadow minister as well, who is here, David Harris. The fact that this is in New South Wales, the place of first encounter literally down there at Farm Cove down the bottom of this hill where my criminal forbears crawled ashore a little later than 1788. But only two years later. The fact that you have achieved a remarkable bipartisan consensus here at Macquarie street on these questions is important for the nation, because this is where it all began in terms of this two centuries plus encounter. And turning a sad story into a better story, to become, I hope, a good story.

Jeff McMullen, you deserve the order of Lenin mate, for being here so consistently and persistently over the years. And thank you. This is no small thing. Together with Michael from Message Stick, it’s just terrific work. Jenny Macklin is here with us. Jenny as the Minister for Indigenous Affairs at the time was the engine room of the Apology. The machinery that made it work. So, I’d just like to publicly acknowledge Jenny. Your extraordinary work then as Minister and giving effect to Closing the Gap on the ground. All the daily tasks associated with the great enterprise called reconciliation. Thank you.

I think Richard Marles is here with us as well from the parliamentary party. Other parliamentary colleagues one and all. Our friends from the Commonwealth Bank. Thanks for being with us for quite a long journey. Ladies and Gentlemen.

Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is a long, long journey. And it’s one which requires particular qualities for those who embark on it. It requires a commitment to its core principles, the elemental principles of social justice. It requires courage to persevere in the face of adversity, and there has been a bit on the way through. It also requires that we have confidence that our common action will succeed. Not might succeed, but that it will succeed. That reconciliation is not an illusion, but reconciliation is indeed realisable in our lifetimes if we have the personal and political will to make it happen.

For without these core galvanising qualities, reconciliation will falter. Which is why gatherings such as this are important. We bring together again our common and collective, as well as personal and spiritual resolve, to turn a principle into a reality.

With these qualities, the vision we speak of becomes real. A vision which holds that Indigenous Australians occupy a unique place in our constitutional arrangements. A vision which holds that the voice of Indigenous Australians must just not be tolerated, not be occasionally heard if we are politically so inclined to hear it, but a voice which must be heard because our constitution so requires it. And a vision which holds that Closing The Gap is an essential precondition to reconciliation and not an optional extra.

And we as members of this movement need to see ourselves in this broad arc of history. Each playing our own part, however small, however temporary, in hauling this great project of ours forward in history. Pulling it forward. And sometimes it feels as if you’re sliding a bit back, and then there’s someone around the side of you pulling it forward again.

That’s the nature of this movement of which we are part. Bending the broad arc of history, encouraging one another. Defending each other when the attacks come thick and fast, as they always do. Celebrating with one other when milestones are reached. Purging despair from our minds when it threatens to take over. Always vigilant when cynicism starts to creep in and when the dog whistle is taken out once again. And when the appeals to the base instincts of race re-emerge in our land, however cleverly they from time to time might be politically disguised. I’ve always got my eyes out for that one.

Friends, the broad arc of history does indeed bend towards justice. Remember the pioneers of the ‘67 referendum. How bleak it looked before then. Remember the pioneers of the land rights movement. Remember Vincent Lingiari. Remember Eddie Mabo. Remember the Wik. Remember the Bringing Them Home Report. Remember the Sorry Day marches. Remember the Apology. Remember Closing The Gap. And remember most recently Uluru and its statement to us all. So remember we are all part of this broad march of history. And at each stage along we way, we need each other’s encouragement.

So across this broad sweep of history, we’ve always been under siege from time to time from the petty naysayers of that particular generation. It’s always been thus and probably always will be thus. Those on the lookout for some small minor political advantage on the way through. Those incapable of lifting their eyes to see who we can become as a people and as a nation together. And those who would rather play to the ever-easy politics of racial division instead.

Then there are those who think it is politically oh so clever to accuse those of us engaged in this business – the hard slog of reconciliation – to accuse us of “virtue signalling”. The alternative to virtue-signalling in my book is dog-whistling. And if that is the alternative, I would rather be in the business of signalling a virtue. That is, an elemental virtue that we believe in: namely the intrinsic dignity of all of humankind. Because in my view, racial equality is a human virtue, just as the reverse is a human vice to be purged from among us.

Even to this day I remember on that day of the Apology certain members of the parliament boycotting the Apology because they thought it was clever politics to do so. I couldn’t understand it then. I certainly don’t understand it now. But friends, these are small voices as we turn to the arc of history and understand that the arc of history bends towards justice. Some people, those who have that view, will always be with us. Our task is never to be taken down by them, never to be distracted by them, and never to be discouraged by them. It is to march on despite them as part of our collective enterprise to bring about reconciliation across this country, from east to west, and all parts in between.

