With all the protests, riots and violence around the world right now, it’s incredibly important that we retain our optimism and positivity as we protect the democratic and public institutions which have served us well. These are troubling times with the drought, bushfires and coronavirus jobs recovery demanding our immediate focus, in conjunction with the growing media debate on key social issues like racism, poverty and inequality.
But just a word of caution as we seem set to embark on a public debate about our nation’s history; ongoing disadvantage experienced by our Indigenous people; and the challenges we must overcome together in the future.
Please show respect to each other.
And please don’t project the issues of another nation, such as the United States, upon our country and pretend or assume we are the same. We have a lot in common with our American friends but there are vast differences in our two nations’ history and in areas today, like access to health care, minimum wages, gun control and the political system.
Let me say at the outset that I personally regard Indigenous reconciliation and achieving true equality of opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as a huge piece of unfinished business for our community and our Federal Parliament. To be fair, we have made enormous progress with the apology to the stolen generation, law reform and various government programs, but there still feels like such a long way to go in this journey, and we can only achieve the results we want if we work together.
We didn’t need the tragic killing of a black man by a white police officer in the US to remind us that ‘black lives matter’. We have been working to close the gap between Indigenous and white Australians for decades.
And here’s where my caution about projecting another country’s issues onto our nation becomes important. American law enforcement officers are involved in the deaths of more than 1000 civilians each year, while the number of deaths involving police in Australia is less than 10.
At least part of the reason for the high number of deaths involving police in the USA compared to Australia is the gun culture and the easy availability of firearms for all Americans. Police in the USA are far more likely to attend a scene where guns are involved and the use of lethal force is disproportionately higher than many other countries.
I’m not saying that excuses any of the cultural or racial issues that underpin other elements of the problem in the USA, merely pointing out there is a very big difference between law enforcement in our two nations.
Which brings me to the prickly question of racism.
There are racists in Australia. There’s no question about that in my mind. Just as there are murderers, rapists and people who commit domestic violence in Australia.
But that doesn’t mean that Australia is an inherently dangerous country or all Australians are violent.
Nor does the presence of racism mean that Australia itself is a racist country. And naturally, it doesn’t mean that all Australians are racist.
Obviously, it’s a lot easier for me to say that because I’m white. Although I have heard racist comments, I have seen racist behaviour, I’ve never been the target of it. However, I still believe the overwhelming majority of Australians are not racists and are more inclined to ‘live and let live’ in the most successful multicultural nation on the planet.
We have an enormous amount to be proud of as a nation in the way we have learnt from mistakes and embraced other cultures. There is nowhere else in the world that I would choose to live when it comes to systems of government, social harmony and community institutions for supporting each other.
Just as we campaign against violence and teach our kids to never accept bullying or intimidation, we need to keep educating our entire community to understand that racism will not be tolerated in Australia.
Discrimination based on skin colour, ethnicity and religious beliefs has no place in a modern Australia.
Whether you are one of our first nations people, if your family moved here five generations ago, or just last week. To be Australian is to believe in equality, fairness and justice for all. After all, our land abounds in nature’s gifts and we’ve boundless plains to share, according to our national anthem!
We are all blessed to live in the greatest nation in the world, but that doesn’t mean that we are perfect and it certainly doesn’t mean we haven’t made any mistakes in the past.
Which brings me to our history and the dark past of violence committed against Indigenous Australians.
From everything I have read on the topic, I’m convinced that some of the early settlers and explorers committed some of the most heinous crimes against the Gunaikurnai people, the traditional owners of Gippsland. The local tribes did experience violence and murder at the hands of men like explorer Angus McMillan but here’s where it gets tricky again.
Of course people like McMillan should stand condemned by history for their crimes. But removing all monuments or place markers which recognise the early European explorers runs the risk of sanitising our history. Surely it is better to tell the whole story and learn from the atrocities rather than attempt to erase our past?
I would much rather see additional factual information provided at historic markers and more focus on education. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen and this generation needs to know more about Gippsland’s history: the great, the good and the bad.
Which brings me back to today.
As I’ve said in Parliament on several occasions, there is still too much disadvantage in our Indigenous communities whether it’s in remote Australia or closer to home in our suburbs and regional towns.
Indigenous health, education and employment rates continue to trail the rest of the community, although there has been some significant improvement. The rates of domestic violence and sexual assaults against Indigenous women are horrific and serve to entrench the disadvantage in the next generation of children they are caring for.
The rate of crime and incarceration for young black people is, again, disproportionate to their white counterparts and all deaths in custody is a national shame. That is why the Royal Commission was held in 1987 and it found that Aboriginal people died in custody at about the same rate as non-Aboriginal people, but they had a much higher rate of imprisonment in the first place.
Since then, I’m aware of many programs which have been designed specifically to break the crime cycle and initiatives to prevent custodial sentences. Some like the Clontarf Academy have clearly worked and are helping overcome disadvantage and providing better pathways and new opportunities.
So what else do we do about these challenging social, economic and cultural issues we are facing?
Again, we all need to respect each other and try to understand Indigenous culture and the tragic history of European settlement – even the parts that make us feel uncomfortable.
We can’t change our past but we must all learn from our mistakes.
But blaming today’s white Australians for the sins of the past is about as illogical as blaming today’s Germans or Japanese youth for the war crimes of their relatives.
We have to keep finding ways to move forward together. We need men and women of good heart to recognise we can achieve more together.
We need to ensure that our focus on the physical and mental wellbeing of indigenous children is continued so that kids get to school healthy and are keen and able to learn. Healthy children in a safe living environment are better able to learn and develop the skills that will help them achieve meaningful jobs and economic independence.
We can all do more in our daily lives to build stronger relationships with Indigenous people in our community and learn from each other. I fear that there is a gap in the way Indigenous Australians participate in the civic and social life of our nation and the way to improve that is through better links at individual and community level.
We need to do more to break down any barriers which exist between black and white Australians and it begins with mutual understanding and respect.
And we need to never give up.
There will be setbacks and there will be more challenging times but there will also be progress if we work together in our towns, regions and as a nation.
It is often said that ‘more unites us than divides us’ and that is particularly true about our core beliefs and values as Gippslanders and as Australians.