29 July 2016, UNSW Kensington Campus, Sydney, Australia
The lecture was given only a few days after damning allegations were revealed on ABC's Four Corners program about treatment of Indigenous children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Australia's Northern Territory.
There was a speech I had planned to give tonight. I wished it to be a speech rational and measured.
In this speech I would have appealed to the best of Australia – to what Abraham Lincoln would have called the better angels of our nature.
In this speech I would have wished to locate Indigenous people within the framework of the grand tradition of liberal western democracy.
In this speech I would have spoken of Hegel's idea of man "not being at home in the world".
I would have asked how we – the first peoples of this land – could be at home in a world imposed upon us.
In this speech I would have spoken of Edmund Burke's template for society – that it be a covenant between those living those who have passed and those yet to come.
What is this covenant that would link my ancestors and my children – for us it would not be the glory of nations won but of nations lost.
How then after having our world upended could I pledge allegiance to what has supplanted us?
In this speech I could have touched on those thinkers who are the pillars of western democratic ideas – I would have told of wrestling with John Locke and JS Mill.
How they have inspired me yet left me reeling from their implicit harsh judgment of the society and culture that I am drawn from.
I would have told of feeling both drawn to the steadfastness and stoicism of conservatism yet wonder how so many of those who lay claim to the mantle conservative today can be so mean spirited and have a deficit of generosity.
This speech would have looked to contemporary thinkers like Australian Duncan Ivison.
Ivison strives for a theory of justice that enables us to feel at home in the world when we are no longer alienated from the institutions and practices of this society – that being at home in the world is not just having to be resigned to accepting or accommodating injustice.
I would have quoted the late American philosopher John Rawls and his idea of reconciliation through public reason – of people being able to endorse the institutions and practices of society and not merely tolerate them.
I would have explored what American political scientist William Connolly has termed the 'vital centre of the nation'
I would have returned to John Stuart Mill – the Mill who could speak of a centre that could "soften the extreme form and fill up the intervals between us"?
This speech I wished to give would have sought amity with a tradition that has excluded us.
In this speech I would have sought those things that can unite us not those things that divide.
In this speech I would have chosen carefully my words.
In this speech I would have sought less to inflame and more to comfort.
I cannot give that speech it is best saved for another day.
That speech would have come from my head but I wish to speak from my heart.
Some of my own people have criticised me for being too faithful to diplomacy.
They find fault in my hope or optimism. To my critics I give Australia too much credit.
In another week I might challenge them – but not this week.
This week they are right.
This week I have struggled to contain a pulsating rage.
I have moved from boiling anger to simmering resentment but the feeling has not passed nor do I wish it too.
Even as I write, my words are powered by a coursing fury. My hands hover above the keyboard in a clenched fist.
This is an anger that comes from the certainty of being.
This is an anger that speaks to my soul.
This anger I know to be just.
This speech tonight does not look to Lincoln's first inaugural – then the great American president spoke words of brotherhood to a fractured nation on the eve of war.
"We are not enemies but friends", he said.
"We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection."
How I wish I could say that tonight. Another time – yes – but not tonight.
For this speech I look to Lincoln's second inaugural.
Here he stood before a country bloodied and worn.
Victory was at hand and slavery at an end.
But this president was tired.
His country lay in ruin. His assassin lurked in the audience.
Lincoln leaned on the gospels to lay at the feet of the nation the sin of slavery:
"Woe unto the world because of offenses – for it must needs be that offences come, but woe to the man by whom those offences cometh."
Woe to the man by whom those offences cometh.
What offences we have seen this past week.
How can I stand here and speak to the idea of our place in an indissoluble commonwealth when this week my people have been reminded that our place is so often behind this nation's bars.
This week we know what Australia looks like.
This week Australia is a boy in a hood strapped to a chair.
This week Australia is Aboriginal boys tear gassed, locked down and beaten.
These are the images on our television screens.
These boys who look like my boys.
I watched my teenage son as he saw this unfold before him. I saw him lose his place in the world – with each scene of horror he became less sure of his country.
For he has been raised not to believe in our worst.
He has been spared the fate of so many of his people.
But on that night he wondered at the difference between himself and the boys on the screen.
For in these boys he sees something of himself and he asks how his country can allow this.
When I saw the boys I saw a tragedy my son had escaped but I saw a reminder of a brutality his grandfather and my grandfather had endured.
I saw in those boys the broken bones and stab wounds and dark ink jail tattoos of my father.
I recalled the story of my mother's father dragged from his bed by police accused of drinking.
The same man arrested and tied to a tree like a dog.
There are those who would rather I not speak of these things.
There are those who accuse me of having a nostalgia for injustice.
A nostalgia for injustice – as if these wounds on the body and soul of my mother and father are things of memory.
As if we choose to cling to suffering – as if this injustice is a thing recalled and not a thing lived.
A nostalgia for injustice – such a charge could be levelled only by someone certain of his place in this country.
A certainty denied to a people – the first people – still searching for ours. Estranged in the land of our ancestors.
