Launch of Message Stick Exhibition

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra

Speech, check against delivery, E&OE

6 July 2011

Thanks very much Katina for your warm welcome here this evening; Matilda for your always warm welcome to me wherever I go and your delightful irreverence to all of us.

To Dennis and the Department and for your work, not just in the business of Australian foreign policy but what you also do in the promotion of Indigenous Australia to the world.

To the Dean, Pedro — where are you, I've lost you. There you are. I've never seen a quiet Argentinian in my life.

And to my colleagues, one and all, from the diplomatic corps here in Canberra.

I begin by acknowledging the first Australians on whose land we meet and whose cultures we celebrate as among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

But whenever I say that at the beginning of a speech, it gives me pause for reflection when I think of cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux in France.

When I think of the earliest cave art that we find in most parts of the world, what you find in the Kimberleys in this country is, I believe — and the scholars, in the main part, would attest — among the most ancient in the world.

It is extraordinary if you spend time on the Burrup Peninsula up in the Kimberleys and you see the cave art there.

Quite different to what you see with indigenous communities in various other parts of Australia.

But standing there on the isolated headland of the Burrup Peninsula and staring out across the scattered wasteland of that part of North Western Australia.

With iron ore literally protruding from the ground, it is deeply arresting to reflect on the deep antiquity of this land and the deep antiquity of the first peoples of this land.

It is one of the reasons, I think, that we in this country, until recent years, have been less conscious of the great gift that this ancient culture, these ancient cultures, this ancient civilisation represent to all of us who now call ourselves Australian.

When I travel the world and according to the newspapers, I do a bit — some would say, to outer space — I am constantly taken by the depth of the impression of the indigenous cultural heritage in this country that it has left in so many cultures around the world.

The fact that we have among us this living culture, people from the Dreamtime and whose art was dreamt and executed in the Dreamtime is something quite remarkable.

It's something which we, as European Australians, should from time to time just pinch ourselves about because this is of such depth and antiquity and in my view, beauty.

When I was at the Fourth of July function yesterday at the United States residence — and I think a number of you were there — in Jeff's tent out the back, what strikes you as you enter the residence to the US Embassy is this marvellous piece of indigenous art in the entrance foyer of the residence.

And as I've travelled around the world, I have seen this in many, many foreign diplomatic establishments around the world, not just ours in foreign countries.

Reflecting again, I think, the place which indigenous art has now obtained in the cultural sensitivities of the global family.

Of course, as these paintings will reflect and as the stories that you have heard since you have been here tell most eloquently, this has not always been a happy story.

We, European Australians, arrived here a little more than 200 years ago and bar some good encounters in the first few days and the first few weeks, things tended to go downhill fairly rapidly and I think we're basically to blame.

A lot of time has gone by. And it took us 200 years to try and set these things to right, which was why it was important for us, finally, to conclude that a national apology to indigenous Australians was a necessary part in our own national healing and a ground on which a new Indigenous confidence in this country could then grow.

I had a feeling — just a small feeling — that the Apology might have worked. Not on the day itself, but the following day.

I remember flying from Canberra to East Timor — there was some trouble up there at the time — and coming back to visit Jose Ramos-Horta who was then fighting for his life in Darwin Hospital.

And as I went into the hospital, I remember running into three or four Aboriginal blokes probably in their late 20s, early 30s.

And often what I'd encountered in the past was the avoidance of eyes. On that occasion, there was none. In fact, there was an almost joyous joining of eyes as they came up, hugged me, thanked me and said did I want a beer?

And to me that was just the first early glimpse that something, just something, transformative might have occurred back in February 2008.

What I've encountered with Indigenous Australians since then is more of a spring in their step, a greater sense of their legitimate place in this Commonwealth of Australia; that this is the land of their ancestors and a continent which we, as European Australians, are privileged to share.

This is a long journey, a very, very long journey and we've made but just a few steps along the way.

And of course, when the journey's end is we do not know, but it will have a lot to do with what we call Closing the Gap.

The other thing that surprised me about all this was when I went abroad the first time as Prime Minister a little time later.

And I remember walking into the European Commission in Brussels and President Barroso greeting me. And he said, fantastic speech. And I'm thinking to myself, have I made a speech on Europe recently that I'm unaware of? Is this man just poorly briefed? Those Europeans, they're constantly getting things wrong. It's okay, that was a joke guys, don't worry…


…settle down.

Then — and as you do as diplomats, yes, of course Excellency, yes, yes. What speech?

He said, the Apology. Oh right, you've read about it? No, he said, I watched it from beginning to end in Brussels. And then as I began rolling around the world and talking to more and more of my counterparts, it seems that a very large number of them had.

What we in Australia at the time were conscious of, Katina, Matilda and other Indigenous brothers and sisters here with us this evening, was how in fact our non-reconciliation with Indigenous Australia had in fact blighted our standing in the world.

Hard for us to actually recognise; Australians see themselves as these happy go lucky types, everyone's — Jack's as good as his master. No-one's better than anyone else.

And I don't think we were quite conscious of the reservation in the minds of foreigners about who we were and the question of the status of Indigenous Australia.

And I can say, as a diplomat of some years standing, as a politician of some years standing and with a few experiences around the world, I wasn't aware of it either.

But it hit me in the weeks that followed, almost a palpable sigh of relief around the world that at last you white guys in Australia have fixed up your stuff. That's the message I got.

And I think therefore what came from that — and I'll conclude on these remarks — is the beginning of a discussion in a number of other countries where this question of the status of Indigenous peoples had not yet been fully resolved.

As someone from European Australia, I will not throw a stone at anybody on those questions because our past has not been a good one.

But where Indigenous peoples exist anywhere in the world, if I have one word of reflection from our own Australian experience, is get it right and get it right soon.

And get it right in a way which is replete with the substance and the symbols of a true bringing together of hearts and minds.

So we're pleased tonight to be here with Message Stick.

We're pleased tonight to be here with this great exhibition.

My notes tell me to give you a learned exposition on each painting.

I won't.

You will form your own judgements and you will form your own conclusions.

But as I look around — and I have some sense of what you're about to enjoy. It is what I now enjoy most about being Foreign Minister of Australia, which is reflecting to the world at large that we begun a process of healing both in fact, both in symbol and I think in art, in the way in which we express ourselves with the paintings you see here this evening.

With great pleasure, I therefore declare open this wonderful exhibition and all those who sail within her.

Thank you.


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