2018 ANU Reconciliation Lecture: Full Speech by Peter Yu

Reconciliation, Treaty Making and Nation Building
27 February 2018

Reconciliation has lost its moral and political gravitas.

Thank you, Aunty Agnes (Shae) for your warm welcome tonight and I'd like to extend my acknowledgement to all of the other traditional owners from this country. I would also like to congratulate the Traditional Owners and ANU in their successful discussions with the ANU to rename the Union Court to the local traditional owner name Kambri, the local name for the area and as the VC has said to recognise and embed our Indigenous story in the ANU campus.

Can I acknowledge Professor Gareth Evans ANU Chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt Vice-Chancellor and the other distinguish members of the ANU Executive team.

Can I also acknowledge all of the respective dignitaries who are here tonight, thank you Excellency's and representatives who have taken the time to come. Can I also thank the continuing and generous support of all of the donors to the ANU.  Can I also acknowledge Karen Mundine, Chair of Reconciliation Australia and her support and co sponsorship in this important national event.

I want to particularly make special mention of Professor Mick Dodson, my esteemed Yawuru countryman who heads up ANU's National Centre for Indigenous Studies which hosts this Lecture. Mick will be leaving his position this shortly and I would like to thank Mick, for enriching this University and our nation with his commitment to Indigenous scholarship and for maintaining your high standards of advocacy and your continuing contribution to public discourse.  I also acknowledge Dr Anne Martin, the Director of Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre and all of the Indigenous and Torres Strait students and scholars.

I finally acknowledge another of my fellow Yawuru countryman, Senator Patrick Dodson, who gave the inaugural ANU Reconciliation Lecture in 2004 and then again in 2013.

I am privileged to be able to deliver the Australian National University's Reconciliation Lecture.

I would like to say at the outset that I believe the once laudable concept of a Reconciliation whose initial objective was to heal the wounds of our nation's historic injustices and include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in a modern Australia under the terms of an agreed political settlement, no longer exists.

Reconciliation has lost its moral and political gravitas.

While I know and believe sections of the general community remain committed to the concept and aspiration of Reconciliation, it has become a nebulous and meaningless term and used by anyone as a throwaway concept to apply their interpretation about the relationship between Indigenous people and the Australian State.

It has become part of Australia's lazy dialogue concerning Indigenous people dominated by symbolism which has little connection with the realities of people's lives.

Personally, I find the first few weeks of the year an unsettling period with an obsessive focus on Australia Day or Invasion or Survival Day. And then as soon as we get past the 26th of January the national dialogue becomes immersed in the anniversary of Mr Rudd's historic apology, on behalf of the Australian nation, to the Stolen Generations.

And sadly, that worthy national milestone is diminished by the Prime Minister's annual report to the national parliament which highlights the nation's collective failure to close the appalling socio/economic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Throw in recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution and the potential severing of constitutional links to the British Monarch and what we have in this country is a facile dialogue of disconnected symbols which are supposed to define Australian nationhood.

Juxtaposed with the focus on symbolism and rhetoric about doing better to close the gap is the unacceptable reality of increasing imprisonment rates, appalling health outcomes, homelessness and overcrowded houses, family and community violence concerning Indigenous people.

The list of benchmarks which describes the crisis confronting many Indigenous people, particularly in remote Australia, is depressingly familiar.

A key element of this national tragedy is that governments have normalized what should be an unacceptable failure of Australian nationhood.

Symbolic and political increamentalism is cruel as it raises expectations and hope and distracts from the truth that can erode the culture and soul of people's and their communities.

Australia has reached a point in its history where we should have a genuine dialogue about establishing a realistic national approach to end the tragedy of Indigenous people's marginalisation.

The fact is that we as a nation will never close the gap if governments continue their current policies and practices.  We as the first peoples of this nation have enough experience with governments over many lifetimes to understand that this is not possible.

Only Indigenous people can close the gap but that means fundamentally changing the relationship that the Australian nation has with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We need to own our own risk and that any dramatic shift and change in our circumstances for the better of our children and families can only come from our own determination, our discipline commitment and leadership at an individual and collective level in driving the change required.

