11 November 2020


Yo, Bajinda yamalu yinda, ngara Yanguwa li-Ngambri Ngunnawul. I pay my respects to the Ngunawal and Ngambri people as a Yanyuwa and Garrwa woman, a saltwater woman, li-Anthawirriyarra, of Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria. I acknowledge the significance of today as Remembrance Day as we pay our respects for all Australians who fought for our country, for us to be here today, to be able to debate in the Senate in a respectful way. I pay my respects to all those who fought for our country, for the First Nations people who fought and never seeded this country.

The theme for NAIDOC Week 2020 is 'Always Was, Always Will Be' Aboriginal land. We stand here on the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples country and we pay our respects, just as we did at 11 o'clock today, as we reflected on all those who fought for peace in our country. One of the most beautiful things about the ceremony today was seeing the Australian flag at half-mast, the Aboriginal flag at half-mast and the Torres Strait Islander flag at half-mast at the Australian War Memorial. Knowing that those three national flags are being flown at half-mast on such a significant occasion as all Australians pay respects is deeply significant for First Nations people. In every single war of our country, both those abroad and the conflicts within, First Nations people have been there. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people fought for our nation even when they were not citizens in this country. That's what we remember as well on this day.

I notice that Squadron Leader Gary Oakley, a very distinguished Aboriginal man, laid the wreath on behalf of First Nations people across Australia and First Nations people in the Defence Force. He laid a wreath with the didgeridoo playing in the background. If we as First Nations people and all Australians can do that and respect the significance of trying to unite our country then we have to reflect on what more we can do here in this Senate and in the House, the place of the people and the parliament of the people of Australia. It is here that we can define in such a better way what we can be in this country—the vision and the hope that we must provide to all those who look to us. Yes, as cynical as many Australians may be at times, they do look to us. They want to believe that we will dig deeper and that we will search for the better part of who we are as representatives in this country.

It's interesting to also note the history of NAIDOC. I know my colleague Senator Pat Dodson spoke of that in his speech here this morning. It was in December 1972 that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established. For many decades Aboriginal and Islander people had wanted to be recognised for the sadness, the struggles and the fact we hadn't ceded land in this country—from the 1930s with Mr Cooper and the struggles through the Aboriginal Progressive Association through to 1972 when the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was set up under the Whitlam government. Two years after that NAIDOC—the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee—was officially established. It was the first time they had all Aboriginal people on that committee. Goodness knows what the committee looked like before that.

A couple of years later NAIDOC became part of ATSIC, which took on the role of caretaker for NAIDOC. NAIDOC was always about keeping the struggle alive, always about reminding our country of the unfinished business. In the 1990s when Islander people were included it became NAIDOC, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. We call it NAIDOC. I'm not sure many Australians would understand that history, but it's a significant story to know.

When ATSIC was disbanded what happened to NAIDOC? It floated. What happened to the committee? It floated. At various stages it became a committee of sorts with different people. They carried our country and our people through the many changes of government policy that's saw ATSIC abolished. So what happened to NAIDOC?

At this moment I'd also like to acknowledge the First Nations senators who have stood here. It began with Senator Neville Bonner and then there was Senator Aden Ridgeway; Senator Nova Peris; Senator Lidia Thorpe, who has just joined us; Senator Jacqui Lambie; Senator Dodson; and me. We hold the significance of the journey and story of our country through whatever ideological areas or party we stand for. I don't think there's any taking away from the fact that we bring our country, our culture and our kin right here into this Senate.

It was Senator Aden Ridgeway who was the acting chair of NAIDOC while it was still working out what to do. Eventually, from Aden Ridgeway, it went to the NAIDOC co-chairs. And I'd like to acknowledge Anne Martin and Ben Mitchell, the NAIDOC co-chairs from 2008 to 2018, who kept holding the flame for our country, promoting respect for First Nations people in our schools, in our education system, in the songs and stories in every state and territory jurisdiction. It was Anne Martin and Ben Mitchell who co-chaired the national committee and encouraged each state and territory jurisdiction to have its own state and territory NAIDOC committee. Pat Thompson and John Paul Janke, or JP, are our current co-chairs of the national NAIDOC committee.

Yesterday, after realising that we'd lost the vote here in the Senate, they sent out a very important reminder to senators and to members in the House that we need to fly these flags. People say they're symbolism, but guess what? So is today, so is this beautiful poppy that I have pinned over my heart. We don't diss symbols. We have to bring them together. We can chew and walk at the same time. We can have symbols and we can have practical changes. Institutions can systemically change for the better for our country in a way that can unite us so much greater than even we could ever have believed. The NAIDOC committees across the country are asking this parliament to reconsider. Symbolism is just as important as the practical issues we have to deal with. It is about unity and it is about bringing our country together.

I reflect on where I come from as a Yanyuwa-Garrwa woman. Yes, we have those issues. We have the issues of closing the gap, which we still need to do, but we also have the issue of being far generous of spirit and far gracious. This Senate can do that; this parliament can do that. You have the people around here who can guide us all through that. On this NAIDOC Day—'Always Was, Always Will Be' Aboriginal land—let's do this together.