‘The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and
the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do.’ The words of
Sir William Deane, in the inaugural Vincent Lingiari memorial lecture
are just as relevant today in articulating a vision for the future of
our nation. Good evening Mr Adam Spencer, distinguished panel of
speakers, invited guests, ladies and gentlemen.
In a broad sense, all nations can but have a common vision for the future - to build a prosperous, caring society in which all people can enjoy their country’s resources and opportunities and thus realise their potential to the fullest extent possible. In aspiring to such a vision each nation has to tackle its own unique challenges, and in Australia’s case our challenges stem from the nature of our settlement a little over two hundred years ago. While many would regard this as a positive development, it must be acknowledged that there have also been adverse consequences on both human and environmental levels which need to be addressed with a sense of urgency, honesty and with a willingness to make major changes in our way of thinking. Tonight I will confine my attention principally to the human dimension, clearly seen in the dispossession and sense of loss suffered by the indigenous people of our country.
Historically, our denial of the rights of indigenous Australians can be seen by the fact that at the founding of the Federation whose centenary we celebrate this year, there was scarcely a place in our constitution for Aboriginal people. Indeed the contemporary wisdom of the time, guided by notions of ‘terra nullius,’ was that the indigenous people were a dying race and it was the task of those in charge to make their passing as painless as possible. Such thinking clearly led to the policies that resulted in what is referred to as the stolen generation.
However, more recent events have given us cause for optimism. The 1967 referendum was an enormous leap forward not only for the constitutional amendment it achieved but also because of the amazing sense of kinship which began to be stirred in the hearts of voting Australians. Native Title Legislation and the Mabo judgement have formally recognised indigenous land rights, and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has accomplished an impressive amount of ground-breaking work during its ten-year existence. Sadly, some of this unity has been eroded in the past few years, but much residual goodwill still persists in a significant section of the electorate and also in the hearts of those who, like myself, are not yet members of that electorate. My vision - and I believe that it is shared by many young Australians - is that we should capitalise on the progress made so far in order to achieve significant and meaningful reconciliation between the indigenous and non-indigenous people of our nation.
In this context, the idea of a treaty which has been suggested by many prominent people before is perhaps still worthy of serious consideration. A treaty accomplishes two main objectives: it acknowledges the prior occupation of this land by the aboriginal people, and, equally significantly, it gives post-facto recognition to later arrivals and confers legitimacy on the legal, administrative and political institutions that they have created here. We need, as a community, to make a tangible gesture, a gesture that has a rich symbolic content, and yet provides a practical framework in which all Australians can come together, lay the past to rest and look to the future.
There are of course other issues of concern to young Australians which do not arise specifically from our history, including education, youth employment, health and foreign policy. I find it puzzling that education and health in particular, issues of vital importance to the nation, have over the years been reduced to matters of ideological rivalry between the political parties. Our adversarial system of party politics often prevents many politicians – and let’s admit it, many of them are sincere people – from giving the benefit of their best judgements on issues of vital national importance. As a young person, I have the luxury of being naive, but I do not expect that a partyless government will ever be adopted, however appealing the idea might be. I am, however, seriously suggesting that if subjects like abortion, euthanasia and immigration can be matters of conscience or bipartisanship, then surely issues like education, employment and health can be handled on the same basis. The challenge here is for political parties to discover a new idiom in which to articulate their ideas and arrive at an established convention for dealing with these issues. If politicians are willing to do this, it will not only improve the image of politics and politicians, but will also help to capture the genuine interest and commitment of young people in the political process, for it is we, after all, who have the responsibility of taking care of this country in the future.
I mentioned earlier the importance of foreign policy to young Australians. It is somewhat disconcerting to me, in terms of our national self esteem, that our elders appear all too eager to commit this country to certain international obligations without, it would appear, pausing to consider whether there are other stances open to us which will better protect our national interests. I think that many young people would prefer that this country developed its own foreign policy and defined a special role for itself in international affairs, a role which is dictated not only by who we are and where we are but which also contributes to the emergence of a stable and just world order.
Ladies and gentlemen. The promise of the new generation is a recurring theme in the life of any people. Hope springs eternal not only in the human heart but also in the collective psyche of a society. But a vision for the future is not begun tacitly at a specified time which is always to come; rather it requires an ongoing involvement and commitment from both current and future generations. It is a pleasant prospect to hope that, long before this nation celebrates the bicentenary of federation, the vision espoused by Reconciliation Australia of a united Australia “which respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and provides justice and equity for all” will be a reality.