I thank Australia Post for their ongoing support of Australia Day activities in Tasmania and across the country, as well as the National Australia Day Council for their support of this event and the University of Tasmania for hosting.
I acknowledge my Parliamentary colleagues, particularly the Hon Elise Archer, Madam Speaker, and representatives of Local Government.
I am honoured to be in the presence of Australian of the Year Award finalists and winners, and Australia Day Ambassadors, and a theatre filled with eminent Tasmanians from across our community - the state we all love.
I commence my address tonight by acknowledging the traditional owners of this island, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. I pay respect to those elders here tonight; and I acknowledge those who have passed before us and acknowledge that the Tasmanian Aboriginal community are custodians of this land. We also acknowledge past injustices and present-day inequalities.
The stirring smoking ceremony that welcomed us is apt, for it signifies a cleansing.
Tonight, I want to talk about my Government’s commitment to reset our relationship with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.
A commitment I made at this event last year and one that was fuelled by a genuine desire to make a positive difference.
A positive difference that respects a remarkable 40,000 years of continuous Aboriginal heritage, and one that points to a brighter future for Aboriginal Tasmanians.
I embraced this challenge on taking responsibility as the Government’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. It has given this important portfolio priority in my Government, and the chance for me, as leader of a new government, to look for new opportunities and new approaches; new ways to advance recognition, new ways to advance reconciliation and new ways to reduce the gap in the health and education outcomes for Tasmanian Aboriginals.
For this to occur, we had to re-set the Government’s relationship with the Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
I committed to an extensive consultation with Tasmanian Aboriginals, and indeed the broader Tasmanian community. I did so with no preconceived ideas or expectations.
It was critical to look to the past to understand what we have done well, what we have not done so well, and how we might do better into the future.
I needed to gain a deeper understanding of our Tasmanian Aboriginal community; to hear first-hand stories of their past, what it means to be a Tasmanian Aboriginal today and importantly their hopes and aspirations for the future.
Aboriginal Tasmanians responded enthusiastically - opening their homes and community centres, their minds and their hearts, to share with me their stories, experiences and traditions, and their aspirations.
I found this to be a challenging, often confronting, but fundamentally positive experience - informative, enlightening and instructive.
I met with dozens of organisations, and hundreds of Aboriginal Tasmanians and members of the broader community across the State.
My conversations ranged from children, just starting to discover what being an Aboriginal means, through to the elders’ fascinating stories of years’ past. They included community leaders from local pollies to the Prime Minister. They covered many topics and varied perspectives.
But there was a consistent desire expressed, and a readiness, for a new way of looking at things, and a new way of doing things.
The reset did give us the opportunity to imagine what might be possible. And what we might do to improve the lives of Aboriginal Tasmanians through a clean lens, through a reset.
I sincerely thank all those who have contributed to this conversation.
Tonight, I’m here to tell you what we intend to now do.
From the outset, and moving forward, we will continue to be guided by three central principles.
The Tasmanian Government acknowledges the Tasmanian Aboriginal community as the traditional owners of lutruwita/Tasmania and celebrates the importance of Aboriginal history and culture.
We recognise and we will promote and protect Tasmanian Aboriginals’ deep and continuous historical connection to the land and sea of Tasmania.
And, we will continue to work to improve the disparity that exists in outcomes experienced by the Tasmanian Aboriginal community in all areas, including education, health, and employment.
While these foundations remain the same, there is also need for significant change.
And, as my Government will do, we need to tackle challenges, no matter how difficult they might be.
During this conversation with the community there was one very distinct and constant issue – that of Aboriginal identity and eligibility.
It was, without doubt, the most frequently raised issue. It was impossible, and would be wrong for us to ignore it.
The questions of Aboriginal identity and eligibility are incredibly complex and sensitive matters. They are contentious. They are divisive.
What defines Aboriginal? Who is Aboriginal? And, who should be the arbiter of these definitions?
Understandably, the answers are of significant importance to the Aboriginal community. And they should be determined by the Aboriginal people, not by governments.
Though these matters are important to Governments too.
These definitions are the mechanism for the provision of services that Governments provide specifically for Aboriginal people. Tailored services that exist because there is a glaring gap between Tasmanian Aboriginals and the broader community in areas like health, education and housing. And it’s a gap that must be closed.
