Opinion Pieces

National reconciliation is closer than we dare imagine

Sydney Morning Herald | 26 May 2020

Reconciliation Week is a chance to think about the nation’s unfinished business. I believe national reconciliation is closer than many of us dare to dream.

When I sat down to write my first speech to the Senate last year, I agonised over every word in the section on reconciliation because there are so many spent hopes in this space. So many promises not delivered.

In 2020, we mark the week in the light of two positive developments which I have noticed: more Indigenous success in education and progress on an Indigenous voice.

First, on success, the efforts on education are paying off. More Indigenous Australians are succeeding on the education front.

I have met many of these young students when they have visited Parliament House in Canberra. Groups like the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation have educated more than 600 Indigenous children at top schools.

AIEF has provided scholarships to 353 Indigenous students from 166 communities in NSW. It means a young woman from Nowra can go to a school like St Catherine’s Waverley, which opens a broader horizon of opportunity. This isn’t for everyone and attending a school like this isn’t a precondition for success, but speaking as a person who was educated in a local school in the regions, I have no doubt that preparation for further study is aided by going to a top performing school.

According to the brilliant Indigenous journalist Stan Grant the last census found the number of Indigenous university students has more than doubled, from 7000 to 15,000-plus. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of those with postgraduate qualifications jumped by more than 80 per cent. As he says: "That is an extraordinary success. It is a tribute to the resilience and determination of Indigenous people and their families’ love, sacrifice and support.” The nation can call on almost 100 Indigenous doctors as we face the pandemic.

Second, work on an Indigenous voice is progressing. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Ken Wyatt’s development of models for an Indigenous voice through co-design has kept going.

The Indigenous voice is one of the primary components of the Uluru Statement, which is the latest chapter in the long journey to recognition. The Indigenous voice should guarantee Indigenous Australians a say on laws and policies which affect them. It is a form of consultation with the First Australians that should have been formalised from the beginning.

At a community level, my travels across NSW tell me Indigenous communities want more control over services. At the national level, I know we must reflect the nation’s Indigenous heritage in our grounding documents. The voice has both a practical and symbolic purpose.

To create an Indigenous voice, Wyatt is following the process set out by a bipartisan parliamentary committee. Marcia Langton and Tom Calma are co-chairing the body that will advise him on models.

I am a member of a Parliamentary group that has been receiving updates on the work’s progress. This bipartisan group has worked well; and worked together in pursuit of better outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

I am encouraged that the work has not stopped because of COVID-19, where so many other processes have been heavily impacted as a consequence of the pandemic. For example, an inquiry into FinTech I am chairing has been delayed for six months.

It is exciting that the next step is consultation on models for an Indigenous voice. This will be an opportunity to connect the practical to the symbolic.

As we get closer to looking at potential models, I will be reflecting on the five principles I set out in my first speech on the Indigenous voice design. Any proposal for an Indigenous voice must: capture broad support of the Indigenous community; focus on community level improvements; maintain the supremacy of Parliament; maintain the value of equality; strengthen national unity

As we look to offer feedback on the models later this year, we should remember the 2020 tagline of Reconciliation Week “in this together”.

Andrew Bragg is Liberal senator for NSW.

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