Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Announcement of the inaugural recipients of the Charlie Perkins Trust for Children and Students scholarship – Parliament House, Canberra

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

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Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we meet.

And I would particularly like to welcome members of the Perkins family here today.

As well as the Thompson and Gray families who must, understandably, be bursting with pride.

Today we remember the inspirational life of Dr Charles Perkins.

And we recognise and celebrate the abilities and achievements of two young Aboriginal people who are the inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholarship recipients.

These two remarkable young men have already achieved so much in their chosen fields of study.

They are worthy recipients of these scholarships which honour the contribution of Charlie Perkins – the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from university.

And who went on to dedicate his considerable abilities and energy to achieve justice for his people.

I think it’s fair to say that Charlie’s determination to win equality and recognition for Indigenous Australians fuelled the movement for change.

He was a courageous leader of the famous Freedom Ride, which travelled through western NSW country towns in 1965 exposing and protesting against discrimination.

Two years later he played a major role in the Yes campaign in the 1967 referendum.

This Referendum, proposed by then Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt with bi-partisan support, garnered an extraordinary 90.77 percent of the national vote and a majority in six states.

It was arguably the most successful Referendum result in Australian history – not just because of the raw statistics, but because of the significance of the changes it set in motion.

The Referendum opened the way for Federal Government legislation relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

And it removed the discriminatory and nonsensical prohibition on the counting of Indigenous people in the census.

At a deeper level, it marked the turning point in Australia’s history, where we turned our backs on the narrow-mindedness inherent in seeing ourselves solely in terms of our Anglo-Saxon heritage.

And took the path towards the more open, equal and diverse nation we seek to be.

In this sense, Charlie Perkins can be seen as a figure of wider historical significance.

Not just an extraordinary leader of his people, but a visionary and courageous leader for all Australians.

After the Referendum, he went on to have a remarkable career in the Australian public service – where he relished the opportunity to offer frank and fearless advice.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke once said of Dr Perkins, in his role as Permanent Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs that Dr Perkins “sometimes found it difficult to observe the constraints usually imposed on permanent heads of departments because he had a burning passion for advancing the interests of his people.”

Code, I think, for someone not afraid of being a thorn in the side of his political masters when the cause was right and his deep sense of justice demanded it.

His opposing players during a stellar soccer career experienced the same tenacity – and the same sense of fair play.

Charlie Perkins is truly an inspiring model for every young Australian.

Today we are here to celebrate two young men who are among the new generation of proud Indigenous leaders – Paul Gray and Christian Thompson.

As the inaugural winners of the scholarships that honour Charlie Perkins, they will further their studies at Oxford University for up to three years.

Paul will develop research on the neurobiological processes in children as a result of traumatic events early in life.

As part of his postgraduate degree in psychology, he will examine how best to support children at risk of developing mental health problems.

Paul, a Wiradjuri man from Bogan River in NSW, is the first Indigenous Australian student to graduate with Honours in Psychology.

Christian, who holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, will undertake doctoral studies in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art.

Christian, a Bidjara man of the Kunja nation in South West Queensland, will conduct research on the Pitt Rivers Museum Collection’s extensive array of Indigenous Australian artefacts.

As well, he will be furthering his interest in museum curatorship and contemporary research.

Christian and Paul have this opportunity to study overseas because of the vision of the Charlie Perkins Trust for Children and Students which for nine years has been working to improve Indigenous health, education and welfare.

In recognition of this, the Government has invested $132,000 to establish the scholarship programme.

We are also currently considering an application for tax exempt status for the Trust.

I have written to the relevant Minister supporting the Trust’s application.

We see our contribution to the Charlie Perkins Scholarships as an investment in talented young Australians and in our country’s future.

It’s a view shared by the British Government, Qantas, and Rio Tinto and I would like to thank them for their continuing support of the Charlie Perkins Scholarships.

I know all of us here wish Paul and Christian the very best of luck as they embark on this great adventure and I’m sure we will be hearing a great deal more about you both as you pursue your careers over the coming years.