Governments are also accountable for outcomes, for instance in monitoring the progress and effectiveness of our commitments to reaching the national Closing the Gap targets.
Right now, there are two ways to define and determine who is Aboriginal in Tasmania.
Firstly, there is the Australian Government’s way, which determines Federal funding, largely through a simple test.
It’s important to note the Federal Government’s funding far represents the greatest proportion of support received by Tasmanian Aboriginals.
In fact, the Federal Government contributes almost half a billion dollars in funding to Aboriginal Tasmanians, compared to about $8 million from the State Government.
The Australian Government’s test is simple. It asks if the person is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait descent, if they identify as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and are accepted as such by the Indigenous community.
They don’t require archival or historical records, but just a need to declare they met the above test.
The second way is the Tasmanian Eligibility Policy, introduced by a former Government in 2006.
This determines a person’s eligibility to access Aboriginal or Torres Strait specific services and cultural activities managed by the Tasmanian Government.
While this policy was written with good intent; to focus programs and services to better assist the aboriginal community, and establish consistency across agencies, it has not succeeded.
This process relies on a complex and cumbersome system of using archival evidence to prove lineage. It requires an applicant to provide evidence, like a family-tree, before they can be considered eligible. This is something many Tasmanian Aboriginal people have been unable or unwilling to do.
The outcome is that this has proven to be a selective process that excludes, rather than includes many Aboriginal Tasmanians.
In fact, in 2012 the administration of this policy across Government ceased. The policy was suspended because of difficulties in administering it, and complaints by individuals and organisations about its application.
In its place, Government agencies were left to develop and deliver their own policies under what was called an ‘interim arrangement’.
It hasn’t been fixed, and my Government is determined to do so, because the policy failure brings negative outcomes; it’s harming Aboriginal people.
Our existing policy is a long way from aligning with the Commonwealth’s process meaning Tasmanians can be recognised as an Aboriginal in a national context, but not in their own home state of Tasmania.
Some Tasmanians are eligible for Federal support, but not for any support or access to cultural activities here in Tasmania.
It is an issue that even statisticians can’t agree.
The last census in 2011 found there were 19,625 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in Tasmania.
The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics from 2014 reported 25,845 Indigenous people in Tasmania.
Yet, under the current Tasmanian Government policy, it’s estimated that there are just 6,000 indigenous Tasmanians.
Something is very wrong here.
In homes across Tasmania there are families who identify as Tasmanian Aboriginals, yet these statistics tell us that potentially only one in three members are actually recognised as such by this state.
Tasmania’s policy can mean that a Tasmanian Aboriginal Grandfather who wants to pass down the cultural tradition of harvesting mutton-birds to his grandchild often can’t because that boy or girl is not considered by the state as an Aboriginal.
Then there are stories of families where only two of three sons from the same parents are recognised, and the family is left to fight a bureaucratic battle that should be common-sense.
It is impossible after the consultation process to reach any other conclusion other than the Tasmanian Eligibility Policy must change.
It’s standing between Tasmanians gaining recognition for their indigenous heritage
It’s removing choice for some Tasmanians to access services they are entitled to.
It’s excluding some Tasmanian Aboriginals from taking part in their cultural traditions.
And, it’s adding another layer to the haves and have nots in a community that is too often marginalised.
It has to change.
Today, I am announcing that the Tasmanian Government is proposing to change to an approach to one that is consistent with the Commonwealth’s process to determine eligibility for Aboriginality.
Practically, this means the abolition of the current policy, and either replacing it with a new policy that closely reflects the intent of the Commonwealth’s application.
Or, to have no blanket policy at all, and instead apply an administrative process, as is the case in most other states where they simply apply the Commonwealth test.
I was told throughout my consultations that for many this change will bring long overdue recognition from the place they call home.
Tasmanian Aboriginals will finally be given a choice to access support and engage cultural activities they had been locked out from.
Instead it will unlock longstanding traditions like fishing or harvesting mutton birds for generations to come.
For others, I acknowledge that this change may be difficult and upsetting. But ultimately, it’s what’s right.
