More by accident than design, the opening of the 46th Federal Parliament was a curtain raiser to this year’s NAIDOC Week. For decades, the week has celebrated the achievements and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to Australia.
Last Saturday night at the National Convention Centre the annual national awards were presented. Renowned actor David Gulpilil received a lifetime achievement award for bringing traditional culture to the nation’s, and indeed the world’s, cinema screens.
The theme of the week, which ends on Sunday, is: “Voice. Treaty. Truth – Let’s work together for a shared future”. Not by accident Prime Minister Scott Morrison picked up on these sentiments when he spoke at the formal opening which now features a traditional welcome to country and a “cleansing” smoking ceremony.
The ceremony was performed by local Ngunnawal elder Aunty Tina Brown. As such she represented all of our First Nations’ Peoples. They have accepted the invitation of the parliament – the result of 200 years of European and foreign settlement – to make an act of reconciliation. Now welcoming but rightly demanding respectful recognition in the founding document of the Commonwealth.
Morrison brought tears to Aunty Tina’s eyes as he recalled the silent protest of “King Billy” 92 years ago at the opening of Old Parliament House. The constabulary tried to move on the barefoot, dishevelled Wiradjuri elder who had walked from Gundagai, but the crowd would have none of it. Morrison quoted a clergyman declaring “he had a better right than any man present” to be there, and the Prime Minister said “that was true”.
Morrison, supported by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, pledged to “walk together” towards reconciliation. The PM said: “We have a long way to go. We know. But we will walk that journey together.” Long-time activists and supporters of the Aboriginal cause are hoping Morrison means it.
The signs are mixed, but more positive than negative. The positives are his appointment to cabinet of the first Aboriginal to the portfolio for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt. He is shadowed by Linda Burney, another first Australian; both are dedicated to taking forward the response of the parliament and the nation to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That statement calls for an Aboriginal voice to the parliament entrenched in the constitution. It also calls for a “Makarrata” or formal settlement, compact or treaty with the First Nations’ People.
Morrison, soon after becoming Prime Minister, was very cool on the idea of the voice resembling anything like a third chamber to the parliament. But, according to Ken Wyatt, the door is open to define what that voice could mean.
More than goodwill is needed to end the 200 years of fake news that settlement formally ended the first inhabitants’ connection and claims to the land. Their descendants are calling for a just accommodation of their true status.
If Morrison is looking for a legacy, nothing could be more historic or enduring than righting these old and painful wrongs.