Then can we argue for a renewed commitment to Reconciliation by joining the fundamental symbols of our nationhood as a Grand National political settlement.

The idea of a national framework agreement or Treaty which supports localised agreements incorporating traditional owners or native title holders, the Commonwealth and State Governments, local governments and industry and community stakeholders should supersede the current dysfunctional federalism arrangements which we all know is failing.

A localised development approach would simply extend the existing Indigenous Land Use Agreements which are increasingly embedded in land administration arrangements under the Native Title Act except that it would be anchored in constitutional recognition.

A political settlement approach to Indigenous constitutional recognition should be fundamentally tied to a future independent Australian Republic.

The last time there was a serious debate about Australian becoming a Republic was almost twenty years ago and culminated in the 1999 Constitutional Referendum which rejected the case for change and yet again hijacked by base politics.

Back then there was no attempt by those advocating for a Republic to make the connection with Indigenous rights and Reconciliation. They simply wanted to replace the British Sovereign as head of state with someone appointed by at least two-thirds of the national parliament under their banner; A Resident for President.

Yet in light of the High Court's determination of native title in Mabo and Wik and the central matter of the British Government's intent concerning the recognition of Indigenous rights, the question to me and to many Indigenous people was; how could the political push to change Australia's Constitution by severing the connection with the British Crown not involve Indigenous people?

Aboriginal people have an enriched understanding of symbols, historic traditions and the Law. The connections between the current British Monarch and her fourth Great Grandfather King Gorge the Third are seamlessly pieced together as one symbolic temporal entity of profound significance to Indigenous people.

Coinciding with the 1998 Constitutional Convention in Canberra Aboriginal people held our own Constitutional Convention in the Kimberley, near Derby which resolved to send a delegation to London to tell the British Monarch that she should not leave her job until the unfinished business of achieving Indigenous consent to British occupation and settlement was properly addressed.

Eighteen months later, an Australian Indigenous delegation had an audience with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second at Buckingham Palace and told her that Britain had a historic responsibility to the Indigenous people of Australia which was central to Reconciliation.

The delegation led by Patrick Dodson comprised the late Gatjil Djekurra, then Chairman of ATSIC, Lowitja O'Donoghue, Marcia Langton and myself. Unfortunately, Galluwruy Yunupingu was too sick to travel and had to withdraw from the delegation.

We presented the Queen with a written statement outlining the unresolved relationship between Britain and the Indigenous people of Australia which one day we will make public.

The day after we met the Queen we learned that two great Australian law men had passed away.

One was Kenny Oobagooma, a senior Worrorra man who lived at the Mowamjun community near Derby and who had been a leading philosophical voice in the Kimberley Aboriginal Constitutional Convention which prompted the delegation to Buckingham Palace.

The other was Ron Castan QC, the great friend of Indigenous people and the lawyer who prosecuted the Mabo case on behalf of Eddie Mabo and the Murray Islanders. We knew Ron was undergoing a life-threatening operation to address a longstanding health problem but his death came as a terrible shock.

As a lawyer, political advisor and friend Ron was irreplaceable.

Ron had become concerned about the rights of Tibetan people after the exile of the Dalia Lama from Tibet and along with a number of his young legal colleagues spend a number of months living with the Dalai Lama and made a true and lifelong friendship with his holiness. Before we left for London, Ron had arranged for Patrick and me to meet his Holiness in Milan, Italy which we planned to do on our return journey.

It was an emotional meeting and for us but the Dalai Lama infused us with a sense that despite whatever sadness and loss one feels, life should be hopeful.

The Dalai Lama is as we all have witnessed an extraordinary insightful and profound thinker.

He has visited Australia many times and told us that we should feel positive about the potential of our nation. "Australia is a young nation," His Holiness said. "It is not scared by civil wars, tyrannical rule and mass impoverishment." "Australia," he said has the potential to transcend its colonial and bloodstained birth and reconcile its history and become "a beacon of light to the world."

When I feel grounded down by Australia's petty politics of division, the wedge politics and dog whistling that appeals to the worst of Australia; when I feel like I'm drowning in the murky swamp of mediocrity and incrementalism I often think of the Dalai Lama's inspirational vision for what Australia could be.

