THE future for Indigenous Australians is full of hope, agreed the panellists at the 7th Annual Australian Catholic University Solidarity Dinner at Brisbane’s Hilton Hotel on July 31.
Panellists Cape York Land Council chair Richie Ah Mat, Indigenous Corporations registrar Selwyn Button, ACU Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven, 2016 Churchill Fellow Dr Doseena Fergie and Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge shed light on the challenges, opportunities and realities of solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
Moderator Associate Vice-Chancellor Professor Jim Nyland said it was a rich topic and the panellists made for a “fascinating discussion”.
Two rivers meeting
One of the images distilled over the evening was from Dr Fergie, who travelled south during her thesis to see two rivers meeting, the Murray and Darling rivers.
She said at the point they met, there was a distinct visible line between the two rivers, but they met and continued on as one.
“We are just two different cultures, two different world views and, yes, our spirituality is different,” she said.
“What that metaphor, what that analogy, showed me was that we can come together and be transformed and walk together.”
But there were many challenges standing in the way of that harmony.
Archbishop Coleridge said despite the good will, many policies and programs hadn’t worked because there was a piece of the puzzle missing.
“Politics are important but they won’t do it; legal aspects are very important, but not enough; funding is very important but it’s not enough; the missing piece of the puzzle – in a sense it’s the key piece – is the spiritual,” he said.
Mr Button said one of the key issues standing in the way of advancement was how policy targets were created and oriented.
He said a lack of consultation was rife in those processes.
Mr Button said with a program like Close the Gap, those affected weren’t involved in setting the agenda in the first place but were imposed upon.
He said engaging different levels of government and local communities – and listening to them – were crucial to setting up attainable and meaningful goals.
Fear-mongering was also discussed.
Mr Ah Mat said “fear in the hearts of politicians” and fear-mongering among the people was the deciding factor in response to issues like the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The Uluru Statement called for two actions to be taken – a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of “agreement-making” and “truth-telling” between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Overcoming politics of fear
Mr Ah Mat maintained such a commission would take away no power and would be an advisory body elected most likely through the electoral commission.
“I just can’t believe the fear that’s put in the Australian public,” he said.
“We’re not going to take away – not one Indigenous person in this room or in the country – is going to take away any power from anybody, or any politician for that matter.
“Because that’s not our right.”
Other topics like language, history and racism were covered by the panellists.
The last question of the evening focused on the future.
Archbishop Coleridge said he was hopeful for the future because of the resilience and resourcefulness of the Indigenous peoples.
Dr Fergie said she wanted to focus on the positive outcomes achieved by Indigenous Australians, and to build that up.
Prof Craven said while he was a natural Irish pessimist, he thought most people were good, given the chance.
Mr Button said he saw optimism all around, including his daughter who was his dinner date on the night.
He said bodies like the one outlined in the Uluru Statement already existed, and provided advice, ran inquiries and reviewed legislation, so there was no reason to stand in the way of it.
Mr Ah Mat said every conservative he knew was now saying, “let’s do this”, when it came to Indigenous voice.
He said Australia was a great country but, if we undertook the constitutional recognition, we created the Voice, changed the constitution – “this will be the greatest ever country in the world”.