It could be levelled only by someone who sees injustice and brutality as something to be pondered and not endured.
It is a charge brought by people comfortable in their own history while they tell us to forget ours – to get over it.
These are people who value their traditions exalt their heroes and deny ours.
I wonder: would they dismiss the memories of the Jewish people so lightly?
Are the Jewish memories of suffering too, merely a nostalgia for injustice?
These are people who proclaim themselves conservatives but with their meanness debase the very traditions they claim to uphold.
These people who seize on difference – gay, Muslim, Asian, black – to vilify, divide and demonise.
All the while reserving for themselves the right to define our country and set the price of inclusion.
They are the people who wrap their words in civility to mask the beating heart of their bigotry.
How do these people square their supposed conservatism and professed love of country with the words of British conservative writer Roger Scruton when he says: "individuals must be free which means being free from the insolent claims of those who wish to redesign them."
Yet these people seek to redesign us to tell us who we should be and how we should think.
These people would tell those boys on our television screens this week – the boys crying in agony - that they live in an imagined world of pain.
They would tell them that they are to blame for their treatment.
They would tell the family of a 10-year-old indigenous girl who takes her own life that they live in an imagined world of sadness.
They would tell our people in overcrowded housing in communities ravaged by violence and drug and alcohol abuse that they revel in their misery.
They tell me I have a nostalgia for injustice.
No, we have no nostalgia for injustice because we have not first had the chance to forget.
Polish Nobel prize winning poet Czeslav Milosc spoke of his people carrying the 'memory of wounds'.
The memory of wounds – as Milosc wrote –perhaps all memory is the memory of wounds.
Certainly for us these memories sit deep within our soul.
Rather than long for these memories – rather than seek them out to give meaning to my identity in a perfect world I would wish them away.
But what has been done cannot be undone.
What has been seen cannot be unseen.
The scars of my father and the memory of my grandfather – these stories and images – the graveyard crosses of people gone too young are seared into my minds eyes as surely as the charred flesh and the stench of blood from a lifetime of reporting haunts my night's sleep.
The memory of a hooded, bound boy in a cell is now similarly burned in my consciousness.
Australia was redeemed in part from complicity in this disgrace only by the national outrage.
The Prime Minister responded by calling immediately for a royal commission.
It may meet a minimum requirement for action but forgive us if we lack faith.
We have been poked and prodded for two centuries.
We have been the subject of endless inquiry.
The heads of our people rest still in glass jars in foreign museums and our skeletons contained in cardboard boxes – the artefacts of inquiry.
Two decades ago we held a royal commission into black deaths in custody – it was supposed to end the culture of incarceration.
Today almost every face – man woman and child – behind bars in the Northern Territory is black.
Nationally, barely 3 per cent of the population comprise a quarter of those in jails.
It is not to excuse their individual crimes to make plain the fact that every one of those people – indigenous people – are a product of this country's history.
It is a history still yet to be given its full account.
It is a history still yet to puncture the public consciousness.
It is a history born of terra nullius – the founding of a nation on the lie of the empty land.
It is a history lamented in the 1960s by anthropologist W.E.H Stanner as the "'great Australian Silence".
It was he said: "A cult of forgetting practiced on a national scale."
Half a century later his words ring just as true.
Rather than this royal commission how more necessary is a truth and reconciliation commission.
A full reckoning of our Nation's past, that may set loose the chains of history that bind this country's first and today most miserably impoverished people.
In my caution I have argued against such things fearing it would harden division.
Now I accept that we need this mirror into our soul.
How can we continue to look at endemic child suicide, intractable disadvantage and our choking jail cells as mere pieces of a policy puzzle scattered on a board devoid of the outline of our troubled past.
If we are to remember the fallen of Pozieres and Fromelles, then surely we can remember the fallen warriors who resisted the invasion of their lands on this soil 200-plus years ago.
We can remember my people the Wiradjuri and the martial law of Bathurst.
We can recall the words of William Cox given the first land grant on the plains west of the Blue Mountains.
"It is better that all the blacks be shot and their carcasses used to manure the ground which is all the good they are fit for."
And shot they were – and poisoned and herded over cliffs – others ravaged by disease.
Half the population wiped out in a matter of years in what the Sydney Gazette reported as an "exterminating war."
And this is just the story of my own blood – each of our hundreds of nations has its own similar history.
This truth telling would make good on the demand of French philosopher Paul Ricouer:
"We must remember because remembering is a moral duty, we owe a debt to the victims. By remembering and telling we stop them from being buried twice."
Stop them from being buried twice – Australia's war dead are etched on walls of remembrance: 'lest we forget'.
Our dead lie in fields forgotten - histories still untold.
Without such truth where is our reconciliation?
Is it just to be measured in economic statistics?
Must closing the gap be the only measure of our justice?
Without such truth what is this thing we are calling recognition?
I sit on the referendum council and this week the word itself: recognition has felt small.
In this week it reeks of incremental shift when we cry out for fundamental change.
