Common Wealth for the Common Good Address
17 October 2006
Mundine, Executive Secretary of the National Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission, delivered the
fifth annual Common Wealth for the Common Good address in Brisbane
on 17 October 2006. This is Graeme's Address:
From Boiled Lollies to Shared Responsibility
What hope for the future?
I begin by paying my respect to the local Indigenous Peoples
of this area, a group my people, the Bundjalung People, would
have traded with and mixed with spiritually and socially over
many thousands of years.
I stand before you as an economic refugee who had to move out
of my own home country in search of better opportunities, in
education and employment, despite this moving away, one thing
I always recall is my fellow people, of my own country, who have
not had the same opportunities as me. Those people who are still
at home and who suffer great hardships because they are not allowed
to participate fully in the life of this great nation. I also
recall what I had to give up to move into this new world. It
is important to always remind myself of who I am and where I
come from. Yes, I am different from the newcomers and yes, I
am proud of it.
In 2000, the world’s leaders came together and made a
commitment to alleviate world poverty by 2015, they called this
the Millennium Declaration from which the eight Millennium Development
Goals were developed.
In supporting these time bound and measurable goals our leaders
were making a bold statement; they believed and, more importantly,
they had the will to alleviate poverty in the world by 2015.
Subsequently, the International community supported this call
and made a commitment to holding our leaders accountable through
the Make Poverty History campaign which millions of us have supported
around the world.
The MDGs are focused on relieving poverty amongst the poorest
of the poor. So, when I heard of them I thought, great, at last
we may have some action on poverty for our Indigenous peoples
here. But the more I learnt the more I realised that there was
no mention of Indigenous Peoples. Now, I know that Indigenous
peoples were not part of the development process of the MDGs,
there was little, if any consultation and there was, and still
are, no specific strategies to address Indigenous poverty. This
is despite the fact that world wide Indigenous Peoples are the
poorest of the Poor. In addition, the MDGs do not address the
issue of poverty within so called “developed” countries.
In fact, a key criticism of the progress so far has been that
Governments have tended to treat the MDGs as a foreign policy
and overseas aid issue, rather than adapting them to deal with
poverty at home.
So, we decided that it was no good criticising from the side
lines, rather that we needed to do the adapting ourselves so
that we could apply the MDGs at home and so the Make Indigenous Poverty
History campaign was born.
In doing this we are not negating or diminishing the necessity
of alleviating poverty for the poor overseas, there is no reason,
other than an inequitable allocation of resources and wealth
worldwide, why these people continue to live on the edge of existence.
Likewise, there is no reason why Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander peoples should continue to experience such extreme disadvantage
here in a wealthy country such as Australia. We should not be
complacent and say that because of our social security system
nobody in Australia lives on less than $1 a day, which is the
measure of extreme poverty in many places. The fact is that,
compared to other Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
are poor and they are disadvantaged.
This disadvantage started from the very first interaction with
the colonisers, from the moment that these newcomers arrived
and declared us non–existent and negated our ownership
of this land; we have lived on the margins ever since.
But what has all this to do with boiled lollies as the title
of this talk refers to? Let me tell you a story – it’s
not my story but comes from Bishop Saibo Mabo, the Anglican Bishop
of the Torres Strait Islands. I will read it to you as he tells
When I was a school boy, the government
used to go around, we used to call him a protector. Protector
his name, good name alright. He goes around everywhere in
a boat and we made a good welcome for him, Oh, even we carried
the dingy when the reef is dry we carry the dingy and let
him walk over there - right through. We dance, we entertain
him. Nothing happened to us. When he go visit us in the school
he carry boiled lolly. And he give us the lolly and we eat
the lolly. We suck the lolly and he went and shoved the lolly
into our father’s mouth, our mother’s and our
brother’s and sister’s and grandma’s and
grandpa’s. We all suck the lollies. And he come back
again and he do it for every islands when he go around. When
I was at Nungalyina College I interpret that lolly. That
lolly was meant for me, what the government gave us. He give
the lolly, you suck the lolly, the taste finished. That what
the government is - doing and today that’s what he
been doing all the time. He make you glad and he make you
sorry again. He hurt you. He make you happy only for a while
like you sucking that boiled lolly. And that was my interpretation
of that boiled lolly.
