by Leanne Liddle
Leanne Liddle (above right) says "The fundamental problem with Bolt’s comments is that they are based on the misconception that evidence and truth are the same thing". She is with another guest speaker Jillian Boyd-Bowie, who delivered a powerful poem written about NAIDOC, and FNT's Rhonda Hagan at the Vibe Hotel Darwin NAIDOC lunch. Image: supplied
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests.
First let me acknowledge the Larrakia people whose land we are meeting on today and a special welcome to the many Aboriginal people here.
It’s a small but relevant gesture that identifies respect and the history of Aboriginal people - which we all as Australians and visitors should embrace.
It’s an honour for me to speak at your event during NAIDOC week and address this year’s theme: Voice, Treaty, and Truth.
I’ve decided to leave the issue of Treaty to the recently appointed Treaty Commissioner for the Northern Territory.
Instead, this afternoon, my focus will be on the two other themes of NAIDOC week in 2019, Voice and Truth, as I believe these issues require attention first, before we begin any progress or conversation towards a treaty.
Challenging Bolt’s misconception: Evidence and Truth are not the same
There are three key points that I’d like you to remember from my presentation this afternoon.
The first is that giving Aboriginal people a voice isn’t enough to create the change that is needed for Aboriginal people.
What is required is an acknowledgement, an acceptance and an appreciation of the history and current challenges facing Aboriginal Australians today.
Secondly, as individuals in our professional and personal capacity, we all have a role to play in guarding against mistruths about the history of Aboriginal Australia.
And thirdly, we need to do something about these mistruths and be courageous enough to correct past wrongs; to correct the record.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the original meanings of the word ‘voice’ was ‘a right to vote’.
But it wasn’t until 1962 that Aboriginal Australians were allowed the right to vote in Commonwealth elections. And it was not until a further 5 years later in the 1967 referendum that Aboriginal people were even counted in the national census as people. But what are the real outcomes that came to Aboriginal people from such change?
One of the recent events that discussed the issues of treaty, truth and voice, in May 2017, was the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’.
It called for three key outcomes: firstly, the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the AustralianConstitution; secondly the establishment of a ‘Makarrata Commission’; and thirdly for this commission to supervise a process of ‘agreement-making’ and ‘truth-telling’ between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about Australia’s history and colonisation.
One of the statements said was:
‘in 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.’
But the Uluru statement was not seeking historic recognition by written words but active and ongoing recognition of our Aboriginal voice, to be heard, in the corridors of power.
The problem is not that Aboriginal people have remained silent.
Far from it, our voice has been constant and repetitive and at times angry but it always been there.
Instead, the problem is that our voice has fallen on deaf ears to many.
Now I think that it is important to note that we heard just this morning of the great news that Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has announced that there will be a referendum within 3 years to put to the Australian people recognition of Aboriginal people in the Constitution.
He has also set a target of 0 per cent for Aboriginal youth suicide.
So I eagerly await what will happen when he becomes aware that the suicide rate for Northern Territory children aged 15-17 years is over three times higher than any other jurisdiction.
The rate of Aboriginal Australians in the NT dying from intentional self-harm is over 2.1 times the rate of non-Aboriginal Australians.
But what about the other two requests? Where did they end up? Why aren’t they possible and only one?
And why did it have to take an Aboriginal person to make these changes despite the fact that previous Ministers and others who would have heard that same message and had the same data?
Would it have happened if Minister Wyatt was not appointed?
For Aboriginal people to have a voice, we need non-Aboriginal people to pay attention and actually listen to what we have to say, and we need the resources to be allocated to it to do this well.
It means listening with an attitude of openness, not judgment.
That means that we need to eliminate the debates and opinions based on emotions and misconceptions, mostly personal opinions, rather than those supported by independence and facts.
These types of debates divide us.
For Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to move forward together, these debates need to be grounded in truths, together.
You only have to look at the Northern Territory Emergency Response that occurred in June 2007, where the then federal government sent in army troops to allegedly ‘protect Aboriginal children’ from sexual abuse as a response to the independent findings of the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report.
