Let’s take the next steps

May 30, 2017

Let’s take the next steps was a speech delivered by Richard Riordan MP for Reconciliation Week 2017.


I would firstly like to acknowledge the Gulidjan people on whose land we meet today. I would like to pay my respect to all elders past and present, and to all people who have helped make our community what it is today.

I would also like to thank Colac Area Health for the invitation to speak, and to acknowledge special guests, CEO Geoff Iles, Mayor Chris Potter and John Clarke from the Eastern Maar, and to all our community who are out in force here today. And a special thank you as always to the Lions Club, for providing breakfast this morning.

History, politics, community. For those that know me, know they are my three favourite subjects! In this Reconciliation Week, all three areas serve to inform and influence how we as local communities and as a nation, acknowledge Reconciliation Week. This year’s theme for Reconciliation Week is “Let’s take the next steps”. To me this is a thought provoking theme, a theme that can be viewed and interpreted in so many ways, and as a politician a theme that at times can be an impossible question to answer. What are those steps? Who should be taking those steps? Who needs to take steps? Are there some steps we should not take?

The first small step to reconciliation in our area began in 1883, when James Dawson and his Daughter Isabella Dawson pleaded with local land owners and identities to formally acknowledge and pay tribute to the first peoples of this land. Appalled by the treatment of this lands first custodians in only 43 years of settlement, the Dawsons wanted to acknowledge: the Aboriginal presences, their customs, habits and societies. In a remarkable act, still clearly present today but largely forgotten, the Dawsons erected an 8m obelisk in the heart of the Camperdown cemetery. This obelisk pays tribute to a singular Aboriginal leader Wombeetch Puuyuun, and all Aborigines of the district. What to me is most surprising, that today it still stands, and is clearly taller, and more substantial than those graves and tombs remembering a remarkable array of Europeans who, new to the district, excelled at development, politics and influence. The Dawsons indeed made a clear statement about the need to acknowledge and respect the area’s first peoples.

In a region whose understanding of indigenous culture is poor at best and non-existent at worst, the second small step taken was the 1967 Referendum. Australia is a country where referendums seldom get up and where the constitutional rules make change difficult, this area overwhelmingly supported the necessary changes to our Constitution. The Corangamite District voted with more support than the national average at 94.1%. An extraordinary effort — not an effort that can be written off as everyone was in a good mood that day, as on the same day a change to allow more politicians in Canberra, was roundly defeated!

The changes of 1967 were clearly a game changer, and with that came greater activism, and many more steps. Significant steps were seen with the Wave Hill land transfer and Land Rights Acts of the 1970s. The 1992 Mabo decision and Royal Commissions into the Stolen Generation all added to greater understanding in the broader community.

But what are the next steps?

In our community people who identify as indigenous make up less than 1% of the population, and nationally it is recorded as 3%. In a modern immigrant country where 30% of the population is born overseas, and many of whom themselves have come from difficult and at times tragic circumstances, developing and maintaining change for indigenous people is not an easy task.

It is certainly not a task any Member of Parliament should shy from, but it requires a considered and pragmatic approach to bring everyone along, in a change that is accepted, universal and well supported.

So what steps do I want to see?

To me it is education and education. Education has universally been the magic sword that can slay the demons of disadvantage, dispossession, and disenfranchisement. We must continue to do more. Why is it that in Australia we are debating how aboriginal children learn and what they learn? Irish Catholics developed their own education system that by and large educates variously up to 51% of the population, and in recent times has delivered the country Prime Ministers, and leaders at every level of law making and society. An ambition only 100 years ago would have been unthinkable. So too the Jewish community and other minorities can promote mainstream learning, but within the context of their history, their culture and traditions. Education opens doors, it strengthens cultures, it builds confidence, and it helps people move forward.

Education is also needed in our communities. Why can’t the Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country be mainstream? I often wonder why the New Zealand Hakka is so universal now, a truly unique symbol of New Zealand; done anywhere in the world, and it is identified as from New Zealand. Here in Australia, here in Victoria, here in Colac Otway, are we doing enough to share with everyone the story of this practice? Do we need to do more and can we do more to share truly indigenous practices that can show and demonstrate the blending of new Australian society?

Who should be taking steps and who needs to take steps?

The greatest blocks to reconciliation are entrenched positions, and an inability to walk in someone else’s shoes. I don’t think reconciliation will be solved by any one idea or action. Reconciliation is after all, “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another”. I sometimes think the public debate is too much about “what someone should do”. Perhaps our next steps to reconciliation are reminding everyone that we are all that someone! That reconciliation will only come when we all take responsibility for what is needed to educate our children, repair some of our adults and support some of our communities.

Are there steps we should not take?

As the eternal optimist, I believe we must always look forward. We must realise that to bring real change we need the support of all Australians. To me the disappointment of the Uluru declaration in recent days has been the endless focus by the media and many activists on the negatives of the past 200 years. These are words and actions that will never bring change, and will never bring the majority of the community along. Our community will not let steps heavy with anger and resentment drive the change we will need to continue on the road to reconciliation. This is not to say history is not important. In fact history and its stories must never be forgotten. Like the Jewish diaspora, who use their centuries of persecution and heartache as tool to protect their culture, educate their children, and make them strong, Indigenous communities can do this too.

As a Member of Parliament I have a role to lead and support reconciliation, but I cannot make people do what they do not believe in. The 1967 referendum tells us that with a good argument and a just cause Australians will support change. If we use our joint history, work with all our community and get the politics right, then the next steps we must take in reconciliation will be self evident.