Honoured guests, I acknowledge the Wadjuk people of the Noongar nation on whose ancestral lands we meet. I must deliver that salutation half a dozen times a week. But after the wonderful remarks we have heard from Reconciliation and Auspire leadership; from the four nominees we are sending to Canberra – Craig Challen, Frank Mallard, Noelle Martin and Chery Kickett-Tucker; and the inspirational welcome to country by Walter McGuire, I feel I must dwell on it. It is quite clear that the organisations and speakers have thought long and hard on indigenous issues and the need to acknowledge difficult components of settlement memory and use the event for unity building.
I want to say we are privileged to share the continent with our first nation peoples. When Australia was formally created on January 1st 1901 a unifying slogan was, “A nation for a continent, a continent for a nation.” On 26th January 1788 our forefathers and mothers entered a continent for 750 nations. Our land was inhabited by the oldest civilisation on earth after most of the species homo sapiens had been wiped out by the ice age. They survived. Less well known, but it is entirely possible, the same civilisation 30,000 odd years earlier became the first to control the environment as opposed to being controlled by it. I always recommend Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ should be compulsory reading for all students. There is enough valid research to know now that we entered a continent not only of many nations, but a civilisation of great philosophical and technical capability. Some could but most of our ancestors could not recognise it. I would not normally engage this contemplation but it seems on this day we must.
While on indigenous matters I want to outline another impression. My period as Ambassador to the U.S. gave me something of a Rip Van Winkle experience in relation to my home state. We live life culturally like frogs in boiling water not aware of our changing condition. Absent six years from the phenomena, two things struck me on my return. One was how much wealthier and sophisticated this city had become. The second was that the biggest power shift in society and politics in WA was in the status of our indigenous community. The conversation still dwelt on injustice and race inequality. However the numbers of acknowledged Aboriginal voices, the respect accorded them, the size of their audience, the relevance of their issues had increased dramatically. No other shifts in the mental landscape were as dramatic.
That development is very much reflected in our four nominees, departing this afternoon for Canberra. They reflect that broader based WA agenda. Their unity of experience is courage, not just physical courage but moral courage. They have confronted danger in ways that amaze all of us but many also vicious and difficult threats that have required deep moral resources to overcome. Their behaviour and values represent all we West Australians aspire to be. Their success reflects well on our three organisational hosts at this gathering.
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