Overnight, life changed for Aboriginal Territorians - the Intervention affected all the 73 remote Aboriginal communities and legislated to withhold welfare payments from Aboriginal welfare recipients, there was an increased police presence in Aboriginal communities, alcohol was banned, and the legislation demanded compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children, as well as the power for government to take possession of Aboriginal land and property.
With no consultation, with no Aboriginal voice, the lives of hundreds of Aboriginal Territorians changed.
People were angry and upset at first.
But then I saw the devastating impact caused by the intervention as people moved across the border into South Australia in order to flee the effects of the legislation.
The look of shame in the eyes of once proud and responsible men.
I saw the impact of guilt from women, who now held their heads low.
Aboriginal people told me stories that:
‘we are labelled as inadequate parents and bad people.’
The fact that you were labelled as a person who was unable to look after their money no matter how good a parent you actually were.
These experiences highlighted to me what can happen when legislators make decisions without listening to, or hearing from the many Aboriginal voices, or when you fail to consider the consequences of your actions.
As theDirector of the Aboriginal Justice Unit, my team has been responsible for overseeing the development and delivery of the Northern Territory’s first Aboriginal Justice Agreement. We have completed a draft that is working its way through the government process.
While I can’t expand on the substantive contents of the Agreement, I would like to tell you a little about our methodology.
It is a serious topic that required a serious approach.
So when we developed the draft of the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Justice Agreement, it based on two key elements.
The first element was an extensive data-collection exercise, which involved collaboration with many agencies outside of justice, that included the Australian Bureau of Statistics, our own statistical team, criminologists and many other experts.
The second key element, was the well-designed and funded consultation process.
Over two years my team travelled the Northern Territory, to listen to Aboriginal Territorians who told us what isn’tworking in the justice system. We conducted just over 120 consultations with Aboriginal communities and organisations, two thirds of which were in remote Aboriginal communities.
We did so, to give some ‘voice’ back to Aboriginal Territorians.
When we asked the hard questions about what was needed to keep kids out of prison and what was needed to fix the problems present in many Aboriginal communities, this is what we were told:
‘It’s our responsibility to look after our kids and grow them up the right way. No excuses, we have to show responsibility.’
And it was then that we were able to talk about what was missing, what was needed, and what could be done, but it had to be in partnership with Aboriginal Territorians and the Northern Territory Government - each with their own obligations and accountabilities that are now aligned to some 23 strategies in the draft Agreement.
We did this, with, and in the company of, male and female cultural brokers, leaders, Elders, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Where necessary, we engaged interpreters, we had separate male and female meetings, we returned to communities at their request to provide a culturally safe and relevant space where Aboriginal people could speak and be heard.
Without engaging these elements, the voices, your hearing will be selective, and you will leave ill or misinformed, and any decisions you then make will be ill-equipped to deliver the best outcome.
The point I’m making is this - don’t even bother to pack your bags if you want to hear the voices of Aboriginal people unless you engage a culturally competent process.
If you don’t have the funds to capture the voice of the people and deliver your task across the entire breadth of the Northern Territory whose voices come with an obligation, and the expectation that you will do something with it, then you really need to re-think; what are you doing?
So let’s hope Mr Wyatt’s great proposals accommodate those 73 communities, and 500 homelands and captures the 30 per cent plus of the NT’s Aboriginal population, which over 60 per cent live outside of Darwin.
Some of you might think that the opportunity to travel across the Territory visiting remote communities would’ve been a beautiful experience.
Yes, the Territory is certainly beautiful, but I will say, that we often left the communities we visited with a deep sense of despair, combined with a heavy burden of responsibility.
What we saw was heartbreaking – entire communities whose voices had been neglected or ignored for decades.
Some people told us that they had never been asked their views on the impacts of significant policy decisions by governments.
I remember vividly at one of the prison work Camps, an inmate who told us:
‘I’m 56 now, I’m trying to get back on my feet and this is the first time I’ve been asked what I need so I can do better on the outside and I can see something happening with you mob coming and asking us all why we’re in here – it feels good – I feel a bit of healing talking with you mob about my story.’
Even after 11 years in the Police Force, where I’ve been shot at, seriously assaulted, and where I have witnessed events that no-body should ever have to see in their lifetime, some of the toughest experiences and images I saw was during the consultations.
