We still have this divide

Marcia Langton

Thank you for inviting me to speak here on Eora country, to be with Jessie Street's family and to say something in her honour. I had the great honour of working with Jim Fingleton, who I understand is one of Jessie Street's grandchildren, and he sent his apologies by email to say that he was otherwise engaged - as he would be. He is a very impressive and inspirational man to me. It must be in the gene pool.

Of course, happy birthday to Jessie Street and congratulations to all of you who keep the fire burning in honour of her. I have to acknowledge the audience and the many wonderful people here. I know quite a few people in this room. I have worked with quite a few, and I acknowledge our illustrious ladies from the New South Wales Parliament.

It is fitting that I tell you how my life was touched by Jessie Street and another lady present here, Faith Bandler. I think I was 16 when I saw my mother vote for the first time in her life. It is true, as I explained in the Alfred Deakin lecture, that the referendum did not directly lead to the right to vote for Aboriginal people.

It is quite a complicated story which I thought would be easy to write about, but was in fact very difficult. As Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, we owe much to a Mr Singh who prosecuted his right to vote earlier in the 20th century because, like us, other people of colour were denied the vote.

Nevertheless, I think that the referendum, which was the most successful referendum in Australian history, which resulted in the removal of at least one of the racist propositions in our Constitution, was certainly part of the zeitgeist which enabled the nation to change its mind about questions of racial hygiene. Some of you will remember those times quite starkly.

"They quite rightly point out that whereas Australia refers to the countries in its nearby region such as the Solomon Islands, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and so on as the arc of instability, right here in our continent there is a heartland of instability."

It was a different world. How could it be that, for 70 years of the modern nation of Australia, people defined by race were not counted in the census, and by the way were not citizens, were not entitled to vote and were by and large wards of the state.

Not everybody was a ward of the state. I believe I wasn't when I went with my mother in Brisbane to keep her company when she voted. But I had uncles who were most definitely wards of the state, and aunties and cousins who were also wards and whose movements were dictated by the whim of a settlement superintendent at Cherbourg, at Palm Island and other places. We were always astonished if one of them ever actually got to Brisbane to visit us at Christmas time. We would ask questions like "how did you get out?"

If you can imagine a childhood where it was simply not possible for members of a family to get together, you have to ask yourself the question why was it so? Well, it is a long story. But clearly it was a failure of the imagination of that time to conceive that Aboriginal people could be fully functioning citizens, indeed fully functioning human beings.

I do not want to go back to the past. I am looking forward to the 40th anniversary of the referendum hosted by Reconciliation Australia. Jackie Huggins has already told you something about the preparations for that event and the institutionalisation of that part of our history into our collective memories and school textbooks.

I want to draw on the resonance of those times when Australia was so starkly divided, and point out to you that Australia is still starkly divided. It is divided in many ways. I could mention so many things, such as our treatment of asylum seekers. I refer to privileged Australia and the underclass. Aboriginal people do not make up the entirety of that underclass, but we certainly make up a big proportion of it.

Two former public servants who worked in the Northern Territory, Neil Westbury and Mike Dillon, are apparently writing a book, some of which was reported in The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. They refer to Aboriginal Australia as a failed state, by which they mean that the state has failed us.

In remote Australia, as you will have heard ad nauseum from the newspapers, there are communities in crisis. There are horrendous problems of law and order, of alcohol and substance abuse, violence.

They quite rightly point out that whereas Australia refers to the countries in its nearby region such as the Solomon Islands, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and so on as the arc of instability, right here in our continent there is a heartland of instability.

There is a failed state within our midst. It is the failure of all within the Australian governments which we have to understand is at least partly responsible along with history for this terrible situation.

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