Bishop Mabo’s message in this story calls us to consider
whether we, the Indigenous peoples of this country, are still
being handed boiled lollies, or are we enjoying the full range
of rights, advantages and responsibilities that are due to us
as citizens of Australia.
I would hope that everybody in this room tonight knows what
the true situation for my brothers and sisters is. We know, for
example, that the life expectancy of Indigenous Peoples is about
17 years less than those of other Australians. We know that the
state of Indigenous health is an appalling rent in the fabric
of our collective wellbeing. Our disadvantage starts in the womb,
our mothers are more likely to deliver low birth weight babies;
this can be attributed to factors such as lack of ante-natal
care, bad diet, ill health of the mother as well as mother’s
engaging in risky behaviour such as smoking or alcohol intake.
Once born, our infants are twice as likely to die before their
As our children go through school they are more likely to struggle,
and we have to remember that English is not a first language
in many communities. The fact that our kids are struggling in
primary school has an effect on the rest of their lives; we know
that we have a lower retention rate to year twelve and then only
3% of us go to University and statistics released last month
show that University participation rates are falling.
Socially, we know we are faced with many challenges, there is
a high incidence of family violence in the communities and most
disconcertingly many of us are losing hope. The rate of suicide
is twice as high amongst Aboriginal people as other Australians.
These statistics paint a troubling and difficult picture, one
that I think is the most pressing need in Australia today. Poverty
has many causes, but one aspect of poverty is that of exclusion
and that is the area I want to focus on tonight. In particular,
I want to talk to you about how we are excluded from taking our
rightful place in society and especially in church. I think that
a powerful message that we can take from Bishop Saibo’s
story is that in so many aspects of life we are still being handed
out boiled lollies, little sweeteners that might make us feel,
temporarily, that we have been allowed to share in the advantages
of this country, but leave us with nothing but a sour taste.
I recently had an experience that reminded me about how far
we have to go to do away with disadvantage in all its forms. Earlier
this month I attended the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Catholic Council’s (NATSICC) gathering in Alice
Springs. This gathering celebrated the Pope’s visit to
Australia twenty years ago, when he made that outstanding speech
to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
In that speech, Pope John Paul II made many statements which
resonated in the hearts of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders
around the country. In 1986 I was a young Marist Brother, and
was also there at Alice Springs and met Pope John Paul II. His
words and visit gave me great hope, and I still consider it to
be an inspirational speech for us all. There is one part which
I think, in particular, should have challenged us all. The Pope
“You are part of Australia and Australia is part of
you. And the Church herself in Australia will not be fully
the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your
contribution to her life and until that contribution has been
joyfully received by others.”
So we move on twenty years and gather once more in Alice Springs.
We had a good time there, we caught up with friends new and old,
and there were many, many good things about the gathering. But
I was also very disappointed; I came away thinking that it was
a wasted opportunity. Twenty years after the leader of the Catholic
Church made this inspiring speech, I ask what has really changed?
Have we, the original peoples of this country, truly been welcomed
into the heart of the Church, not just the Catholic Church, but
all Churches? Is anybody listening to us and acting on the voices
that are out there and which, I want to remind you, have been
out there for some considerable time. These are the questions
that I had hoped we would have given attention to in Alice Springs.
Instead we got platitudes. For example, I heard people say we
must “start” listening to these Aboriginal voices
as if they have just appeared on the Church stage. I want to
remind you that Aborigines have been members of the Catholic
Church for many many years. We are not newcomers, or Johnny come
latelys. I could tell you the stories about my grandparents in
Nambucca, in NSW, who made pews for their local church. I could
tell you about the role that my parents and older brothers and
sisters played in setting up Aboriginal Catholic Ministries;
I could tell you about my sister Kaye, leading the Pope around
in Alice Springs or meeting Paul VI; I could tell you the history
of the beginnings of NATSICC, I know because I was there. In
fact I have been there all my life, I have been working there
for over thirty years. But people, usually White people, rewrite
our history all the time, but we know what happened, we were
there. Whilst the Pope’s speech 20 years ago was significant
it wasn’t the beginning of Aboriginal People in the Church,
it was simply a landmark; we were already there and we are still
here. Isn’t it about time you heard us?
