Local, Independant and Effective

Closing the Gap speech - Cathy McGowan 2016

Posted February 23, 2016



CATHY McGOWAN:  I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land on which we meet and pay my respect to the elders past and present, and I extend this respect to all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are present today and to those traditional owners and custodians of country within the electorate that I have the privilege and honour to serve of Indi. Every year brings continued challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, including those in my electorate. We have heard about many of them today and they are outlined in the 2016 Closing the gap report. Each year also brings a new generation into our communities and takes another generation from us. Babies are born accompanied by great joy and with the same hope that all families have for their children for a happy, healthy and purposeful life.

But every year, we also record with deep sorrow the passing of the elders that new generations will only know through the continuation of community connection, crafting and sustaining of contacts within country and maintaining a relationship with culture and heritage. There have been many good leaders that I have had the privilege to know during my time as the member for Indi, and I acknowledge them.

During the 2½ years that I have held this honoured position I have been very proud and excited to know many elders and Indi community groups, the Gadhaba, Dirriwarra, Duduroa and Wodonga Aboriginal networks, the Taungurung, the Bunurung and the Bangerang people, and I have had the opportunity to be a guest at the Mungabareena Aboriginal Corporation during the wonderful visit by the Governor-General and Lady Cosgrove. I have had the pleasure of meeting and learning from the Koori First Steps Pre-School in Wodonga about the many health activities taking place.

It has been a time of great achievement. I was so proud to come into this place and make an apology on behalf of the stolen generations. I was really pleased to meet up with the various advisory groups right across the electorate, particularly to work with them on mental health, jobs and education.

I was really pleased to meet with the Hon. Ken Wyatt when he was chair of the committee for constitutional recognition and to talk to him about the issues facing the people of north-east Victoria. I have been pleased to be part of the many celebrations of NAIDOC Week and to meet the many communities involved during that very important time. I have been pleased to welcome to this place, Parliament House, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, particularly some of the women's leadership groups that are taking their place in leading their communities. I have been very pleased to be part of the local Indigenous network movement around Victoria and to have opportunities to meet with the workers, staff and community groups that are linked in those networks.

I was very pleased recently to have the privilege of going to the Burraja Indigenous Cultural and Environmental Discovery Centre on the causeway between Albury and Wodonga, juxtaposed between our two cities. The Burraja centre offers educational and general interest programs that focus on Aboriginal culture, heritage and environment, particularly for visitors and tourists. It acknowledges the role that Aboriginal people have played in this really important part of the country, on the banks of the Murray River, for so many years. At Albury-Wodonga, the two big rivers the Kiewa and the Murray come together, and just east of us the Murray and the Mitta come together, so these are major fertile places that Aboriginal people have clearly inhabited for a very, very long time. So it is fantastic to be part of the Burraja community and see how life perhaps was lived then. I would particularly like to acknowledge the support and guidance of Alicia Wheatley in showing me around this centre and giving me the time to understand how it worked.

The centre was set up in 2002 with funding from the philanthropic group the Ian Potter Foundation, and it was supported by the Community Development Employment Program, the CDEP, and also in partnership with Parklands Albury Wodonga. It operated really well for a while but now is being supported by volunteers and is not nearly reaching its potential. Nevertheless, the partnerships still exist with the North East CMA, Gateway Community Health and the SEED Project, and there are relationships with the Cape York Natural Resource Management Board, Landcare groups, Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service and Murray Wildlife. So they continue to work to hold this space between the two rivers as a place where visitors like me can go and learn about the rich culture.

So, over this period of time, I have been blessed with the opportunities to gain an improved understanding of the importance and value and the commonality of past, present and future with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am very grateful to them for their patience and their tolerance in bringing me with them on the journey. But there is still really important work to do, as we know from the Closing the gap report.

There is one particular project that I would like to bring before this House, and it is supported by the elders and others in Indi. It remains to be completed, and the area that we are looking at is central north-east Victoria. The aim, the cry, the interest and the want, I think, is to establish a gathering place which has accessible reach right around the central area of north-east Victoria. Elders and other community leaders have long recognised that connection, community, culture and country all work together to secure happier, healthier and more purposeful living. We understand that the central north-east of Victoria has a gap: it is missing this gathering place that can provide a wide range of cultural, educational and health-related services and activities which other regions enjoy, such as what I have talked about in Albury-Wodonga.

Sitting somewhere between Shepparton and Albury-Wodonga, Wangaratta and district is a significant gap that more than 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have commenced a journey to close. The strength of the invitation in having access to such a gathering place, which would provide cultural, health and education resources needed to close this gap, is undoubted. People talk about having a place where we can eat good food, exercise together, be healthy and happily be together but also welcome others into our midst.

Initial scoping has been done, and funding is now being sought via local government and Victorian state programs for the necessary detailed feasibility studies. In the longer term, with confidence that the viability and need of a gathering place will be recognised, I invite the community to approach the office of the federal member for Indi to seek my support in obtaining funding that will also be required to complete the vision of the elders and the many others who share this goal of a local gathering place.

In bringing my comments to a close, beyond the importance and the rich reality of being able to stand here and say, 'Sorry,' and to acknowledge the history and the hurt, it is now time to build a place to draw the past into the here and now, to dream and to create a place that can close the gap in the central area of north-east Victoria. Thank you to the people who have helped me to prepare for today. Thank you to the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who have undertaken this journey with me. I look forward to being your representative when this parliament returns and in the years to come. Thank you.

IMAGE: Cathy meets with National Congress of Australia's First People co-chairs Dr Jackie Huggins and Rod Little in Parliament House.


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