What is this perversity – that we should ask Australia to finally recognise us?
That we should ask for others to decide whether we have a place in a constitution that was designed for our exclusion?
This recognition lives in the netherworld of symbolism when so many of the lives of our people are crushed by a real world that has never truly recognised them – that has rendered them invisible: out of sight and out of mind.
We are asking Australia to recognise us when most Australians still admit to having never met an Indigenous person.
They may likely hang a dot painting on their wall having never touched the hand of the painter.
This recognition doesn't speak to my father – he recognises himself when he speaks with the power of his language: still alive when Australia would have seen it silenced.
Balladhu Wiradjuri Gibbir – dyirramadilinya badhu Wiradjuri! I am a Wiradjuri man – proudly Wiradjuri.
In this week: how can this recognition excite our people, weary of a struggle for rights so long denied.
Support for this recognition feels insipid and its supporters can speak only an air of resignation that the best we can get is less than we deserve.
I had thought that recognition may complete our nation – that it may fill the unfilled void.
I saw it as a chance for Australians to recognise ourselves. I am prepared to say that I put too much store in the power of this symbolism.
Now my arguments feel timid.
Recognition on these terms feels like betrayal of those who have fought for a justice more deserving: more dignified.
Recognition risks shrinking our ambitions to fit a miserable national mood where the polity has lost faith in its politicians.
This recognition is hostage to politics and politics is often the enemy of the truth.
This recognition demands finding common cause with those who have no interest in enlarging our nation but containing it.
This recognition demands a dispiriting compromise with those who seek to do nothing more than the least they can do.
To give full flight to our aspirations would be to court failure.
What a damning state of affairs in a country that remains the only commonwealth nation not to enshrine the sovereign rights of its first peoples.
Are we really so stricken with lethargy on this subject?
Must we be comfortable with our laggard status?
Do we not look to New Zealand or the United States or Canada and ask why we too cannot negotiate treaties?
Treaty even unattainable sings to the heart of indigenous people here in a way that recognition cannot.
If recognition is then to mean anything then we need to infuse it with the urgency of now.
It needs to speak with hope to the hooded beaten boys in dark prison cells.
It needs to rise above the transactions of our daily lives to sing in our hearts.
It needs to whisper to the conscience of our political leaders.
If it is to mean anything it needs to be imbued with the power to reorder our lives…to give real voice to the first peoples.
If the constitution is our rule book then we need to rewrite those rules.
Anything less will speak to the poverty of our spirit not the breadth of our vision.
Can we do this? That part of me that wants to believe struggles with what my eyes this week have seen.
Those boys: links in a chain that has bound us for 200 years.
This recognition: what is it without truth?
To quote the poet Milosc: "Crimes against human rights never confessed and never publicly denounced, are a poison which destroys the possibility of friendship between nations."
Can we confess these truths?
My people have spoken this country's confession even when no one would listen.
Our heroes have sought to fill out this country. They have held its greatness to great account.
Our warriors of the frontier: Pemulwuy, Windradyne, Yagun, Jandamarra, Tunnerminnerwait and so many others who resisted invasion and whose names should fall from the lips of schoolchildren as easily as Captain Cook, Arthur Phillip or Ned Kelly.
Their spirit has lived in those who have followed.
Joe Anderson – otherwise known as King Burraga of the Tharawal people – who said in 1933:
"All the black man wants is representation in federal parliament. There is plenty of fish in the river for us all and land to grow all we want."
Victorian Aboriginal leader William Cooper who in 1937 petitioned King George for representation in Parliament.
The years have not diminished our struggle. We have fought on many fronts.
In 1963 the Yirrkala bark petitions were recognised by the Australian parliament.
The Yolngu People asserted the ownership of their lands and the right to be heard.
In 1966 Vincent Lingiari walked off Wave Hill station to demand equal pay and won his land when Gough Whitlam poured the sand through Vincent's fingers.
Charles Perkins led a bus load of students to smash segregation outback New South Wales.
In 1972 a group of activists pitched a tent on the lawns of parliament house.
In 1988 Yolngu leader Gallarwuy Yunnipingu presented the Barunga statement to Prime Minister Bob Hawke demanding what the Yirrkala people had demanded in their petition to the Queen: a treaty.
Eddie Mabo a man from Murray Island took his battle to the highest court in the land and did not live to see his claim vindicated: this was indeed his land.
After the apology to the stolen generations Gallarwuy Yunnipingu gave a speech talking about what he called 'serious business': a final settlement.
Still we wait.
This week we ask again: how long do we wait?
I don't put myself in this pantheon.
I live in the enormous shadow they cast.
So I turn to words; the words of a man I turned to as I began this speech.
I turn to the speech I had hoped to give.
I recalled the words of Lincoln's first inaugural, his appeal to his nation's better angels.
I return to the words of the weary Lincoln. The Lincoln at the start of his second term, a man whose death stalked him as he spoke.
"Let us finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."
Mandang Guwu – Thank you.