Closing the Gap response rounds off indigenous community representation
Posted February 20, 2019
Today's Closing the Gap response brings to a close Cathy's policy commitment, made in 2013, to consult and network with Indi's indigenous communities; recognise and acknowledge the Stolen Generations; and work with the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (16:20): In making my comments today, I would like to cover off about the importance of the Closing the Gap document, talk a little bit about the history and importance of the apology, talk about my work here in parliament during the six years I have been member for Indi and talk about what's next.
Let me start with some history. There is a wonderful book called Corroboree or war party: the last dance of the Wangaratta Pangerang. This book talks about the first contact with white people in my area in 1894—the great adventurers Hume and Hovell. It says Hume and Hovell actually followed the Pangerang footsteps; Hume and Hovell didn't make the route themselves. It says that 'members of the 1824 exploration expedition travelled along native pathways. There were no other tracks except such as were made by the natives in the neighbourhood of the water.' A little bit later, it talks about the area around the Ovens Valley of north-east Victoria in 1824. It says: 'The natives hereabout are evidently numerous as they conclude from their fires, the smoke of which is observed in every direction, and yesterday their voices were distinctly heard but none of them could be seen.' So, the early white settlement history in early Victoria is recorded here. This book is by Wendy Mitchell, who did it as part of her masters degree in regional development.
In my growing up, that is probably the history I got of my area. And it wasn't really until I agreed to stand as the member for Indi that I paid some serious attention to the history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who live in north-east Victoria. It was the apology that first brought this to my attention. As members would know, the then Prime Minister Mr Rudd made the apology. The federal member for Indi at the time decided that she would not be present for the apology; she abstained. The reaction in my community was one of horror, because she was our representative and she wasn't there.
I was part of the general movement that said that was not good enough; we didn't want a representative who wouldn't represent us. That was one of the driving forces that encouraged me to put my hand up. I made the commitment that, when I got elected, I would come to parliament and I would make the apology on behalf of the people of Indi, which I did. In preparation for getting elected, I met many of the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I made a policy commitment in 2013 that, if elected as a member of parliament, I would form an advisory committee of Aboriginal people to assist in providing advice on issues of health, education and employment. I committed to make a public statement to recognise and acknowledge past mistreatment of stolen generations and I committed to make an acknowledgement to traditional owners of the land on which I meet at every public assembly. I am delighted to say that I have been able to do that. That was commitment No. 1.
The second part of me being a member of parliament was to be a representative for my community. I am delighted and proud to say that I think I have been able to do that—not perfectly but I have certainly begun. I have made formal speeches in parliament around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues in my electorate. I have been speaking on Closing the Gap. I have asked questions. I have reported on local activities. I have had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander come to Canberra, and we have had deputations. So, that is good work.
Also as a member of parliament I have been able to reach out and network with some of my communities. I want to briefly put on record and thank and acknowledge the work of the three local Aboriginal networks in my community that provide me with policy advice—the Gadhaba in Mansfield, the Dirrawarra in Wangaratta, the Albury-Wodonga Aboriginal Network and their leaders. I won't name you all—there are far too many—but I thank you very much for welcoming me into your community.
I want to acknowledge the First Nations elders advisory group, which I've met with twice, this year and late last year, and thank them particularly for their words of wisdom and the issues that they've presented to me about housing, health and their want to be involved in closing the gap at a regional level.
I want to talk especially about some of the key aunties and uncles that have helped me understood my job better: Aunty Betty Hood-Cherry, Uncle Freddy Dowling, Catherine Coysh, David Noonan, Tammy Campbell, Darren Moffitt and Chris Thorne. Thank you so much for your patience and your tolerance. You've taken me under your wing as your federal member and you've taught me a great deal. Following the learning from knowing you, I was encouraged to put my hand up to be considered for the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition. I think that was really when I absolutely came to understand the responsibility I have as a member of parliament. Though I thought I'd done reasonable work representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, I know our work hasn't even seriously begun.
I want to talk briefly to the report of the committee. It says:
We believe there is a strong desire among all Australians to know more about the history, traditions and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their contact with other Australians both good and bad. A fuller understanding of our history including the relationship between Black and White Australia will lead to a more reconciled nation.
There are recommendations in the report to do that, particularly around truth-telling. I want to talk for a minute about this committee of inquiry, because it came to Albury-Wodonga. We had a number of local people come to present. We had over 24 submissions from Indi to that inquiry. As I sat and listened to the local people talk about our history of white settlement and efforts around health and education, I came to understand how far we have to go and how far my community has to go before we even begin to do some of the serious work of closing the gap.
I now get to the part of my speech where I acknowledge the work of the constitutional committee. I want to say thank you to Senator Pat Dodson. When we were in Broome, he took me around and showed me his community through his eyes. If you ever go to Broome and have the opportunity to be guided around by Aboriginal people who give you a sense of their 60,000 years of history, it's the most wonderful thing to behold. I want to say thank you to Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, who came to Beechworth and delivered the Kerferd oration to over 400 people at Beechworth. At the end, she got a standing ovation for not only her skill of oration but also her ability to reach across the divide of the Northern Territory and north-east Victoria to connect with the community and give us a sense of our shared journey together.
I want to say thank you to Linda Burney, member of the House of Representatives, and the leadership she has provided in the House, but also our shared work with the Torres Strait Islander women's leadership group. Linda, in acknowledging you, I also want to acknowledge your partner, Rick Farley. When he was with the National Farmers' Federation, one day he pointed out to me—he said, 'Cathy, never ever forget that Australia has a black heart.' I take that so strongly. What a wonderful thing it is to think that our culture and our nation is formed, and the heart of us is our Aboriginal traditions. I also want to thank Julian Leeser, the co-chair of that committee, for his wisdom, his knowledge and his professionalism. I learnt so much from watching him at work.
In bringing my comments to a close on Closing the Gap and bringing the last speech I will make in parliament around this topic to a close, I want to commit to do four things: I want to talk about our history, I want to talk about being solution focused, I want to talk about recognition of traditional owners, and I want to talk about the importance of Closing the Gap, but beginning at grassroots and not doing top-down work.
When I finish being a member of parliament, I commit to understanding and documenting the history of white settlement in my community, because, when we started to look at finding out who the traditional owners in our community were, there were very few of them, and they don't live locally. And the reason why they don't live locally is that they died or they got moved somewhere else. I live in a really populous part of north-east Victoria, and we don't have our local history of that white settlement. I'm going to work with my community over the next 10 years to document it and begin that process of truth-telling, and I invite the young people here today to be part of this journey with me, as part of your school curriculum. As young leaders, come with me on the journey to understand our history, our long-time Indigenous history. I hope, like me, you will be inspired by it. (Time expired)