I seriously believe that the Australian nation is far better than the political system which represents us.

And where there is a groundswell of goodness in mainstream Australia the political system can change.

We are not America. We are, as the Dalai Lama says, a nation with the potential to be a beacon of light for a troubled world.

This is not a naïve romantic position. I have been fortunate with great mentors in my life who have inspired me to think this way.

A profound influence on my thinking was Nugget Coombs. As many of you would know Nugget was a great intellectual and political champion for the establishment of ANU and was this University's Chairman between 1968 and 1976.

In his later life, he became a wonderful friend and visited the Kimberley regularly and on occasions stay at my place.

Those of you who had the pleasure of spending time with Nugget would know that he was a compelling storyteller, particularly when lubricated with a glass of red wine.  We would regularly talk well into the night and he would regale me with extraordinary accounts of what this nation was capable of.

Central to his belief was that governments must lead. Nugget would explain that good Government leadership involved sound policies and the capacity to communicate to the mob that these policies were good for individuals, families and the nation.

His love and dedication to his country was based on his belief in Australia's potential to be the most humane nation on earth.

Australians, he would say were not grounded down by enmity, fear and class divisions. People had come from all over the world to make Australia home and to seek a better life. Australia had attracted the best of global humanity in terms of people possessing the values of empathy, inclusion and enterprise.

For Nugget reconciling the injustices with Australia's First People's was fundamental to Australia reaching its true potential. He was a true believer in a vision for Australia to be infused with the values and knowledge of Indigenous people so that we could be an inclusive and creative post-colonial nation like no other.

In my mind, Nugget was the greatest non-Indigenous champion of Reconciliation who could be imagined.

His belief in Australia's potential to include Indigenous people in the fabric of Australian nationhood was based on his intimate knowledge of nation-building. As the person put in charge of post-war reconstruction by Prime Minister Ben Chifley, Australia was transformed into the modern nation we have become.

He authored and oversaw the implementation of the famous White Paper on Employment.

Manufacturing industries were created supported by clever targeted fiscal measures. The education and training system was modernized and universities were built.

As Nugget would say when governments lead the creative resilience and enterprise of the Australian people could be mobilised.

Long after his death Nugget continues to inspire me. In recent times, I have advocated for fiscal and tax measures as an incentive for activating economic development on Aboriginal held lands yet I feel my ideas fall on deaf ears with today's policy makers and advisors.

If Nugget Coombs was commander in chief of Australia's economic development policy as he was for decades following the Second World War, we would have an audience with someone capable of advising and motivating government into action.

People will often say as a counter to Nugget Coombs' vision that Australia is innately conservative and that change can only happen incrementally and in bitable chunks.

"Be careful not to scare the horses" is a common Australian expression that imbeds inertia and incrementalism. Perhaps that's why Galluruwy told me all those years ago that "beware when the government tells you there is a light at the end of the tunnel because it's a bureaucrat with a torch running backwards".

I know conservative Australia. I come from conservative Australia.

And I have dealt with, what some would describe, as the hard Right of rural Australian political conservatives. I reject the proposition that conservative politics holds back the potential for Australia to embrace Indigenous people in our nation's Constitution and institutional fabric.

I do not accept that Indigenous people and our non-Indigenous supporters should be impeded in our advocacy and thinking because we think that conservatives won't like us.

In 1997 and the early part of 1998 I participated, alongside a range of national Indigenous leaders, in discussions with conservative politicians from both the Liberal and National Parties and rural political advocates about negotiating a Treaty between Indigenous people and the Australian Nation.

The Treaty was designed to supersede the Native Title Act and the various Indigenous land and heritage laws across the federal jurisdictions and bring about a lasting political settlement to resolve past injustices and continuing Indigenous grievances.

It was proposed that the Treaty negotiation would also be accompanied by a comprehensive investment in documenting Australian history which was designed to put an end to the destructive history wars and the abuse of history as a weapon in wedge politics.

The context of these discussions was the rise of One Nation and the very real threat by then Prime Minister John Howard to call a double dissolution general election on the Wik amendments to the Native Title Act.

