Kerry Arabena: the unfinished business with Australia’s First Peoples

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IPAA’s Jackomos Oration is given in honour of Alick and Merle Jackomos who together made an immense contribution to Indigenous communities in Victoria and around Australia. The biennial oration examines at the particular role that public administration can play in the reconciliation process. Professor Kerry Arabena gave the 2015 oration as part of Public Sector Week.

The ideas I want to express in this lecture are not provocative but are a heartfelt offering, a tribute to the lives of a “man of all tribes”, who fell in love with a Yorta Yorta woman who was as accomplished as him. Together they found fulfilment through their life’s work in service to the people. They taught us many things about what is possible when we work together, as men and women, as reconciled Australians, as parents and as architects of social justice. They showed us about what happens when we put our efforts into creating sustainable structures that support local empowerment, for being roles models and for trying to find understanding in places few of us would want to go.

There are lessons there for us all. Many of us have a commitment to raising issues for public debate in ways that have resonated in decisions about the social, economic and political fabric of our society. My life’s work has been built around the belief that there is no more important public policy issue before us today than addressing the unfinished business with Australia’s First Peoples and about realising our desire for health and wellbeing, for economic parity and the power to control our own affairs. This is because power looks very different for people who have had to struggle for it. And struggle we have.

For many years, we the first people’s have been treated as if we were invisible or clients of programs; not contributors to our own affairs nor citizens of our own lands. It is against this background that Merle and Alick Jackomos worked to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognized in the 1967 Referendum, set up many health, housing and justice organisations, built communities up while others would tear them down.

I have long thought that the issues faced and experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today are wicked problems in that they cannot be solved by the thinking that created them. When asked why young Aboriginal men suicide the way they do, I told the person interviewing me that it was about love; they love so much that they are more prepared to lose their lives than to live without it. Merle and Alick Jackomos through their work, alluded to the importance of power and love, in addressing the complex issues that affect our communities today.

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