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Governor-General Sir William Deane’s Address To Corroboree 2000

This is the text of the address to Corroboree 2000 by the Governor-General, Sir William Deane.

Governor-General Sir William Deane’s Address to Corroboree 2000.

DeaneAt the outset, I acknowledge the traditional custodians and thank them for the welcome they have given us all to their ancestral lands.

All of us who are pilgrims on the road to Aboriginal reconciliation have reached a crossroads. This is a time to pause and look back to the past, around at the present, and forward to the future.

Looking back, the starting point must be an acknowledgment of facts and truths which are now too well established or obvious to be denied. The dispossession and oppression of the Aboriginal peoples of this country over most of the years of non-indigenous settlement constitute, as Justice Gaudron and I said in a case called Mabo, the darkest aspect of the history of our nation.

Looking around at the present, there is the plight of so many of our Aboriginal fellow Australians. In terms of material things such as health, education, employment, housing and living conditions. In terms of things of spirit, such as hope, belief, self-confidence and self-esteem. And there is the plain fact that that present plight as regards both material and spiritual things – and the problems, including substance and other abuse, which flow from them – are largely the consequence of the injustices of the past.

It’s wrong to see those past injustices as belonging, as it were, to another country. They have been absorbed into the present and the future of contemporary Indigenous Australians and of the nation of which they form such an important part. They reach from the past to shape who and what we are. They – and the land that was taken – are our country.

So, as we pause at this crossroads, let us come together in truth, in acknowledgment, in profound sadness and in deep regret. And let us silently mourn for a moment as we reflect upon those past injustices and upon the present disadvantage which flows from them and upon what was taken, what was lost, and what might have been.

But we must also acknowledge the many positives. Particularly on this day towards national reconciliation. Let me remind you of but a few of them.

The first words of our Constitution’s preamble – “Whereas, the people…” – have always recognised the fundamental truth that it is the people of the Commonwealth who constitute our nation. But the Constitution went on, in s.127, to exclude what it called “Aboriginal natives” in reckoning the number of those people. On 27 May 1967, the Australian people overwhelmingly rejected that unbearable exclusion. For me, that rejection not only removed an ugly stain from the basic fabric of our society. It constituted the true beginning of the long and difficult road to Aboriginal reconciliation.

Then, in 1975, after the Wave Hill strike, there was the symbolic return of part of the traditional lands of the Gurindji people at Daguragu. That was followed, in 1976, by the Commonwealth’s enactment of the first Aboriginal Land Rights Act. In 1991, both Houses of our national Parliament unanimously enacted the legislation establishing the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. In itself, that was a significant step towards national reconciliation. In 1992, there came the decision of our highest court in the Mabo case. And there have, in recent years, been the sincere efforts of governments and others to address the health and other material problems of Indigenous Australians.

And now today, again on the 27th May and 33 years after what I have identified as the beginning of the road, we have gathered for the handing to the Australian nation of the Council’s Declaration and Roadmap.

I cannot, of course, as Governor-General, become involved in the differences of opinion about parts of three clauses of the Declaration. Obviously, there is some disappointment on all sides that full and final consensus has not been reached. But notwithstanding any such disappointment, today must surely be seen as a day of celebration. Celebration that the cause of reconciliation has become the focus of our whole nation. Celebration that, notwithstanding some remaining differences, significant consensus has been reach about the contents and wording of the Declaration and that the Council’s Roadmap for the future has been publicly unveiled. In that regard, let me pause to pay tribute to all those who have served as members of the Council during its life, first under the leadership of Patrick Dodson with Ron Wilson followed by Ian Viner as his deputy and then of Evelyn Scott with Gus Nossal as her deputy. And I note that our MC, Ray Martin, has been on the Council from the beginning. Our nation is greatly indebted to them all.

Even more important than the specific milestones that I have mentioned has been the ever-increasing grass roots awareness of the importance of both national reconciliation and the battle to overcome entrenched Aboriginal disadvantage. In the years that I have been Governor-General, Helen and I have been privileged to be part of countless unforgettable instances of reconciliation at the personal level in all parts of Australia. They have done much to shape the three thoughts about reconciliation which I wish to share with you as we stand at this crossroads and look to the future.

The first thought is one that I have expressed on many occasions in the past – although I am aware that many disagree with it. It is that all of us who are convinced of the rightness and urgency of the cause of Aboriginal reconciliation will be most effective and persuasive if we have the strength and the wisdom to speak more quietly, more tolerantly and more constructively to our fellow Australians who are yet to be convinced.

The second thought is that reconciliation should be seen both as an end in itself and as a process or journey to a more comprehensive end. It is not a panacea that will miraculously solve all the problems of Aboriginal disadvantage. Reconciliation will, of itself, resolve or help resolve many of the problems of the spirit. But its most important practical effect will be to create an environment of trust and mutual respect and acceptance in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can work effectively together to address and overcome the overall legacy of Aboriginal disadvantage. My final thought is a related one. It goes to the very essence of reconciliation.

I have mentioned the symbolic return of part of their traditional lands to the Gurindji people in 1975. After the soil had been poured into his outstretched hand, the Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari, responded: “We are all mates now”. He then turned and addressed his people in their own tongue. He exhorted them to go forward “with the whites” as friends and equals.

In that exhortation Vincent Lingiari expressed the essence of my vision of reconciliation in our country. That vision is one of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians together acknowledging the past and walking together, talking together, striving together, working together, and achieving together to build a just and prosperous nation which is, above all else, at peace within itself.

Until that reconciliation and peace are achieved, our nation will remain diminished, unable to fulfil its enormous social, cultural and moral potential. For our search for national reconciliation is not a matter of charity or generosity. It is a matter of basic justice and national decency. It is also a matter of national development in the interests of us all.

The road lies ahead. Today let us celebrate what has been achieved. And let us resolve that together we will continue the journey… with determination, with hope and with confidence in ourselves and one another.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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