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NAIDOC Week Reception

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Speaker: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here tonight and acknowledge their continuing connection to Australia's lands and waters.

Your Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for joining us as we mark NAIDOC week – a week of celebration and recognition of Australia's Indigenous people.

Thank you especially Jude Barlow for your warm Welcome to Country.

It is an honour to hear your words and to stand with you tonight in the Country of your ancestors, your family and your descendants.

This year's NAIDOC theme is 'our languages matter'.

As diplomats and public servants, we understand the power of language.

Language is a window into any culture – equally essential as a tool to inform an outsider's understanding of any group as it is to defining that group's own understanding of itself.

At the time of European settlement, there were an estimated two hundred and fifty Australian languages spoken – with countless local dialectic variations.

Australia's indigenous languages are as diverse as the nation they were born in – from the Tiwi in the Bathurst and Melville Islands to Australia's North, to the Noongar in the lush Karri Forests of South Western Australia and the Ngunnawal language, spoken in the grass plains of what we now know as the ACT.

These languages evolved over thousands of years, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples negotiated, traded and communicated amongst and between tribes and cultural groups.

Each of these languages evolved as part of an oral tradition, with dialects, stories and history passed down from generation to generation through the spoken word.

As we all know – culture is derived of language, and in turn, culture is an important part of identity, part of what makes us – all of us – tick.

Sadly, with colonisation and settlement, as family, clan and cultural connections were broken through displacement, dissuasion and death, with Elders no longer able to pass on the sacred traditions and the words that defined them, some of these languages were tragically lost.

Stories and songs were lost, and so, too, hard-learned lessons about how these remarkable civilisations managed to thrive for so long across Australia's unforgiving landscape.

Estimates vary – but linguistic anthropologists believe around 120 Australian languages survive today.

Their use ranges from fluent speakers for whom their traditional language is their primary means of communication, through to new learners - including the Prime Minister.

So this 2017 NAIDOC theme comes at a time when the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is being recognised more widely, albeit years overdue.

NAIDOC, in its various forms, has been instrumental in securing so much of the progress won by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in recent years.

Originally, in 1991, when it was first coined, NAIDOC stood for 'National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee' – the group charged with organising national activities during NAIDOC week.

In the quarter century since then, the committee has disappeared, but the acronym has become the name of the week itself.

The idea behind NAIDOC goes back to a letter written in 1937 by William Cooper, an Australian Aboriginal political activist and community leader born in Yorta Yorta territory – the same place as our special guest tonight Isaiah Firebrace.

William's letter stimulated a national observance that was at first championed by churches and is now a national celebration held across Australia each July.

This year, we have already paused, during National Reconciliation Week, to reflect on two important milestones in this Australian journey – the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the 25th anniversary of the historic Mabo decision.

Eddie Mabo's story is well known in Australia, but not by everyone.

Born in the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait between Australia and PNG, Eddie Mabo's conviction that the lands of his ancestors belonged to his community, and the not to the Commonwealth, took him all the way to the High Court.

Known simply as Mabo, the High Court's judgement ruled that Australia was not in fact Terra Nullius when the Europeans arrived – that a civilisation existed, and that civilisation held a continuing connection to its land and waters – a civilisation to which those who represented the Crown were blind at the time.

Perhaps less well known now, possibly because it was longer ago, is the story of the 1967 referendum, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate this year.

The '67 vote provided powers for the Federal Government to legislate on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, in effect, giving Australia's First People a seat at the table.

The referendum was the result of relentless activism – led in part by a group of extraordinary women.

Faith Bandler and her compatriots Pearl Gibbs and Jessie Street spearheaded a campaign that culminated in the referendum in 1967.

These women mobilised a groundswell of popular support – at a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights were recognised unevenly across the states and territories.

So today, we celebrate the progress since 1967, with an eye to the steps toward practical reconciliation we are still yet to take.

At DFAT, we are fully committed to this journey.

This year, on 13 September, we will help the world celebrate the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document we support in both words and deeds.

Internationally, Australia engages actively with multilateral processes affecting indigenous peoples, including through discussions at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Peoples, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly and the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

We are the fifth largest contributor to the UN Voluntary trust fund for indigenous populations. And we will continue our efforts to ensure that indigenous leaders around the world are directly involved in the UN system.

Australia is working to advance the economic human rights of indigenous peoples.

Indeed, a central theme of our Human Rights Council campaign is our commitment to provide opportunities to indigenous peoples to overcome social and economic disadvantages.

Abroad, we are committed to harnessing the knowledge and expertise of Indigenous Australians in the design and delivery of our aid program.

At home, we support Indigenous businesses to access international commercial opportunities.

We're increasing opportunities for export-ready Indigenous businesses to participate in international business delegations.

I'm delighted that four Indigenous businesses took out awards in the 2016 National Export Award program.

In 2015 DFAT launched an Indigenous Peoples Strategy, setting out our commitment to advance and promote the wellbeing of indigenous peoples around the world.

As an organisation, we have also taken our own practical steps toward reconciliation.

We have built a commitment to promote Reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians into our core strategic planning.

It sits proudly as part of our Strategic Framework and Values Statement.

Each of our performance agreements contains the same undertaking.

We have clear schedules for implementation of our Reconciliation Action Plan and our Indigenous Recruitment and Career Development Strategy, our efforts to embed practical reconciliation in our core business.

And we are making progress.

  • We are firmly on track to meet our Indigenous procurement target – and in 2015, we signed the Commonwealth's largest domestic security contract with an Indigenous provider
  • We are working to apply safeguards to protect the interests of Indigenous peoples in delivering our aid overseas
  • We have deepened our commitment to support for Indigenous scholars through the New Colombo Plan
  • We have increased our commitment to the recruitment and career development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including to strengthen the professional skills, experience and career progression of our cohort of Indigenous employees.

Despite our progress, much remains to be done to ensure we live up to our aspirations – and we remain committed to this work.

One thing we can all do, myself included, is learn more about Aboriginal culture and languages.

I'm delighted that Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), is here tonight.

I'd suggest all guests, including your excellencies, familiarise yourselves with the vast AIATSIS collections available online or visit the smaller exhibition space here in Canberra.

Here at DFAT, we have launched an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Engagement Toolkit – a practical reference guide for all DFAT officers so they can feel confident in embracing and representing Australia's Indigenous culture.

Another great resource that is available under the Diplomatic Academy is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Core Cultural Learning Course – ten e-learning modules on Indigenous cultural competence created by AIATSIS and PM&C.

I know in a busy day it can be hard to find the opportunity but these learning modules are very flexible and it is important for all officers to build their understanding of indigenous issues.

I urge all DFAT officers – whether serving in Canberra or overseas – to undertake this program.

Thank you for joining us here this evening.

Last Updated: 5 July 2017
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