Despite this, what I did see, was a small handful of functioning communities that were evident the moment when we stepped out of our plane or car.
There were clear indicators that showed us when Aboriginal people had a voice and when they were being heard there was leadership present, people were empowered and supported.
And all this made those communities and people feel safe.
You will have to await the release of the draft Agreement to know more, but what I can share with you are some of the voices in the responses that we captured from Aboriginal Territorians during the consultations.
But people did say:
‘We need our voices to be heard and not dominated’
‘There have been lots of promises with no outcomes.’
A finding from our consultations was that the trauma and pain from the Stolen Generations and the Intervention is still raw and continues to affect Aboriginal Territorians in a significant way today.
We found that the removal of children is still felt by those torn from their families despite the passage of time, and the impacts are still felt in the lives of that person and are intergenerational.
Perhaps it is no surprise that at almost every consultation with Aboriginal people or organisations, people asked for parenting programs, resilience training, and grief and trauma counselling.
Denial of the Truths about Aboriginal People
But some Australians continue to deny these events ever happened.
In 2013 social and political commentator Andrew Bolt wrote an article in the Herald Sun describing the Stolen Generations as a ‘myth’.
Two years later, Bolt commented that:
‘no one to this day has been able to name even 10 of the children allegedly stolen by officials just for being Aborigines…Even the courts cannot find them…
The fundamental problem with Bolt’s comments is that they are based on the misconception that evidence and truth are the same thing.
I’m here to tell you that they are NOT the same things, that ‘evidence’ is one thing and ‘truth’ another.
I can’t emphasize this point enough.
‘Evidence’ is information drawn from personal testimony, a document, or a material or tangible object, used to establish facts in a legal investigation before a court.
‘Truth’, on the other hand, is an account which is in accordance with fact or reality.
Courtroom ‘evidence’ may be an important part of the process, but it does NOT determine conclusively what did or did not happen.
In the Cubillo and Gunner case, in the year two thousand, a test case bought by members of the Stolen Generations in the Northern Territory, faced a key problem by the two plaintiffs: the lack of ‘evidence’.
The main reason why Mr Gunner’s claims of wrongful imprisonment and trespass failed was that the court found that his mother had consented to his removal.
It had relied on a formal legal document presented by the Commonwealth that purported to bear the thumb print of the plaintiff’s mother.
But what the court failed to take into account was the fact that Mr Gunner’s mother was an Aboriginal woman who spoke no English, who could not read or write English.
And there was no mention of the use of an interpreter.
But the Commonwealth’s document could not be challenged without ‘evidence’.
And such evidence was not obtainable because Mr Gunner’s mother had died, and none of the parties knew who had obtained her thumb print.
The point I’m making here is that you can’t just look at the available ‘evidence’ to get to the truth of what happened because the evidence sometimes can’t capture the entire truth.
In the Cubillo and Gunner case, the ‘evidence’ was the legal document that the Commonwealth presented to the court.
But the legal document itself would never had captured the truths that is: that is was highly unlikely that Mr Gunner’s mother knew what she was doing when she gave her thumb print.
So if you were to just focus on the ‘evidence’ of this case you’d say she consented to her son’s removal – when in reality, that could not have been further from the truth.
If you want to talk about evidence, let me give you some evidence.
In the National Archives of Australia, here in Darwin on Bagot Road, I have seen the blue prints for the Temple Bar Institution for Half Caste Children.
I have seen the reports by the Protector of Aborigines requesting the immediate removal of Aboriginal children because they were mingling with white people.
I have read the letters from Aboriginal parents begging for their children to not be removed by the government because it would not only be unfair for their children to be away from their parents, but because it would break their hearts.
What more evidence do we need?
Well how about some reports?
Let’s include the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that was concluded some 28 years ago, in 1991,and first brought the shocking rates of Aboriginal incarceration into the public view.
Then there’s the Bringing Them Home report that exposed the full extent of the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their parents, families, culture, land and sea.
And the list of reports, inquiries and commissions goes on…..
How can we forget the Royal Commission into Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. And just last year, the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice report, and now the current Royal Commission into Aged Care, Quality and Safety and how many of the 73 Aboriginal communities in the NT did they visit?
