Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

World Indigenous Peoples Conference – Education 2008

Location: Melbourne


Indigenous Education in the 21st Century – Respecting Tradition, Shaping the Future

Thank you. It is inspirational and humbling to stand here and be part of this celebration of Indigenous people the world over.

I pay tribute to each of you, to everything you have achieved and the pathways to the future you are charting together.

For those of you who have travelled so far, thank you and welcome.

I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation – the traditional owners of the land we are gathered on tonight.

The first Australians, whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

It’s an extraordinary privilege we have in this country to be with our Indigenous brothers and sisters whose heritage is as vast and vibrant as the land we share. I salute you and your ancestors and the generations to come.

You all have so much to be proud of. And I can see tonight will be a big celebration. A celebration of the future and a chance to think about the lessons of the past.

In Australia, we are learning to make peace with the past to lay claim to the future.

The national apology to Indigenous Australians, in particular the Stolen Generations, was the first step to build a bridge of respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

A first step in generating the mutual trust and respect needed for closing the gap. We must keep moving forward.

We are all here because of our passion for education.

We know the power of education to transform lives can never be underestimated. We know it is a building block for fighting disadvantage and prejudice and for strengthening leadership – here in Australia and around the world.

I want to tell you an amazing story of leadership that I think says everything about the power of education.

Last Saturday was the 70th anniversary of an act of courage and compassion by a great but little known Australian hero who used the power of education for practical action.

William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man, was born in 1861 here in Victoria near where the Murray and Goulburn rivers meet. He left school at the mission after little formal education for a life of hard, physical work.

Through his life he saw and learned many things. He saw the mistreatment of his people, dispossessed and despairing. He saw the need to act and he did. And he saw the power of education.

As an adult, he painstakingly continued his education in reading and writing – and used these skills to campaign for Aboriginal rights.

As a founder of the Australian Aborigines League, he wrote many letters and drafted petitions.

William Cooper understood the power of the written word.

He was one of a small group anywhere in the world who sensed and took action against the early warnings of the brutal campaign on the other side of the world in Nazi Germany

William Cooper read about the horror of the Night of the Broken Glass – an early warning of the Holocaust to come.

At age 77, William Cooper gathered a delegation and walked from his home in Footscray to the German consulate in South Melbourne.

He wanted to present a resolution that he had written condemning the persecution of Jews. He was refused admittance.

70 years ago last Saturday, William Cooper had the courage and leadership to stand up and be counted when millions chose to look away. His will and courage were backed by the power of education.

As a government, we understand the power of education in supporting future Indigenous Australian heroes like William Cooper.

We know we need Indigenous leaders to drive change.

We recognise how important it is to have a voice, and a means to express it.

As parents, in your child’s education.

As the people with the greatest stake in the Government’s commitment to closing the gap.

Indigenous Australians have the greatest ability to drive lasting change.

Indigenous voices are so important.

And we are committed to finding more ways of hearing them.

Through establishing a national representative body to give Indigenous people a voice in national affairs. A process that will be led and driven by Indigenous people.

Through our support for the principles underlying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

And through our investment in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Just last week we committed $4.6 billion to drive important reforms for closing the gap in early childhood development, housing, health and employment.

On top of that Australian Governments will also invest $1.1 billion to support our most disadvantaged schools.

We have set ourselves ambitious targets. Targets that put Indigenous Australia at the heart of this Government’s agenda.

We know it will be tough but as the Australian Prime Minister has said ‘we are absolutely determined with every fibre of our being … to have a go.’

We will work in partnership with Indigenous Australians, to give it our all.

It begins with the basics like education

I congratulate you all for this sensational event.

It’s been a privilege for Australia to host it. Thank you for being here. For sharing your knowledge, culture and experience. And for reminding us that, yes, we are many but we are also one. Have a great night and let the celebration begin!