Launch of the AIATSIS Elevate Reconciliation Action Plan

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

Many thanks for that kind introduction and welcome.

It is a pleasure to join you today and represent the Government.

Parliamentary duties prevent the Minister for Education from attending this morning, but he has asked me to pass on his congratulations and best wishes.

Having turned forty last year, the Reconciliation process has essentially coincided with my adult life.

While I am too old to have been formally taught about indigenous cultures in any detailed way at school; I am young enough to have avoided the preceding attitude that ignored the millennia prior to European settlement.

Then the early stages of Reconciliation coincided with my years at University, when I studied and taught in some related areas.

I believe an initial challenge for people of my generation and older was trying to determine exactly what reconciliation looked like.

We looked for yardsticks, for something to measure it by.

Yet, as I was reminded by a friend only last night, there are indigenous people not much older than I who have suffered at the hands of the state.

Legal discrimination at the hands of our institutions is not something that exists only in history books, it exists in the lives and memories of those who walk amongst us.

So as we became aware of stories and experiences, there was an increasing understanding of the importance of symbols as well.

Today we launch the AIATSIS Elevate Reconciliation Action Plan.

As I read it yesterday I realised that it is in such a plan that we can find both these yardsticks and symbols.

And the AIATSIS RAP also reminded me of how far we had come as a nation.

Created as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1964, this year is the 50th anniversary of AIATSIS.

And the RAP reminds us that it was created “to record Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures before they ‘disappeared forever’”.

I am not sure if that last phrase is a direct quote from the time, but I can very easily see it may be, reflecting the attitudes of half a century ago.

Yet it is an unimaginable sentiment now.

Particularly over the last two decades, the understanding and appreciation of Australia’s indigenous history has dramatically increased, as has its importance as a crucial part of Australia’s national story.

The work of AIATSIS has been critical in this.

From being a critical repository of historical record; to providing an education and research career pathway for those who have led studies in these fields, both for indigenous and non-indigenous students and researchers; to the critical role of ethics advice and supervision that builds trust between researchers and communities.

All of these roles have been critical in elevating this area of study and research.

This has underpinned increased community awareness and sensitivity of issues many of us only came to in our adult lives, have no personal experience of and in some cases even have difficulty comprehending.

Government can play a critical role in leading change, in generating wider consent through leading by example.

In our current Prime Minister we have a person who is passionately committed to the advancement and causes of Australia’s indigenous people.

In the manner the Prime Minister outlines his own journey and priorities, he has brought together what were once seen as competing streams of the practical and the symbolic. He has created what I believe to be a unique moment and opportunity.

Just as he asks Australians to open their hearts as much as change their minds, in his first Closing the Gap statement as Prime Minister earlier this month, he set a specific target against which he hopes to be personally measured.

And he outlined that the challenge now is to turn good intentions into better outcomes.

The RAP includes a statement which sums up all our roles – whether politicians, community leaders, businesspeople or public servants: “A document does not bring about reconciliation, people do.”

It is a reminder of our ongoing task, as individuals and as a nation.

AIATSIS is to be congratulated for being the first government body to reach Elevate status and be the lead RAP agency throughout the Commonwealth.

There is still much to be done, but there is a great deal of cause for optimism.

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