But all these practices and conversations play a critical role that feeds the continual narrative of denial and disregard of Aboriginal voices and highlights the lack of influence we have over policies that affect us.
Unfortunately, this kind of denial goes right to the top.
In a 2014 interview televised throughout Australia, ex-Prime Minister John Howard stated that he didn’t accept the Bringing Them Home report findings that genocide had taken place in line with the definition under international law.
Now this was our ex-Prime Minister who said he rejected these findings. The fact that such a prominent public figure could disregard the findings of an independent commission is representative of the broader problem of the denial of how badly Aboriginal Australians have been treated.
It’s just not good enough for people to excuse their behaviour when they have control over what they say, and are able to inform themselves on the truth.
My point is this: Australians can no longer plead ignorance.
In 2019, after 28 years of report after report after report, it is no excuse to claim ‘we didn’t know’.
Because the fact is that we do know, and with that knowledge, comes an obligation to act.
I’ve seen it done before.
I’ve worked internationally and I’ve witnessed how Germany has owned responsibility and the consequences for the genocide enacted by the Nazi regime.
Now this is important: I’m not comparing the atrocities, but I am comparing the responses.
In Germany the holocaust is taught in schools, it is a conversation that is not disguised or ignored.
It repeats the facts, accepts the truth, and there is ownership by Germans that it happened, and whilst this generation isn’t personally responsible, there is ownership and acknowledgment that they are truly sorry for what happened.
Now I’m not expecting non-Aboriginal people to feel personally responsible for the past policies or practices that have impacted negatively on Aboriginal Australians because that is the key difference between feeling guilty and feeling shame at what our governments have done and what most Australians have ignored if not condoned.
We need to make a concerted effort to quell and guard against the mistruths and misconceptions and the damaging voices.
It is the role and responsibility that allof us have to engage in.
It needs to be done before we vote on the referendum so we are fully able to make informed decisions based on truths.
Your role can start with the conversations that we hear from our mates, our colleagues and our families that we need to shut down before they become infectious.
You can start by acknowledging the traditional owners at the beginning of meetings so as not to perpetuate the toxic positon that Bolt says:
‘it’s a ritual, that treats all those who aren’t Aborigines as intruders , it is at heart, profoundly racist.’
Perhaps we can reflect on Obama’s mother’s advice to him when she said:
‘Every time a fool speaks they are just advertising their own ignorance - let them speak, let them be held accountable and then you will have the opportunity to challenge them.’
The solutions lie in having those hard uncomfortable conversations, just as my mother had some decades ago with our high school teacher in Alice Springs who told her to take my twin sister and me out of school in year 10 because we would never amount to anything.
Her response? As you might expect was:
‘You may have abused your rights years ago to dictate my destiny, but I will never allow you to do that ever again, and never with my children.’
I’m proud to say that my sister now has the letters PhD after her name.
The solutions are sitting right here in this room, not in the boardrooms of peak Aboriginal bodies, chosen individuals, or even the hallowed halls of the Northern Territory and Federal Parliaments. It is in all of us, each and every one of you. We all need to be change agents.
So I thank you for allowing me to have a voice, and I thank you all for listening, and I look forward to knowing what role you will play and how you will work with us to make a change that will make a better Australia.
Please enjoy NAIDOC and enjoy the rest of this week’s celebrations.
Leanne Liddle delivered this speech on Wednesday 10 July 2019 at the NAIDOC luncheon held at Adina Vibe in Darwin and is published with Ms Liddle's permission.
How smart governance boosts top Indigenous boards
[Jody Nunn, Business News WA]
As we celebrate NAIDOC Week 2019, we take a look at the Indigenous business sector, with the top 500 firms worth nearly $2b – and at how the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations keeps 3000 enterprises on track.
An unsung hero of Aboriginal rights in Australia
[Paul Roe, Eternity News]
When I first met “Riverbank” Frank Doolan on the streets of outback Bourke, he was an angry young man.
Rome scholarship honours Aboriginal student
By Georgina Bible
Calle Nicholls is the recipient of the 2019 Francis Xavier Conaci Scholarship which will assist her to undertake study at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) Rome Campus.