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DFAT Secretary’s NAIDOC Week Reception: Remarks by Acting Secretary Gary Quinlan

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Speaker: DFAT Acting Secretary Gary Quinlan


Thank you Julie-Ann, and good evening everybody.

Julie-Ann, of course, is a very dynamic member of the Department's Indigenous Employees Network (IEN), which is already becoming a very strong presence in DFAT. We want to make sure we make it much stronger in the future.

First I would like to pay my respects, and the respects of all of us, to the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathering tonight, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. And I acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including those present this evening.

I'd also like to thank our Ngunnawal Elder, Ms Jude Barlow for her characteristically very gracious Welcome to Country.

I might note, by the way, for those who don't know, and we have many members of the Diplomatic Corps here tonight for example, that the name Canberra itself is thought by some – although this is contested – to derive from a Ngambri word meaning alternatively "meeting place", or "Corroboree ground". Or the meaning I particularly like, "laughing jackass", which is the name for the Kookaburra. The Parliament, of course, is just up the hill.

I am delighted to welcome members of the Diplomatic Corps, as I've said, and the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, His Excellency Mr Charles Lepani, who is here this evening, senior colleagues from other departments, and other agencies and institutions in Canberra and elsewhere, and members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community themselves, and ladies and gentlemen.

I particularly want to welcome as well, Dr Matthew Trinca, the Director of the National Museum of Australia. The Museum, and Matthew and his colleagues, have partnered with DFAT right through this week in a very active program to celebrate NAIDOC Week, including tonight's reception.

NAIDOC Week celebrates a lot more than the original, primordial contribution to Australia's heritage of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, which are, as has already been remarked, the oldest continuous living cultures and communities in human history.

Even more so, NAIDOC Week celebrates the vitality of these communities in the contemporary identity of Australia today. This year's NAIDOC theme is "Songlines: the living narrative of our nation".

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the ancient period known as the Dreamtime describes a time when the earth, people and animals were created by their ancestral spiritual beings. And when customs and laws were made for people to live by.

So called "Dreaming Tracks", or "Songlines", crisscross Australia, often for hundreds of kilometres, and trace the journeys of these ancestral spirits as they 'sung' the land into life. "Songlines" have been passed down for thousands of years and are central to the existence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

They demonstrate the power of storytelling in all of our societies. When you think about it, storytellers were among the first and the most formative part of every human tribe, every human community. They gave our communities memory, custom, self-image. And over time, coherence and confidence. In today's world, storytelling remains imperative to the preservation of cultural practices – above all, to those of the world's indigenous communities.

One of DFAT's own key roles is to tell the story of Australia to the world, including by promoting the heritage and culture of Australia's first peoples, as well as empowering them to tell their own stories. We call this public diplomacy.

Tonight, as I've said, we are partnering with the National Museum of Australia. The Museum is a social history museum that explores the land, the nation and the people of Australia. And it holds a luminous collection of Australian and Indigenous Australian cultural artefacts.

Tonight we are hosting a display of objects from their Torres Strait Island collections, and you will see these around the room.

These objects depict life in the Torres Strait in far north Queensland, adjacent to Papua New Guinea. They also contrast the "Ghost Nets" exhibition, which you see above you and around you, which is also displayed here tonight.

For those who don't know, "Ghost Nets" sculptures, which are created by both Torres Strait Islander communities and Aboriginal communities, are made of discarded fishing nets, wire and debris that litter Australia's coastline, float in the ocean or are washed up on the beaches.

The raw materials, or "Ghost Nets" as they are referred to, were collected by Aboriginal artists, who worked with the Pormpuraaw Art and Cultural Centre to turn them into these quite subtle, but compelling works of art.

Aboriginal artist, Mr Syd Bruce Shortjoe will speak to us shortly about the exhibition so I don't want to appropriate anything further that he would say.

But I will remark that these "Ghost Nets" are a pervasive threat globally – not only to the sea mammals, the birds, the marine life they enmesh, but also to the communities that depend on the living ocean for their own existence and to continue their traditional practices.

Worldwide about 800,000 metric tonnes of "Ghost Nets" find their way into our oceans every year and the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Torres Strait Islands area in far north Queensland is one of the worst affected in the world, with some of the highest density of "Ghost Nets" coming ashore.

They are effectively indestructible and if not retrieved and removed they will in fact continue to kill for hundreds of years.

In concluding, again, let me welcome everybody here tonight and thank you for your presence. And let me invite all of us to reflect on what we as a nation and we as individuals, can do to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are not only protected, but further recognised and strengthened.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 11 July 2016
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