11 August 2021: Malarndirri McCarthy on Closing the Gap

11 August 2021

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (10:34): [by video link] I'd like to acknowledge the Larrakia people on whose land I stand for this address of Closing the Gap. Baginda Yamalu Yindi, nagarna Yanyuwa li-anthawirriyara. I pay respects to elders past, present and emerging but also to all Australians who are witnessing what we are discussing in the Senate and seeing the many diverse views and thoughts in regard to how we want to improve the lives of First Nations people. The parliament hasn't got it right. Australians haven't got it right. But what's important is that we respectfully listen to the diverse views that come forward, which are really a reflection of what we see across Australia. Some of those views that have been expressed are incredibly hurtful as well and I think that it's important first off, Madam Acting Deputy President, if I can just pick up on some of the commentary by Senator Hanson. I think it's really important, Senator Hanson—and this message is directly to you—that First Nations people do not—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator O'Neill ): Senator McCarthy, I await with interest what you are about to say, but I do ask you to make your remarks to the chair.

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. This is certainly in response to previous speakers, in particular Senator Hanson: the First Nations people of this country certainly do not see ourselves as victims. It's certainly not a position that we want to be in. When women are in incredible pain of domestic and family violence—and that's all women who experience it—they certainly don't want to be victims. I think we have to be really careful with the language that we use in the Senate and in the Australian parliament, in terms of trying to lift people from circumstances that, usually, are beyond their control. It's the kind of leadership that this Senate needs to portray in the language that we use, and I did want to pick you up on that, Senator Hanson, because we're certainly not victims, in terms of wanting to stay victims, but we've certainly experienced unfair and unnecessary statistics, which are what closing the gap is all about. That's why it is important that the Australian parliament addresses it and acknowledges the imperfections of our ability to get it right.

The fact that we still are able to address it as a country every year on a particular day, which is now in August, says and sends a message to all Australians that it matters that we try to improve the lives and the disadvantage of First Nations people in this country. And we should never, ever be ashamed and should be unafraid to try and continue to address it, no matter how difficult and complex the circumstances. That is really a reflection of the thousands of languages that our people have across this country, and also the hundreds and hundreds of different First Nations groups across Australia. That is the most beautiful thing about speaking on Closing the Gap: I, as a Yanyuwa Garrwa woman, surrounded by my clans of the Mara and Kudanji peoples, linked closely with the Ngukurr mob, with Numbulwar mob, with Groote Eylandt mob and the songlines and the kujika that travels. That's what we can share with the rest of Australia: the stories that none of you are aware of unless you enable us to speak, to have a voice to speak to you, and not only for us to speak to you but for your hearts to be open to listen and your ears to be empty of the sand that seems to consistently block you from hearing our stories.

The Prime Minister followed Labor's lead by committing to reparations for the injustices done to those removed as children from their families in Commonwealth territories, in the Northern Territory, in Jervis Bay and in the ACT. I do thank the Prime Minister for hearing the voices of those stolen generations mob. It's taken a hell of a long time, but, if you're sincere in making sure that this mob here in the Northern Territory in particular are dealt with respectfully and immediately in terms of that, then it will go a long way to bringing about a great deal of healing for those families.

I acknowledge the more than 600 people who attended the Going Home Conference here in Darwin in 1994. This event brought together hundreds of First Nations people removed as children to discuss common goals of access to archives, compensation, rights to land and social justice. I acknowledge all those who told their stories in the Bringing them home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. I acknowledge the work of people like Mrs Cubillo and Mr Gunner, who braved the complexities of our legal system to take on the Commonwealth over its historical policies of forced child removal. While their legal claim was unsuccessful—and I remember that day—the need for justice and reparations for survivors of the stolen generations was recognised by the Australian community and governments.

After the legal decision was handed down in this case in 2000, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee delivered its report into the stolen generations, recommending the establishment of a reparations tribunal to address the need for effective reparation, including the provision of individual monetary compensation. Yet it wasn't until 2006 that the first stolen generations compensation scheme was set up in Tasmania, by the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Act 2006. Then, in 2008, the first stolen generations compensation case was successful in the Supreme Court of South Australia. The Trevorrow judgement recognised the existence of the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families and the detrimental long-term effects of the policy on removed children and on the wider community. We are still experiencing an even greater removal of First Nations children. These legacies and past policies have a profound impact and they do matter.

Of course, in 2008, we had the national apology, and parliament was opened for the first time with an acknowledgement of country. But stolen generations survivors in the Northern Territory had still not received reparations or justice. In April this year, stolen generations survivors from the Northern Territory launched a class action against the Commonwealth. Eileen Cummings is one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action—a daughter of a Ngalakan woman and Rembarrnga man, who was born in Central Arnhem Land. Her story echoes so many. She was taken from her family at five years old and taken to Darwin and Croker Island, where she was forbidden to leave and prevented from speaking her language or to practise her culture. I don't know how you can arrive at a dollar figure on the trauma and harm caused by tearing children away from their families, not just on the children but also on the families and the wider community. But I certainly hope the redress announced last week goes some way to acknowledging the harm caused by these policies.

We should also reflect on the harsh reality that First Nations people are far more likely to have their children removed from their care than non-Indigenous Australians. We still have an incredibly long way to go. It appears the Prime Minister has heard some of the voices calling for change and recognition, but this still does not acknowledge broader issues: the high incarceration rates of First Nations people, the Black Lives Matter rallies across the country and the sadness and the trauma that still exist for those who lose family members way too early. Only last week I lost a family member, someone who was a strong elder in our community, and our family is still grieving. He should never have passed away so young. He was an important elder who did so much for our people. I remember him. I remember my other noughaby, my other kuku, my grandfathers, my uncles, my grandmothers, my kurdi, who passed away in recent months, who should be here with us. Renal disease, kidney disease—just about every member of my family has some chronic disease. That is what this Closing the Gap statement is all about: trying to help and give hope to First Nations people who so desperately want to be not only seen as equals in Australia but also respected for the beautiful, diverse and strong culture that we have as First Nations people, to be respected and to take our place with dignity, to be the people that we're here to be, without racism, without being locked up and without being kept in hospital—and to play on the sporting fields like Patty Mills and Ash Barty. That's the Australia we want for First Nations people. Thank you.