This year’s National NAIDOC Week theme is “Voice. Treaty. Truth – let’s work together for a shared future”.
For many of us, these may just be words on paper. But as a queer Aboriginal man from country New South Wales, Voice, Treaty and Truth stand as bastions for Indigenous self-determination and reflect not only my career fighting for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but a lifetime of fighting for my mob.
So often we, including myself, get caught up in the language of detriment and struggle. We see it everywhere; from news headlines to public policy. As First Australians, there are entire reports dedicated to communicating the terrible reality of our disadvantage in an Australia that, in some ways, has become anaesthetised to the struggle many Indigenous Australians experience.
The 2019 NAIDOC theme is different – it refuses to soften our words, refuses to stand on the sidelines or brush over the truth. Voice, treaty and truth is a reverberating demand for self-determination for the world’s oldest continuing culture. It represents the reclamation of our own political freedom and it stands as a reminder that our sovereignty as First Nations people was never ceded, nor will we ever cede.
Importantly, the NAIDOC theme is also a collective call to action, asking for all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
It asks us to come together, reconcile our past and work together for a unified and inclusive Australia. As a country, many of us think of Indigenous Australia as separate, something that does not include all Australians. But this year’s theme appeals for all of us to reclaim Indigenous cultures as part of a united Australian culture, with a shared national identity and a shared fight for justice.
For me, this year’s theme has special importance.
I am the oldest boy of nine siblings – four older sisters, two older foster sisters, a younger brother and my youngest sister, 14 years my junior. Mum and dad have been through thick and thin. They both left school at very early ages to start working and support their families. Despite immense hardship, they took on responsibility to care for not only their own children, but our grandparents, our community and as my mum would put it “anyone in need that comes knocking at our door”.
And there were plenty of them. Mum survived both thyroid cancer and leukaemia and my dad had to travel from town to town looking for work to support us, but they found a way to share what they had with others.
Our family has survived alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence and poverty. There’s a reason many fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people call January 26 “survival day”. Because instead of being able to celebrate our unification, we are reminded of our resilience, of our ongoing survival. But we are also reminded of our lack of a voice, our lack of a treaty and the untruthful telling of Australia’s history.
I was lucky.
At the age of 12 I was put into an Indigenous boarding school program and moved to Sydney. The wonders of a first-class education have seen more doors open for me than my family could have ever imagined, including here at Westpac.
But it came with a price – what I gained in terms of education, I lost in connection to country and where I came from, growing up with my family, my culture, and – because of that – security in my own identity.
From the moment I stepped into boarding school, I was both the luckiest boy in school and also the most unfortunate. Obviously and outwardly I was the poorest child in my grade, even among some of our other Indigenous scholars. I went to high school years behind in literacy and numeracy, I struggled but I worked hard, did well in school and eventually I was awarded a full scholarship to study law at Bond University. In law, I had found a mechanism to give my people a voice and represent their interest in a system that has failed us for a very, very long time.
The opportunities I had both been given and earned continued to grow. They have allowed me to serve my country at the United Nations in both New York and Geneva, study international indigenous human rights law at Colombia University in the US, mingle with World Leaders, Prime Ministers and be the carrier of a culture that continues to thrive, and refuses to quit.
But my story is rare.
As Indigenous Australians, we have continued to lag behind non-Indigenous Australians in every health, economic and political statistic since 1788. And yet, despite both protest and progress since, the Australian government still has the power to make specific laws for Indigenous Australians, something that stands as an exemption to the Racial Discrimination Act and allowed the Northern Territory Intervention to occur.
“Voice. Treaty. Truth” calls for an Australia where my story of being blessed with opportunities that to this day are still denied to so many of my own people is not rare, is not a unique story. It calls for an Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are recognised in our Constitution as First Nations people – where Indigenous Australians are afforded the same right to self-determination, consultation, representation and visibility as their non-Indigenous counterparts.
Where young Indigenous children can look at parliament and see faces that look the same as their own, sitting in the front bench and in the Prime Minister’s office.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart, codified in this year’s NAIDOC theme Voice. Treaty. Truth., stands as much more than words on a piece of paper.
It stands as a call to action to every Australian to stand with their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, mend the divisions of the past, and, together, write a history that sees Indigenous and non-Indigenous people truly united.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.
By Michael Bennet
Editor, Westpac Wire