Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Launch of SBS documentary, First Australians

Location: Sydney Opera House, Sydney

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Six years in the making, this remarkable series looks at the history of contemporary Australia from the perspective of its first people – the First Australians.

First Australians explores what happens when the oldest living culture in the world collides with the world’s greatest empire.

Marcia Langton, senior consultant on the project, takes us back to this clash of cultures when she imagines that day in 1788 when the new Australians encountered the first Australians.

And for Aboriginal people can you imagine? Suddenly there are 11 giant ships with these strange people wearing clothes, funny hats; they have guns. What are these people up to? Why are they here? How long are they going to stay?

The answer to that last question is made very clear in the first episode in the series prophetically called They Have Come to Stay.

It shows how cultures meet – the friendships which form despite immense differences and how they are quickly shattered in the contest for land and survival. It is clear the conquerors are here to stay.

This narrative begins 220 years ago.

And it ends with Koiki Mabo’s victory in the High Court, 204 years later.

Director Rachel Perkins remembers how she and Darren Dale enthusiastically agreed to making a major documentary on Indigenous history.

Then the enormity of the challenge dawned on them.

She recalls returning home to her grandmother’s country – Arrernte country – camping in a dry river bed outside Alice Springs.

“We tried to nut out a broad approach to capturing such a big story: the dreaming, 80,000 years of existence, the experience of 250 Indigenous nations.”

It took six months, she says, to find out the hard way that this approach wasn’t going to work.

Instead they opted for a compelling format which subtly weaves epic Indigenous history through individual experience.

Stories like:

  • the unlikely friendship between the English Governor Phillip and the Aboriginal warrior Bennelong
  • the alliance between Wurundjeri clan leader Simon Wonga seeking land for his people on the banks of the Yarra River and Scottish preacher John Green
  • the doomed friendship between stockman turned Aboriginal tracker Jandamurra and stockman turned policeman Bill Richardson

Telling these stories took Rachel and Darren across the continent several times.

In the process:

  • 7,000 images were unearthed and catalogued
  • 1,500 images were used in the final cut
  • 80 people were interviewed
  • and 260 hours of interviews were sourced from archives.

Assistance came from some amazing people – too many to name. But I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of Marcia Langton and Bonita Mabo both here tonight.

And those who gave their knowledge, experience and memories – among them elders in the remote north of Australia who can still remember the arrival of white people over their horizon.

And there were some memorable incidents. The standout I’m told was Rachel insisting on wading in the water off Mer Island against the advice of a local man. She was soon surrounded by three sharks and I understand she was out of there pretty quickly.

For six years, a dedicated, talented team of directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, editors and composers have worked to create an honest and, at times, confronting interpretation of the intersection of black and white Australia. They approached their task with zeal, passion and integrity.

They say they learnt a lot along the way.

In fact, the directors themselves say they were shocked to realise how little Indigenous history they knew before they started.

I think the same can be said for many of us.

Telling this story is long overdue.

It is a story all Australians should know – our First Australians and those of us who came later.

That’s why it is so encouraging to know that the producers are already talking to educators about showing the documentary in schools.

So that our children know that our country’s history is as ancient, vast and vibrantly coloured as the landscape it has played out on.

As author Bruce Pascoe of the Bunworong Nation, says: “This was the longest surviving civilisation on Earth. If you can’t learn something from a civilisation that successful, you are defying your own intelligence.”

What you have achieved contributes much to our learning journey. Again, I congratulate all who have contributed to this truly remarkable film.