Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Opening Address at Straight Talk 2010 – Parliament House, Canberra

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

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First, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land where we are meeting today and pay my respects to elders past and present. My congratulations to Oxfam for organising this forum. Welcome all of you to Parliament House. I know at times what happens here might seem to be slightly removed from reality. But at events like this we see Parliament House as it should be – a place to meet, exchange views and share experiences. Today it’s the meeting place for 55 outstanding women – from the most remote parts of the country to the cities – who’ve signed up to take action for change. I think all of you here would agree that Indigenous involvement in the political process, whether it’s at the national, state or local level, is essential to reach our goals.

All of you here have shown great determination to be leaders – whether it’s in Katherine, Carnarvon or Melville Island. Swan Hill, Port Adelaide Bundaberg or Mount Isa. That’s why this forum is so important. It gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women the opportunity to build new relationships and networks. It raises awareness of the issues that you are passionate about – the future of our young people, education, health and community safety. And it’s an opportunity for all of us to Talk Straight. You are all without exception strong, determined, capable women – women of courage and conviction. Since I’ve been in this job I’ve met many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women. They are often the organisers, they see what needs to be done and they do it. They reach out to others who are struggling. There are so many who are healers and peacemakers. I have learnt many things from the Indigenous women I have met and the friendships I have made and value so highly. They have shown me, by their example, their great capacity and willingness to help others heal. In their families, but also in their communities where the collective hurt can be so damaging.

I have also seen how, given opportunity, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are remarkable leaders and outstanding role models.Of course, equality of opportunity has long been a great passion of mine. I think it started when I was growing up in country Victoria. When I was 16 at Wangaratta High, I was given the opportunity to go to Japan on an exchange scholarship. At times it was lonely, hardly anyone spoke English, I missed my family but it was a life changing opportunity and from then I never looked back. For me, as for every kid, education gave me the opportunity to pursue my dreams. Now, working to give every Australian the opportunity to reach their potential is central to everything I do. It’s at the heart of good social policy. It’s key to closing the gap. Kids must be given the opportunity to grow up healthy and safe, to live in caring families in strong communities, to get the best education and a decent job.

I’m pretty sure all of you are here today because of your belief in the power of education. But I know from Oxfam that you’re also here because you’re worried about a range of issues. Issues like domestic violence. And the chronic health problems of many Indigenous Australian including mental health issues. Crime, drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness. Poor school attendance that challenges all of us to find ways to get kids to school and keep them there longer. And the lack of education that cripples employment chances and fuels welfare dependency.

Turning this around is a national priority for the Australian Government. As you know, we are allocating unprecedented levels of funding to close the gap. Today I can announce that the Australian Government will support the establishment of a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance. This alliance of Indigenous women and their organisations from across the country will enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to bring forward the concerns and issues from their communities, in their own words, with their own agendas, and their own solutions. It will be funded under the Office for Women’s National Women’s Alliances program, and established by Indigenous women, with initial support from the YWCA. So far it includes strong women and their organisations from Adelaide to the Torres Strait, Sydney and Melbourne to the NPY lands. In coming months it will be reaching out to Indigenous women right across Australia for support, including other impressive Indigenous women leaders who made applications under this program. Over the next year we expect it will grow significantly in membership, in skills and strength. It will be made stronger with rigorous debate and diversity in its ranks. My colleague Minister Tanya Plibersek and I are both passionate about giving a strong voice to Australian women, including Indigenous women. So your voice can be heard on issues like violence, drug and alcohol abuse, on issues like the social and emotional problems that are affecting family relationships.

We get the message about what works and what women want and need to end family violence in their communities. Today I am also pleased to tell you that we will be providing over $850,000 to the Red Cross, the Australian Rugby League and other community organisations to tackle violence and abuse.

In the NSW Hunter Valley, it will fund programs to teach children about respectful relationships using Indigenous stories. In Melbourne, Dirtywork Comedy will take its anti-violence and abuse message on stage. In Penrith, workshops to develop self-esteem and self respect for others will be held for young men. And in the Northern Territory, Red Cross staff will train community leaders, including elders, child care and health workers, police and teachers to deliver violence prevention programs.

Finally, when I was thinking about today’s forum I was reminded of a groundbreaking meeting taking place thousands of kilometres away in New York. It’s the 54th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. It’s groundbreaking because two Indigenous women are part of the Australian Government’s delegation. They are Leanne Miller and Mary Victor O’Reeri – both remarkable advocates and leaders in their communities. Megan Davis, a human rights lawyer based at the University of NSW is another strong advocate and writer on issues affecting women. Last month, the Australian Government nominated Megan to become an expert adviser and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. I argued for her nomination because of her respected reputation in law and her passion to shine a spotlight on the human rights of Indigenous women. She is the first Indigenous woman in our country’s history to be nominated to serve the United Nations as an advocate for the social and economic development of the world’s Indigenous peoples.

All these women, from those who live in most remote parts of the country to those representing us at the United Nations are an inspiration to all Australians.And testament to the ability and talent of Indigenous leadership – at every level. Thank you and I wish you well in your discussions over the next two days.