Fred Chaney: a road to real reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia

The former Fraser government minister and long-time activist for Aboriginal Australia delivered the John Button Oration on the way forward on indigenous disadvantage and reconciliation.

I acknowledge that we are on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. It is a pleasure to acknowledge that, knowing how important the recognition of native title has been to shifting the balance between settlers and first Nations peoples. Around Australia there are Aboriginal people at the table not as supplicants but as stakeholders. This is a profound shift and can’t be swept aside. The great agreements being made in Western Australia between Aboriginal peoples and mining companies are all based on the existence of native title rights. Imperfect as native title may be this is recognition of rights and interests which come not by way of political or governmental gift but from common law recognition of rights accruing from the law and culture of Aboriginal people. This is a recognition of rights flowing from continuing political entities and the great mining agreements are based on contracting with those entities, the continuing collectives of native peoples that are part of the legal as well as social fabric of Australia.

It is a privilege to be asked to deliver the John Button oration. We spent a long time in the Senate together and I admired him as a man, a minister and as leader of his party in the Senate. We were both elected to the Senate in 1974. In our first term we were both members of the Senate Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee which worked harmoniously on non-partisan lines on some difficult issues including family law reform and the Whitlam government’s national compensation scheme. The committee unanimously recommended that this scheme be withdrawn which produced a wonderful recorded moment of a very cross Gough Whitlam towering and leaning over the more modestly scaled Button. By 1975 I regarded him as a friend and I remember taking my family to visit the Button family on their rural property. The friendship was strained by the blocking of supply in that year but resumed over time.

I could make many observations about John Button. He was clever and amusing. He was, as Mark Latham observed in a previous lecture through the voice of John McCain, practical. He was always interested in the facts of the matter, respectful of the participants and stakeholders with whom he dealt. He earned respect and won converts to good policy from his respectful engagements. Clearly he loved the Labor Party but I never felt, as I have felt about too many politicians, that his Party came before his country. Perhaps most important he took a long view about reshaping Australian industry, getting the framework right for the long haul rather than the quick fix. He was a nightmare to shadow, as I had to do, because he was exceptionally good at his job and so respected by his industry constituencies. It says something about him that when I left the Senate in 1990 after seven years sitting across the table from him my respect and indeed affection for him was undiminished.

You have been told that in this presentation I will explore the future for indigenous reconciliation and the need for translating ideas into effective action. This is an area in which I have been involved for the long haul and where notwithstanding the many promises of a fresh start there are no quick fixes. I think John Button would approve devoting another oration to this subject as prior to his death he suggested mourners might donate to the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation, an educational foundation Ron Edwards, a retired Labor MP and I established at the request of Polly Farmer to help young Aboriginals to succeed. The involvement of a great Geelong footballer was of course the clincher in John’s decision.

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