Within this frame it‘s become a fashionable catch-cry for some that Closing The Gap is little more than virtue-signalling. But I ask you to consider this. If it were not for the Closing The Gap strategy of the last decade or so, where people like Jenny have been putting their shoulders to the wheel, would we now be on track to achieving our national target of year 12 retention rates? I think not.

If it were not for the Closing The Gap strategy, would we now be on track of having virtually all Indigenous little ones in preschool across the country? I think not.

If it were not for the Closing The Gap strategy, would we now being seeing improvements in virtually all the numbers across all the measures of Closing The Gap in literacy, numeracy, health and housing and the rest? I would suggest not.

Because notwithstanding the fact that progress in five of these seven areas has been patchy, and there is still much to be done, my core proposition is this: unless we focus our national energies around a particular objective around the closing of the gap then it doesn’t happen.

So I would commend us all to a level of intellectual honesty in the current debate on Closing The Gap to recognise what has been achieved over the last decade and what still has yet to be done. And what could only have been achieved in the last number of years because we as a nation, commonwealth and states, have worked together within the framework of a national agreement on Closing The Gap.

I read carefully Prime Minister Morrison’s speech yesterday in the House of Representatives on the 12th anniversary of the Apology, even though it’s today, not yesterday. So I’d say the following to the Prime Minister respectfully.

One, no, Closing The Gap was not invented by a bunch of whitefellas. I remember where it came from. It was provided to us by the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma’s report of 2005 calling on us, the nation, to close the gap between white Australians and black Australians. We listened. That’s why it’s there.

The other thing I’d say to our Prime Minister is: Yes, the goals associated with Closing The Gap should be the subject of permanent review as realities do change, including the methods which are deployed in individual communities and cities and centres across Australia to bring those goals and objectives into fruition. That is the right way to be.

But I’d also say this to the Prime Minister: No, Prime Minister, if you remove measurable goals altogether, and if you continue to withdraw funding from the realisation of those goals, is it any wonder that progress is not achieved.

I would ask the Prime Minister to reflect on those three points in the year ahead.

I am always wary of any politicians – Labor or Liberal, federal or state – who crabwalk their way out of responsibility by slowly and deliberately redefining the terms of the debate. I am always wary of that.

And I am also wary of anyone who’s changing language on this question provides some sort of moral sanction for others to begin dog-whistling as well, as Hanson began again last night in the Senate- someone devoid of a single compassionate bone in her body.

So I’m always wary of any politician, whether they call themselves from the right or the left or the Callithumpian centre, who wish to wriggle out from under by either saying it’s the state’s responsibility, ‘see you later guys’, or it’s someone else’s responsibility, or that we’re no longer going to have hard questions of measures, funding and deliverables.

And when I look at critical areas, such as Indigenous housing, I cannot think it’s right that the federal government takes this football and throws it to the states and says ‘over to you guys’. Because that’s a recipe for nothing happening at all.

So, based on yesterday’s address by the Prime Minister, my view for the year ahead is: let’s give it a year to see what the Prime Minister delivers. But for me there will be three benchmarks. What will be the new measures for Closing The Gap that you come up with? Second, where will the data be to assess success or failure against those measures? And third, what will be the resource allocation, greater or less, to meet each and every one of those new objectives. Otherwise, it’s bullshit – a technical term in Queensland politics.

Right now many of our indigenous brothers and sisters are feeling pessimistic about the prospects of constitutional recognition and the acceptance of an Indigenous voice within those new constitutional arrangements. I can understand that. I have seen how the debate has unfolded even though I run a think tank now in the United States which deals with the rarities of US-China relations. But I do follow things back here in some level of granularity.

But you know what I’d say to our Indigenous brothers and sisters? Remind ourselves again that we are bending the arc of history. Yes there are naysayers right now and we’ve heard all the arguments: it will be a third chamber of the parliament. This is a nonsense proposition as the National Voice is a deliberative body, not decision-making body, as argued in the Uluru Statement. But what I would say in the broad sweep of history when we look back at this in a decade’s time, we’re going to cross this threshold too, and we’re going to win this one too.

None of us here today should yield an inch on our determination to see this come to pass, nor in our confidence that it will come to pass. Remember where we’ve come from since the referendum of ‘67. Forward, push back. Forward again, push back. And keep moving forward and still some push back. But we are bending this arc in the right direction.

So thank you, each and every one of you around these tables here today, for the work you do in the cause of reconciliation. It’s important. Every one of you. Corporates who come along here, not just with good intentions and not just with the view to make your companies look progressive, but because of the real stuff you do – the indigenous kids that you engage, the people who also change your corporations by virtue of becoming part of them.

Those of you in the media.

Those of you in active politics, those of you in retired politics or, in my case, semi-retired politics.

We’ve all got a job to do. Together, we change the world. Together, we change Australia.