There was, of course, a serious motivation of self-preservation on the part of the conservatives. There was nothing that Pauline Hanson would have loved more than to have a general election based on Indigenous rights. The National Party felt seriously threatened that they would be wiped out.

The mining industry, which were also involved in the discussions, felt that their interests were better served by John Howard's Parliamentary brinkmanship and withdrew from the process.

As we know Senator Harradine gave John Howard the vote he needed to pass the Wik 10 Point Plan Bill. Yet despite this, the dialogue continued for a couple of years in a genuine exploration by Indigenous leaders and conservative political leaders about negotiating a Treaty.

That experience convinced me that Conservative Australia is not opposed to a grand settlement of Reconciliation.

In fact, I believe that many conservative Australians of considered opinion are more thoughtful and committed about reconciling Australia than many of those who would describe themselves as belonging to the progressive side of Australian politics.

Ron Castan QC was passionately involved and helped build a bridge between conservative interests and Indigenous leaders as we sought to find a pathway towards a negotiated Treaty. We needed to believe that these discussions went beyond the expediency of Australian party-political self-interest.

Ron's untimely death in late 1999 reminded us all of the precious quality of leadership and how certain people of grandeur can influence history. Sadly, the dialogue on the Treaty between Indigenous Leaders and Conservative political interests waned after Ron left us.

In recent months, I have thought deeply about the quality of leadership of people like Nugget Coombs, Ron Castan QC and the Dalai Lama.

Last year, fifty years after more than 9 in 10 Australians voted to erase those appalling provisions in our nation's Constitution that Indigenous people should not be counted in the national census and that our people should be expressly excluded from Section 51, sub section 26 giving the Commonwealth power to make laws for any race, we have needed national leadership more than ever.

When 250 representatives of Indigenous nations from throughout Australia met at Uluru on the very anniversary of the 1967 Referendum to produce a Statement that reached out to the hearts of all Australians we sought the considered response from Australia's political leadership.

The poetic words in the Uluru Statement were clear, evocative and unifying. It called for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. It called for the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In the days following the Uluru Statement I wondered how the great Australian nation building political leaders who I have encountered - Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating - would have responded. I am sure that each of them would have captured the historic moment and woven it into the fabric our nation.

Instead, we got deafening silence and platitudes of delay. And then months later, we the Indigenous people and the nation as a whole, learned that the Government had rejected the whole constitutional recognition process.

Contrary to what our current Prime Minister says, our national Constitution does not enshrine the principles of equality of citizenship.  The history of the Australian Constitution is not inclusive. It is, in fact, the opposite.

Our nation was born with the constitutional powers to exclude Asians and non-white people and to enable the continued genocide of Indigenous people by ensuring that the Commonwealth had no responsibility for a people who were not considered worthy of being counted in the national census.

That is what the original Race Power was all about. Reconciling that history and amending the Constitution to enshrine the principles of equality of citizenship is what Indigenous people have fought for all along.

They are more than just words and legal powers. The Constitution defines the values of a nation.

My mother is Aboriginal and my father was Chinese. I know what I'm talking about when it comes to the values of exclusion and racism. Values which should not be part of modern Australia.

Sometimes we turn to humour to deal with this bleak situation. My late friend and comrade, Indigenous leader Tracker Tilmouth once rang me out of the blue and said to me.

"Yuee, I feel sorry for you mate".

 I said, "Why's that Track".

He said, "because that red-haired woman hates you twice."

But on a serious note, if, we are going to transcend this nation's bloodstained history of violent dispossession and exclusion of Indigenous people and become, as the Dalai Lama has said - a beacon of light to the world - we must embark on a national commitment to learn and understand our history.

This is what the Uluru Statement has called for as a fundamental aspect of Reconciliation and Treaty Making.

In winding up I would like to refer to some aspects of the ANU RAP but also outline what I think could be the responsibility of ANU in this national commitment for renewed Reconciliation of historical understanding and truth-telling.

Nugget Coombs' vision was for this university to be a nation-building learning institution and a leader in public discussion and policy formulation of big ideas.  Reconciling tens of thousands of years of Indigenous occupation and ownership of Australian lands and waters with European colonisation and settlement since 1788 is a big idea which this university is ideally placed to make a significant contribution.