Last week, in Alice, I was told to have patience, that the “non-Indigenous” church
still needed time to hear us. How long do you want? I know for
a fact that we have been engaging in a formal way with the Church
since at least 1972, that’s over thirty years. Do you still
I don’t think you need more time, I think you need to
listen in a different way. I think that in trying to grapple
with how “we” can fit in with “you”,
you are missing the point. It’s not about us fitting in
with your White Church; it’s about creating a church that
is inclusive and expressive of us all, of our diversity and of
what it means to be Church in an Australian context.
We talk about an Australian Church, but what is that, do you
know? To my mind the Church here is not Australian, it’s
still Western European, much of what we consider to be the essence
of Church is in fact inherited “western values”.
We need to remember what the basic beliefs of the Church are.
What is the essence of the Church here in Australia? It is only
through stripping back our church to its basic beliefs that we
can hope to walk forward.
I am sure that there are people who will call me radical, and
perhaps revolutionary, but I strongly believe that you do not
have to give up your culture to be truly Christian. Where is
my evidence to say this? Simple, it’s Jesus. He was a man
of his culture and he is my inspiration for making these statements.
We, here in Australia, need to pare back the trappings of Western
Civilisation that have crept into the practice of our religion
and get back to the core beliefs and then we can truly create
a church that is Australian.
What are the things that we want the Church to listen to? One
key issue is about leadership. Can we truly be part of the Australian
church if we do not have people in leadership roles? I don’t
mean as advisers to the Bishops, I mean Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people as Priests and Bishops. The biggest barrier
to my people taking up these roles is the issue of celibacy.
Celibacy is not cultural for us. If it was so important it would
be a part of our culture, but it’s not. I am not attacking
celibacy per se, I see a very valid role for it, but it’s
not cultural for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
I was a celibate, Marist Brother, for twenty years of my life,
so I can speak from experience. Taking on a life of celibacy
also means detaching from important cultural experiences. As
you know family is of the utmost importance to us and therefore
having to choose between that and celibacy means that we can
not choose to take a larger role in the life of the church. And
it’s not that we don’t want to be there, the number
of Aboriginal deacons is testimony to that. Another consequence
of celibacy is that it has caused a crises in Aboriginal men
taking a role in the church; simply put, there is no role for
us and so consequently many Aboriginal men see Church leadership
as ‘women’s business’. As Aboriginal men, we
come from a long history of leading ceremony, but within the
church we are denied that and so it is hard for us to be part
of the leadership within our church and our community and also
to speak on our own behalf.
It is interesting that last week’s copy of the Catholic
Leader, a highly regarded paper in Catholic circles, has a photo
on the front cover of a man standing with Bishop Ted Collins.
Unlike Bishop Collins, this black man did not have the courtesy
of being named; rather he was labelled as an anonymous “Aboriginal
Church leader”. I know this man; he is a good man and a
priest in the Tiwi community. However, he is not Aboriginal but
comes from Papua New Guinea. The church these days imports black
priests into our communities as if they are good for our community;
as if because they are black they will somehow ‘fit’ better.
Yes, they are fine men but just because they are black does not
make them Aboriginal Australians - a lesson that the Catholic
Leader might care to consider - these men do not fully understand
the culture of Indigenous Australia just like the many other
newcomers and they too have to learn to listen to us and not
speak, or be asked to speak, on our behalf.
There are other issues about our place in church, but tonight
we are talking about poverty and I have raised this issue of
leadership and our role within the church because I don’t
think it’s an issue that the Church has to exclusively
grapple with. Exclusion and lack of representation are apparent
throughout our society and yet, being allowed into the structures
of government and those aspects of life which are so fundamental
to our society is absolutely critical when it comes to alleviating
disadvantage. How can we achieve anything standing on the sidelines
of society? I remind you that the world’s leaders came
together and recognised that poverty can be alleviated through
a common will, that poverty is not caused, by and large, by a
lack of resources, but by a lack of will amongst our leaders
and ourselves as citizens.