It’s important to note that this change is expected to be modest in terms of additional financial support, but profound in its impact and value in recognition, reconciliation and the enduring protection of Aboriginal traditions.
This is our reset with the Aboriginal community.
It’s the only course of action we must take if we are to genuinely advance our relationship with the Aboriginal community.
And while tackling the issue of eligibility is the single most important thing we can do to advance reconciliation, it is not the only thing we should do.
There are a number of other actions this Government will take as a result of our consultation.
First, it is clear that we are all missing chapters from Tasmania’s story.
I believe every Tasmanian student should learn about Tasmania’s Aboriginal history and culture. This means celebrating and embracing the history, the good and the bad, because it’s a part of who we are.
In partnership with the Aboriginal community, we will introduce a focus on Tasmanian Aboriginals into the history and culture component of the Australian Curriculum, taught in all our schools.
This will ensure this vital chapter in our history has a place on the bookshelf in every classroom and generations to come will have a greater understanding of our history.
Second, this year I will introduce Legislation into Parliament to amend our Constitution Act so that it recognises Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
We have taken a leadership role on the campaign to amend the Commonwealth Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples at a future referendum. But between now and then we should act here at home
This idea was one that came through our consultations, and was actively promoted by the Member for Denison, Ms Madeleine Ogilvie.
I moved to establish a Parliamentary inquiry into options for the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people in Tasmania, and that received the support of all parties in our Parliament.
New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria already acknowledge and honour, in Legislation, the Aboriginal peoples as the first peoples and traditional custodians of their land.
This step here will not only reinvigorate the spirit of reconciliation in Tasmania but also support the national campaign and the passionate work underway by Tasmanians for Recognition.
Third, we acknowledge that connection to country; to land and sea is the most fundamental pillar of Aboriginal identity.
To continue and to protect this, the Government will progress more opportunities for joint land management with the Aboriginal people, particularly in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
We have a great opportunity to create together, a new and contemporary way for connecting to country, while building economic and job opportunities for Aboriginal people – for example through the Federal ‘Working for Country’ program which supports jobs like indigenous rangers, and of course also in indigenous tourism opportunities.
These are just some of the many ways we are exploring to increasingly engage in joint land management, in addition to land hand-backs.
On the issue of land hand-backs, this is also a complex and ongoing story.
The most recent attempts to hand-back land to Aboriginal people stalled and failed to pass Parliament, and we must ask why?
While a Parliamentary Committee recognised that land returns were a vital step in reconciliation, it also highlighted the complexities of the issue - from ownership, to management, and public access.
We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.
It is clear that a new approach is necessary if land hand-backs are to play a constructive part in our reconciliation process.
We have to develop a new land-handback model, because continued failure will only divide us, not unite us.
Finally, one of our greatest priorities for this Government is stepping up our efforts to close the gap of disadvantage between Aboriginal Tasmanians and the wider community.
It’s utterly unacceptable that today an Aboriginal will live about a decade less than another Tasmanian.
We can’t stand for the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence.
Or that aboriginal children are more likely to be vulnerable, to be absent from school, to be in out of home care or to be more involved with the youth justice system than their non-aboriginal counterparts.
There are of course deeply complex, intergenerational issues that will take decades to unravel.
Work is underway through the National commitment to “Closing the Gap’, which we are fully committed to. And, as a state we commit to do everything we can to take action to complement this at the state level.
For instance, we have already signed onto targets, goals, funding programs and partnerships across a range of services, programs and policies.
We have committed to improving employment outcomes, and have set State Service employment targets for Aboriginal people.
We are supporting participation and business development, supporting, for example, the exciting wukalina cultural walk proposal.
To conclude, the journey we commenced certainly hasn’t concluded.
Through the consultation process we have opened our minds.
Today we are opening the doors to opportunity.
And into the future we will continue to have what is a challenging conversation.
I sincerely thank the Aboriginal Tasmanians, and indeed the broader community for their engagement over the past year, and look forward to our next steps.
This won’t be up to my Government alone. We will need to continue to work together on new approaches to old problems; new opportunities and new partnerships.
There is indeed challenging work ahead of us, but this fresh start gives us the greatest shot at achieving recognition, reconciliation and reducing the gap.
Most importantly it will right wrongs, and it’s the right thing to do.