As the debate around the recognition of Indigenous people in Australian constitution stalls I wanted to take the time to remind readers of the words of one of the great leaders in Australian political history, Neville Bonner. Neville was the first Indigenous Australian to become a member of the Parliament. Neville Bonner was born in a small settlement on the Tweed River in northern New South Wales. He never knew his father and had almost no formal education. He worked as a farm labourer before settling on Palm Island, near Townsville, Queensland in 1946, where he rose to the position of Assistant Settlement Overseer.
At the 1998 constitutional convention he made one of the most passionate speeches I have ever heard in support of his people. The words stand today as an example of what more needs to be done and given the question of constitutional recognition has still not yet been put i thought it was timely to remind everyone but in Nevilles words:
As a Jagera elder from Queensland, I pay respect to the elders of this tribal country. Fellow Australians, I speak to you today with a heavy heart. A friend of mine and fellow Aborigine Cec Fisher once inscribed a book of poems to me with the words `to the old man'. In it is the poem entitled `Memories and the Pain'. It tells the story of my people and it goes like this:
You came ashore, pale like spirit people
Took our land, forest, river, hills and plain
Gave us Christianity, changed our future
Left us with Memories and the Pain.
You killed our ancestors or imprisoned them
Our mother earth you plundered for your gain
From her breast rich mineral ores you extracted
Helplessly we watched, left with Memories and the Pain.
Towns were built as civilisation imprisoned my people No longer allowed hunting, fishing, these things you wouldn't explain
Government policies and law took our land away from us All we have are Memories and the Pain.
Two hundred years down the track will it ever change?
Land Rights marches, protest, anger, promises once again
Policies, the Aboriginal Land Bill said to make amends
Still they come back, the Memories and the Pain.
[O you delegates] . . . think a while, dispossession, stolen kids
Old Marpoon, Noonkunbah, Death in Custody, tied together by chain
In your wisdom of one people one country, help lock out Our haunting Memories and the Pain.
Regardless of the policies, reconciliation and the rest
Thoughts of our Aboriginality will always remain
Time will never diminish the black deeds of history
We will carry forever, Memories and the Pain.
You came to my country. You invaded my land. You took our Earth (our everything). You poisoned my waterholes. You killed my people. You gave away my land. You imposed your law on my people. You ignored the instructions of liberal colonial secretaries to deal with us and respect us.
And then, 150 years ago, you were given self-government. You established your own parliaments and your own governments. And a century ago you agreed among yourselves to establish your federation. And then slowly you began to change. You began to do what the British had told you to do before self-government. You began to accept that my people had rights; that they were entitled to respect; that we were God's children too.
You employed us, paying us, on some occasions, a fair wage. You allowed us to serve in your army, to serve and honour your King and your country. You even elected me to your parliament. And today you have a growing articulate, educated body of indigenous people, a people who more and more control their own future, a people who will play an increasing role in this country. They are a people who already bring honour to the country in sports, the arts and intellectual activities.
Mr Chairman, fellow delegates, you did not ask my people if you could come here. You did not ask my people if you could occupy our land. You did not ask my people if you could stop us from living our traditional lives. You did not ask my people if we would wish to live under your laws, under your government and in your federation. I speak today, as I said, with a sad heart.
We have come to accept your laws. We have come to accept your Constitution. We have come to accept the present system. We believed you when you said that a democracy must have checks and balances. We believed you when you said that not all positions in society should be put out for election. We believed you when you said that judges should be appointed, not elected. We believed you when you said that the Westminster system ensures that the government is accountable to the people. We believed you when you taught us that integral to the Westminster system is a head of state who is above politics. We believed you when you said that, as with the judiciary, Government House must also be a political-free zone. We believed you when you said that it is not important that the Crown has greater powers and that what was important was that the Crown denies those powers to the politicians. I was one of them. We believed you when you said it is now our country too and that we should be fully involved in deciding its future.
You have taught us all this. You have taught us to accept the way in which the country is governed. You told us that this is the most democratic system, a system which is equal to Canada and New Zealand. We believed you. We accept all this and now the educated, articulate Australian is no longer your preserve alone. We, too, can be educated and articulate, respected Australians.
My heart is heavy today - not for me, fellow Australians; God has been kind to me. I have seen my 76 years in this country. I am not a rich man, but I am proud to say that I have had the great joy of having five sons, three white step-children and 28 grandchildren. But my heart is heavy. I worry for my children and my grandchildren. I worry that what has proven to be a stable society, which now recognises my people as equals, is about to be replaced.
How dare you? I repeat: how dare you? You told my people that your system was best. We have come to accept that. We have come to believe that. The dispossessed, despised adapted to your system. Now you say that you were wrong and that we were wrong to believe you. Suddenly you are saying that what brought the country together, made it independent, ensured its defence, saw it through peace and war, and saw it through depression and prosperity, must all go.
I cannot see the need for change. I cannot see how it will help my people. I cannot see how it will resolve the question of land and access to land that troubles us. I cannot see how it will ensure that indigenous people have access to the same opportunities that other Australians enjoy. Fellow Australians, what is most hurtful is that after all we have learned together, after subjugating us and then freeing us, once again you are telling us that you know better. How dare you? How dare you? I look across this chamber and I cannot fail to see the very rich among you. You have had the very good luck to have great wealth, to have been so well educated in your schools and universities. I ask you: what reason do you have now in 1998 to tell the indigenous people that we must again accept what you have decided about our country? Why are you doing this? You know the change you propose will have no effect on the problems of my people and of the country. I plead with you to apply your great talents and your great wealth to overcome these.
You have taught us that, in a democracy, democratic power must be limited; that in the Westminster system there must be an umpire; that he or she must be above politics; that solutions to problems - supply crises, for example - must be handled responsibly, efficiently and swiftly. Republicanism is a vote of no confidence in the existing system, but you forget that you have taught us to love, honour and respect that system.
As I said, I have a heavy heart. I ask you: what are you doing? Are you not already divided enough on other issues, real issues, real problems? Why are you diverting attention from these issues? We have come to respect and honour our Governor-General, for the reason that he cares about these issues. I cannot see that a political president, elected or appointed, who cares more about whether he receives a 21- or 19-gun salute, whether or not he is the subject of a toast, whether or not he will be re-elected and to what extent he will be funded and supported after his term, would care one jot more for my people.
From the bottom of my heart, I pray you: stop this senseless division. Let us work together on the real issues. Let us solve those problems which haunt my people - the problems of land, of health, of unemployment, of the despair and hopelessness which leads even to suicide. Let us unite this country, not divide it ever - that toy of those who already have too much: mere symbolism. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to end what I have already said by singing my Jagera sorry chant. My heart is sad. I look around this chamber and see that the total number of indigenous people of this vast country numbers six. That is an indictment on someone - I do not know whom. Because of the lack of a populous number of indigenous people on this momentous occasion, it makes me sad indeed.
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