The New Australian National University Reconciliation Action Plan was launched on 31st January this year, it states that ANU will renew, build on its history of engagement, and seek a new partnership with Indigenous Australia.

It is intended to set new benchmarks for initiatives that are to be implemented at a University-wide level and to create a holistic approach to advancing reconciliation. ANU has invested in research and learning with an indigenous focus and built an organisational architecture which has the capacity to reach out to every corner of our nation to join with Indigenous communities and others to transform learning and knowledge sharing.

While there are important strategies designed in the RAP to target greater equity and opportunity for Indigenous students, scholars and administrators, it is also pleasing to note and acknowledge that the ANU RAP is not limited to a narrow and Indigenous-specific outcomes only, but rather to move seriously to fulfil its responsibility as the National University by putting the National back in the N of ANU.

The Strategic and Executive Plan acknowledges that it is not only the question of University experiences and academic excellence important for first peoples but how the nature of that experience and achievement can we recognised and leveraged in important and other critical areas for the benefit of the nation, areas like the Societal Transformation initiative and the proposed Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub areas of research, innovation and public policy development to set the agenda in National and International discourse about our ourselves, our region and our future together.

An important example of this is the recent initiative by the ANU in partnership with our federal Indigenous parliamentarians The Honourable Ken Wyatt, Senators Linda Burney, Patrick Dodson, Malarndirri McCarthy and Professor Mick Dodson to host a First Nations Governance Forum to be held In July this year.

Coming off the back of the recent rejection of the Uluru Statement by the government and seemingly at this stage no further movement on the proposed Constitutional Recognition, the ANU will host this major forum to consider First Nations governance reform in Australia and lessons learned from other jurisdictions globally at Old Parliament House.

This the beginning of a new engagement with the first peoples of this nation in critical public policy leadership and discourse, but this University is capable of so much more if it could harness its potential to collaborate and use its resources more efficiently to reach out and partner Indigenous and particularly across northern Australian communities.

I think it is particularly relevant in this time in our history with the considerable attention on the development of Northern Development and the growing discourse on our current and future relations with China, Asia and India, this is an opportunity for the ANU to grow its investment in northern first people's communities.

Demographically as first peoples of the north we still remain the permanent population with significant land, water and cultural assets, our cultural assets marginally acknowledged and our physical assets underdeveloped. First peoples of northern Australia future lies in our capacity to economically engage with our northern neighbours.

For some time I have harboured the idea about fusing the collective endeavours and passions of local indigenous communities, universities, schools and local governments to document oral histories of the first peoples and settler communities of this country and to combine those stories with archival sources to build a bank of knowledge that would be an uncontested truth.

I imagined that the process itself of collecting and exploring local histories which would come together as a mosaic of national understanding and wisdom would be reconciliation in practice.

I believe that ANU has the capacity and gravitas to lead this initiative. It would be ANU's way of responding to the Uluru Statement and meeting the university's high commitment to Reconciliation. The idea that we could have a National History and Reconciliation Centre to become a key source of the energy for the beacon to shine it's light on the future pathway for the maturation of this nation through its key role in academic excellence in research and innovation in national policy development areas. Such an endeavour would do more than anything I could imagine to honour the legacy of the great Nugget Coombs.

Without a deep and meaningful understanding of this nation's history, I don't believe we will achieve national reconciliation. There simply will not be the appetite or passion for substantial change.

The continuing trickle-down effect of political symbolism and uncreative policies is akin to the impact of trickle-down economics, is an outdate model in a technological modern society and has minimal effect of the real lives of ordinary Australians.

I am an optimist by nature and I know Australia is a better nation than the political system that represents us. The failure of successive national governments and parliaments to forge pathways to recognise Indigenous peoples in the nation's constitution is a failure of Australia's body politic.

Constitutional recognition should not be viewed as another contentious issue, accompanied by political cajoling and manoeuvring, to be ticked along the linear trajectory of Australian nation building.

It should be understood as fundamental to our moral and ethical national character.

We at the end will have to depend on the goodwill, fairness and continuing commitment of the broader Australian community with people like yourselves

Without a Reconciled Australia we will be destined to remain trapped in its colonial heritage of unfinished business.