February 26, 2020 Josh Burns MP

It is time that we did better in closing the gap

Mr BURNS (Macnamara) (11:28): I begin my remarks by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which our parliament sits, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people. I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which my electorate of Macnamara is based, the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging, and indeed I pay my respects to all Indigenous Australians.

It is a profound honour to be an elected member of the Australian parliament, which meets on land which has always been and always will be Aboriginal land. This parliament has spoken a lot about Indigenous affairs but has not listened enough to Indigenous Australians. I particularly want to acknowledge the contributions that have been made since the Closing the Gap statements were made and the responses by the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the member for Hasluck, and by the member for Barton.

For the first time in our nation’s history we have an Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians, and an Indigenous shadow minister for Indigenous Australians. It should not have taken until 2019 for that to become the case, but it is nevertheless a good thing. I won’t praise the current Prime Minister much in my time in this parliament, but I commend him for appointing the member for Hasluck to be the Minister for Indigenous Australians. I hope he listens to the member for Hasluck more often when it comes to Indigenous policy. I also want to acknowledge the contributions in the other place that Senator Dodson and Senator McCarthy on our side and Senator Lambie on the crossbench have made to this parliament.

One of the most meaningful events I attended during the past election campaign as a candidate was not held in my electorate. It was 6 December 2018 and I joined hundreds at Flagstaff Gardens to go on a very special march. It had been organised by Jewish and Indigenous communities in Melbourne to honour a man called William Cooper, whom the electorate of Cooper has been named after. Eighty years earlier to the day, just weeks after the Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in which over 90 Jewish people were murdered in a brutal pogrom in Nazi, William Cooper went on a march on his own. An Indigenous man led the world’s first and possibly only private protest against Hitler’s and the Nazi’s treatment of Jews. He marched on the German consulate in Melbourne and attempted to deliver them a letter on behalf of the Australian Aborigines League condemning the atrocities that they were committing. I marched proudly that day, 80 years later, with William Cooper’s grandson Alfred Turner, better known as Uncle Boydy. At a time when Australian Aboriginals didn’t even have the right to vote in their own country, an Aboriginal man stood up for the Jewish people—including my grandmother who had left Germany only a week earlier in the darkest hour.

I am proud to be a Jewish member of parliament and I stand here to restate that it is not only my desire to advance meaningful reconciliations as a Jewish Australian; it is my duty. In the years since William Cooper marched, Jewish and Indigenous Australians have continued to share a powerful and compelling connection throughout our nation’s history, from Eddie Mabo’s senior counsel, the late, great, humans rights lawyer Ron Castan, to a man who has been co-chair of many of government’s councils on Indigenous reforms, Mark Leibler AC. I also acknowledge the member for Berowra, who together with Senator Dodson, co-chaired this parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

A number of fine Jewish Australians have tried to fulfil this duty to repay William Cooper’s courage and bravery in the pursuit of justice. A year before William Cooper marched on the German consulate for the Jewish people he wrote a letter about the plight of his own people to then Prime Minister Joe Lyons. He had a very simple request: ‘Give us a voice in our own affairs.’ Eighty years after that letter that William Cooper wrote, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was delivered to then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with much the same request. Their request was also very simple, but it was practical and meaningful. It was a practical and meaningful proposal to break out of the seemingly endless cycle of our failures to achieve real reconciliation, constitutional recognition and improvements in the living standards of Australia’s Indigenous people. They asked the government to advance a referendum to create a First Nations Voice to the parliament, enshrined in the constitution to give them a real say in their own affairs. Their scope and function would be within the control of the parliament. It was nothing like a third chamber, yet that was the dishonest reason that then Prime Minister Turnbull give for rejecting it out of hand. It isn’t good enough and it will be a stain on our history.

We have heard in these responses to the Closing the gap report that we have failed as a nation in almost every target that we have set. We need to break that cycle. We need to be prepared to talk about the things we have failed and the things that we need to address. The answer doesn’t lie in changing our targets; it lies in changing what we have done—things like treaty and things like truth-telling about what was done to our First Australians, the world’s oldest civilisation, who were colonised and against whom great atrocities were committed. Maybe we even need to be prepared to talk about how and when we celebrate our national day and who we are as Australians, but, first and foremost, we need to advance this nation through the difficult and meaningful process of a referendum to create the First Nations Voice. We need to be prepared to make the case that Indigenous Australians should have a real say in their own matters and the policies that affect them. We need to be brave and we need to be bold. We need to stand tall for Indigenous Australians and fight for their justice, just as William Cooper stood for Jewish people and stood for my grandmother 80 years ago.

I am ready and the Australian Labor Party is ready. It is time to recognise the 65,000 years of history of our great nation. It is time to build a more inclusive future. It is time to be ambitious for the idea of what it is to be Australian. It is time that we undertook a process of including our First Nations people in the very fabric of our nation. It is time that we did better in closing the gap.


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    Josh Burns MP respectfully acknowledges the past and present traditional owners of the land of the Indigenous people, the traditional custodians of this land, and respect their culture and identity which has been bound up with the land and sea for generations.