I believe that we allow our fellow Australians to live in poverty
through our lack of will. The answers are there in the hopes
and dreams of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
We have been speaking out on these many issues for many years
and no-one seems to want to listen. If we but work closely with
each local group we can bring about great change.
Therefore, this campaign to Make Indigenous Poverty
History is about creating the will to listen and to act. In fact
we call on us all to do three things.
The first is to remember. Remember the past and know the true
history of this country; it is this history which has caused
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to be living with
disadvantage today. We have allowed this to happen because we
really have not addressed the past and we continually deny our
history. A good example of this is the recent native title decision
in Western Australia and the reaction to it. We instantly saw
Government’s both State and Federal scaremongering, bringing
out the “your backyard is under threat” lie and immediately
stating they will fight it. You want reconciliation? When this
country stops fighting the lie of terra nullius and accepts that
we were here first and this is our land, then we can talk about
The second aspect of the campaign is to Recognise. You must
be aware; you must educate yourselves about the plight of Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islanders today and in particular be aware
of those areas in which we are not treated the same as mainstream
Australia. A recent example of how we are treated differently
is when we consider the coroner’s findings in the 2004
death of Mulrunji on Palm Island. The coroner found that Mulrunji
died after being punched and kicked by a policeman. This came
after a previous enquiry found no wrongdoing by the police. The
day following the coroner’s findings were handed down I
happened to be in Brisbane and was shocked and angry to see that
the headline on morning TV did not reflect the key finding of
the coroner, that an Aboriginal man was beaten and kicked to
death, by a policeman. Rather the headline banner said “coroner’s
report points to problems in Indigenous Communities”. That
this Aboriginal man died is not because of us, it’s not
because of our “problems” it was because he was beaten
up by an outsider, who was in a position of authority and trust
and who has still not been brought to face these charges in the
judicial system. And yet, we can all recount stories of our people
going to jail with far less to answer for, and who are allowed
no due process. Why is this policeman being protected, but more
importantly why are my people continually denied the same rights
and opportunities and justice as our fellow Australians?
The third aspect of this campaign is to Rectify. For each and
every one of us to do something, no matter how small or insignificant
it may seem, to highlight the wrongs, which are continually being
acted out on my people. Do something to help your fellow Australians
overcome their disadvantage. Talk to us, listen to us and act
with us. Continue to hold our elected representatives accountable
for their actions. Stop the continual ‘mainstreaming’ that
is taking place; recognise that Governments and other agencies
must deal with groups as their needs warrant. And, if necessary,
exercise your democratic right to stem the current movement,
amongst our political leaders, to lead the country away from
helping those who really need our help and support.
We hear all the time about shared responsibility and we have
had years of so called ‘reconciliation’. But what’s
the difference between the boiled lollies doled out by patronising
protectors and being told that we have to clean our kids’ faces
to receive services which are our basic rights? It’s all
a one way street. It’s all about us, the Indigenous peoples,
taking more responsibility, coming to be reconciled with you,
well I think it’s about time that you walked down the street
towards us. More needs to be done from Church, Governments and
each and every one of you to correct the wrongs that continue
to manifest themselves in our community. We can not say we did
not know what our Indigenous Peoples have to endure, we do know
and we, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, continue
to tell you. Perhaps we can achieve reconciliation when the non-Indigenous
people of this country try to listen harder.
And so I will end how I began, by talking about the Millennium
Development Goals. Those eight goals are ultimately are a statement
of faith and hope. Faith in our common humanity; hope that we
have the will to come together and to fight to end injustice
for the poorest of the poor. These goals are a grand statement
because they are measurable and time bound and so allow us to
reach beyond rhetoric to do something to end the suffering of
millions of people world wide.
Do I have hope that we can achieve the same here? Do I think
that if we come together and commit to ending Indigenous Poverty
that we can? Yes I do, and more than that I don’t think
we have a choice, I think that my Indigenous brothers and sisters
deserve nothing less. And so I end by asking you - what will
you do to make Indigenous poverty history?
Return to main Indigenous Issues page