Time to listen to Aboriginal voices

Gordon Cole is Chair of the Noongar Chamber of Commerce and Industry and member of the National NAIDOC Committee.

You can say what you like about the mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto. When they stood together to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart, they were standing firmly where we have been looking for Australia’s Government to stand for decades.

We might question what is going on in our politics when it takes the leaders of mining companies to say what needs to be said and call on our society to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a powerful declaration, calling for constitutional reform to provide for a First Nations voice in the Australian Parliament. It also calls for a Makarrata Commission, a body to oversee agreement making and truth-telling between communities and government.

What the Uluru Statement articulates is the indisputable fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people formed the first sovereign nations of this country and constitutional reform recognising this can only make Australia stronger.

This is not just symbolism. Simple arguments which insist there are “greater priorities” in Aboriginal affairs are deaf to the intent of the statement. To use an old cliché, surely we can walk and chew gum at the same time? Do we really have to choose one and not the other?

Alternatively, we could argue government has been throwing their own solutions, interventions and billions of dollars in public money at attempts to address the poor outcomes for our people for generations with little progress. Have they really thought about going back to the cornerstone document of our nation and acknowledging the 60,000 years of functioning society which existed before and still survives today?

There is plenty of evidence to show the profound personal impact respectful recognition and acknowledgement of past wrongdoings can have on people who are regularly reminded they are somehow on the outside of a more privileged mainstream.

In his speech in Perth last week, BHP CEO Andrew McKenzie talked of time he had spent with Aboriginal people in the Pilbara and across Australia. He spoke of the respect he had for the wisdom, strength and resilience of our people. He described the Uluru Statement as a challenge, but then he also laid out the significance of the document in simple terms.

“It asks only for what many of us take for granted – to be heard on decisions made about their rights and interests and to have power over their destiny,” he said.

It seems logical that constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would lead to a greater sense of inclusion and the opportunity for all Australians to embrace and celebrate the oldest continuous living culture in the world.

As a Noongar man, I was disappointed by the responses of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other government representatives after BHP and Rio Tinto stood in support. What are our political leaders really afraid of? Proper acknowledgement and better outcomes for our communities will ultimately enrich us all.

I meet regularly with business and corporate leaders in Perth and throughout the South West. I hear and see the passion and commitment of management teams and boards who genuinely want to support Aboriginal businesses, employ more Aboriginal people and demonstrate their organisation has a social conscience with real outcomes.

It seems a telling day for us all when the commercial world is driving the push for necessary social reform ahead of the people who are elected to serve their constituents.

This year, the NAIDOC theme is Voice, Treaty, Truth. What an opportunity to be part of a moment in Australia’s history we could look back on with pride. That is what supporting the statement will do. To go on ignoring it, or refusing to accept it, continues to disempower, frustrate and deny the truth.

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