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A full text of the graduation address by Dr Jackie Huggins AM

A full text of the graduation address by Dr Jackie Huggins AM

Published:14 December 2017

Good morning Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of the land – the Turbal and Jagera people and their elders past and present and future.

I acknowledge that it has been an incredibly troubling year when we think about our children. We create these little people and they put all their love and trust into our hands. I want to acknowledge the work of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory for its ability to tell the stories of our children whom this Country has failed. The Commission’s report collects the voices of our most vulnerable and tells the stories of their capture and imprisonment - stories which should not exist in this generation. I respect the pain that this work brings to the surface for all involved and I honour the importance of sharing it with the broader community. This was headed by Mick Gooda from Rockhampton.

I also acknowledge the non-Indigenous people who have stood resolutely beside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and defended our rights. People who have shared stories of the inequality we face; who have called out racism; who have protected our rights. I thank you for standing with our First Peoples.

We must always draw on the strengths of those who have come before us. Our recently passed great champion, North Queenslander, Dr Evelyn Scott took to heart her father's words: "If you don't think something is right, then challenge it." And she did just that as an advocate of women and family violence.

For those who don’t know me, I am a Bidjara Birri Gubba/Juru woman from Central and North Queensland and am the Co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

My mother was born in 1922 in Carnarvon Gorge which is the ancestral home of my people, 600 kilometres North West of Brisbane, many of you would know where that is. As a child she was captured by troopers along with her family and thrown onto a crowded cattle truck and taken on a long journey south to what became known as the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. She never lived on her beautiful country again. Forced to work as a domestic servant from the age of 14, she was denied her childhood; her family, her language and her culture. Like all in those days, she was only permitted a 4th Grade education.

But these circumstances did not define her. She was an Aboriginal midwife who delivered many babies and a strong advocate for raising children strong in their culture. I remember her saying to me when my son was born, “every child deserves the best start in life. Make sure he knows about this culture and history and all else will follow.”

And it did…My son is the most precious gift to me. I could not have had a career or be the person I am today without the unconditional and loving support of my mother, sister and brother in law in raising my child. My sister is here today with me.

During my life I have held various positions but they all had a common theme threading through them: to give our peoples a voice and demand that it is heard and respected. I was the Chair of the Queensland Domestic Violence Council; the former Commissioner for Queensland for the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their Families and the Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia.

Today I humbly accept this award as a Member of the Indigenous Reference Group, Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research, Mackay Campus, Central Queensland University.

My organisation, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has created one of the largest networks of our Peoples in the country. Every day we work alongside 180 organisational members who are the national peak bodies and community organisations changing lives on the ground.

We are committed to advocating for community-led, holistic solutions developed by us as First Peoples.

We work within a human rights framework (UNDRIP) so that we gain strength from Indigenous people globally who are united against institutionalised racism and against segregated political power structures.

I want to acknowledge the strength people who fight every day to keep violence at bay, our families together; to keep our children at home and to keep siblings together. I want to acknowledge also our teachers and educators.

Some of our people are kept apart from us - by politics and power - and forced to live away from the people who care most about them. They are in prisons and in out of home care. As long as they exist separated from us, from their families, from our communities and from our society, we remain a people who are unable to exercise the right of self-determination.

As Galarrwuy Yunupingu wrote in his essay, ‘Rom Watangu,’ ‘It is a form of torture for a Yolngu person to see the loss of our life: every word, every note, every slip in the song is pain; every patch of land taken; every time an outsider takes control from Yolngu; every time we compromise; and every time we lose something or someone. I tell my family to stand strong and endure, stay within the guidelines of our law, stay with the song cycles and be armed with this knowledge so as to secure for our people our lands, our way of life and our place in the world.’

The impacts of policies such as the Stolen Generation; the forced removal of our people from their lands; relocation of our people to reservations and missions; Assimilation; stolen wages; the Northern Territory Intervention amongst others have caused ongoing sorrow and inter-generational trauma. The destruction of land, sacred sites, cultures and languages coupled with racial discrimination have often led some of our people to feel as if their lives are worthless.

Indigenous people are the experts when it comes to taking responsibility for, and looking after our people. We have the right to develop and provide services which address inter-generational trauma. We have the right to teach our children in their languages and ensure they have a culturally appropriate education. We have the right to deliver pre-natal services according to the needs of our communities and to build houses which are suitable to our needs to ensure safety and hygiene.

We do not function in governmental silos on three-year terms. We will not be governed by different government “portfolios” because we understand we must look after our own affairs to secure our future— and we will do this for our children. Short term solutions by governments which do not think beyond their own terms or political popularity will never succeed.

Aboriginal people often say that ‘when you are born Aboriginal, you are born political’ and for me, "political awareness and action is a way of life".

