Opinion Pieces

Rachel Perkins Remarks | Buraadja Book Launch

For the last weeks I have been travelling around Australia, skirting covid outbreaks. I have been travelling to interview people for a documentary series about frontier conflict as part of the colonisation of Australia.

In the forward to Buraadja the Prime Minister writes;

‘The late Charles Perkins devoted his life to the advancement of Indigenous Australians. He often said, ‘We cannot live in the past but the past lives in us’. 

In all of us, the hopes, loves, losses and traumas of our past live on in us. They linger, have a life of their own, and are passed on. It is true for individuals and it’s true for countries.

The words of my father and the Prime Minister resonate with my recent experiences. On my journey around the country. In Cape York I stood on a hill and asked a man if he could tell me about waterhole below, a massacre site and the killings that took place as described by his grandfather to him. He wouldn’t speak of it, it was, he said, too personal.

Also in QLD I stood at the grave of Horatio Wills, one of nineteen early white squatters, killed at Cullin ‘la Ringo, which until recently, was the largest massacre of white people in our history.

I went to a lab and looked at the bullets and buttons gathered by an archaeological dig at seven of the more than 150 Native Mounted Police camps, that lasted for five decades operated by the QLD colonial government.

I admit, my emotions got the better of me when I was faced with the conservative estimates of the killing of perhaps seventy-five thousand Aboriginal people, including my own Kalkadoon ancestors, by the Native Mounted Police. 

I have also looked into my own immediate family history and  listened to the recordings done forty years ago with my Arrernte grandmother, who spoke of how her grandmother and family were shot on a pastoral station. How her mother and her sister were spared as they were young girls, how they were tied to trees and later met the fate of many young Aboriginal women at that time on the Central Australian frontier.

I have crossed the country in the last few weeks hearing these stories and looking in the archives, in all the Australian jurisdictions.

We look at this history so we can learn from it today. The terrible fact is that the extent of the tragedy of the Australian frontier did not have to be as violent. In Canada for example, British colonisation was an entirely different experience, due to the structural relationships between the Crown and Canadian Aboriginal people.  

On occasion in Australia the British Empire put in place mechanisms to curb the violence they knew would come with colonisation. Such as the letters patent to establish the colony of South Australia. Here the instructions from the King in 1836 were that land be negotiated from Aboriginal people through agreement making, but tragically the colonial government in SA never acted on these foundational principles and a year later the Kings instructions were forgotten.

These stories fill the pages of Australia’s records and are handed down through families and are the facts of our history. 

The colonial governments that forged our nation and formed our federation carry the legacy of our past as much as Indigenous people who carry these experiences handed down through generations.

Our challenge is how to deal with the past that has created the present, and informs our ‘Buraadja’ our future,  as Andrew’s book proposes.

How do we put in the structures that were not put in place at the point of colonisation or since, to ensure, as Noel Pearson describes, the rightful place of Indigenous people this country.

Our first Aboriginal silk, Tony Macavoy, describes this as not only a practical question - about social equality - but also the moral wellbeing of the nation. This is a question where government must lead on behalf of its people – on the unfinished business of contemporary Australia with its Indigenous people.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, is the important marker for our generation and it requires a response that acknowledges the exhaustive and collective process that achieved this broadly uniform Indigenous position. 

It asks of us – what will our contribution be to building a society based on liberal values, in relation to Indigenous people. History will look back on this moment and asses what we achieved in relation to the structural reform it requests.

Andrew answers these questions with the significant contribution of the Prime Minister in the forward to this book. 

This book, and those that gather to support it, gives me hope – that we can work with government in positive ways, in respectful ways, to build a better nation, after-all this is what we all want for the country we share. 

I wish to thank Andrew for leading from within his party on this issue and reaffirm my commitment to stand beside him on this journey. 

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