Recently I was in Broome attending the Oxfam Australia’s Straight Talk Kimberley Regional gathering which aims to build relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women in federal parliament, to find ways to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Once again it was incredible to hear the warm and heartening stories of so many fine Aboriginal women playing their part in their communities, often against huge odds. The role they play in their families as mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunties are indispensable in keeping families strong and connected.

The issue of vulnerability of Aboriginal and Torrens Strait Islander women, is real. Where women are vulnerable, perhaps due to domestic violence or poor physical and /or mental health, children are going to be at an increased risk. Domestic violence, like the other health problems and other vulnerabilities is inextricably connected with other social factors including dispossession and inter-generational trauma. A history of oppression has produce an environment of extreme disadvantage for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In some cases, this includes family violence at a higher rate than other Australians. Violence against women cannot be separated from the effects it has on children, because it has clear intergenerational effects. Women who experience violence are at greater risk of substance abuse, affecting children before and after birth. Further, cycles of violence are more likely to become established where children experience or witness violence at a young age. Engagement with the criminal justice system, unemployment, substance abuse, and homelessness are long-term effects that can all be connected with family violence in the early years. It is critical that family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is considered in the broad context of the disadvantage faced by many of our people. Again, the interconnectedness of the different types of disadvantage experienced by our children cannot be ignored.

The problems that affect vulnerable women and children do not exist in isolation it is interconnected. The problem, overcrowded housing is connected to criminal justice by increased risk of poor ear health, and subsequent reduced educational attainment. Domestic violence may be linked to FASD conditions because of poor mental health and substance abuse in young women.

Unfortunately, imprisonment rates are even worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people – our future – who represent 50 percent of the youth prison population. We are eagerly awaiting addressing the findings of the Northern Territory Royal Commission into youth justice and child protection following the revelations at Don Dale. While the Royal Commission has been documenting issues specific to the Northern Territory, we know that terrible abuses of children are happening in prisons in other states and territories right around the country. And twenty years after the Bringing Them Home report was handed down in 1997, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still being removed from the home and alarmingly at even greater rates than ever before.

I also want to specifically mention Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women – our mothers, sisters, daughters, nurturers and leaders. Unfortunately, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up 33 per cent of the female prison population and are today the fastest growing prison population. Lamentably, 90 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison have been victims of violence or sexual assault, and 80 percent of them are mothers – torn away from their families and children.

These statistics are encapsulated in the tragic and unnecessary death of Ms Dhu. Ms Dhu, a beautiful 22 year old Yamajti woman, was taken into police custody because she had unpaid fines. Three days later, Ms Dhu died an agonising and painful death in police custody from injuries she sustained from a domestic violence incident. Rather than supporting and protecting her at perhaps the most vulnerable moment of her life the police locked her up.

Three years after her death, and following a coronial inquest, the Western Australian government has still not implemented key findings made by the coroner.

The government’s current Closing the Gap refresh presents a significant opportunity to achieve many things, including by setting national justice targets to reduce the rates of imprisonment and violence experienced by our people. We must be working together to build institutions and systems, including the justice system, that respect and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rather than oppress us.

Did you know for example that:

- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence related assaults than other women.

- They are 10 times more likely to be killed as the result of violent assault than other women.

- Aboriginal children are developmentally vulnerable (compared to 2.2 in 10 non-indigenous children)

- 53% of aboriginal students in the NT have hearing loss, affecting language, literacy and social development.

- 34.9% of aboriginal students in rural areas exceed the National minimum standards for Year7 reading in 2014

The bottom line is this:

It must be understood that real progress won’t be made unless and until Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are given real power to make decisions for ourselves. Call it self-determination, call it whatever you like but it is shown around the world to be the essential ingredient in improving health and other outcomes for Indigenous peoples.

And where does that leave the myth that so-called “practical” aspects of reconciliation are somehow separate from the so-called “symbolic” ones – the aspects of reconciliation that recognise and respect difference in priority and approach, and the overarching significance of family and community.

Right now, some people seem to be stuck on the sad testimonies in this the many other reports. The stories make them angry and upset and they want immediate action. Who can blame them?

But the best thing we can do to honour the stories in these reports and the people who told them – and the many more out there who are silent – is to take action on their recommendations.

Let me tell you there is more than a grain of truth in the old cliché that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Indigenous affairs is a full street directory of these roads Рso many good intentions, so few outcomes.

In conclusion, we also have to expect that great things will happen. We will succeed. We will prosper, as Indigenous peoples around the world have shown they can prosper when they’ve been given the chance.

Around Australia, exciting examples are already out there to see in our communities and we’re ready to join the points of light.

And you can be part of the process too, as graduates in your various fields, as teachers, lawyers or engineers. We comprise 3% of the population – we can’t do it alone! Therefore, I invite you to join us to overcome the systemic disadvantages face by your First Australians.

If we work together we have the great opportunity to change this around. I believe it can happen in the next generation.

Congratulations to all. You have reached a milestone in your life. Good luck in your lives and careers whatever you do. I would like to wish you and your families all the best for the Festive Season.