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


Featured Video Play Icon

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.

The two words power and love have many different connotations; the difficulty is that these two words are common and everyone has an idea of what they mean. These are just some of the kinds of love and power that play out in our lives:

“I will love you forever and ever no matter what comes up we will deal with together, forever.”

“I love you but if you ever leave me I will f**ckin kill you!”

“For the love of GOD – will you pick that bloody towel up off the floor, how many times do I have to tell you kids!!!”

“I have a good man, we love each other. We are the people everyone comes round to see with their relationship problems”

“He still wont see us as a couple – I have his baby and he still wants to be single! Can you talk to him?”

“But he never hit me in the face … ”

“Don’t worry darlin daddy be home soon”. Then, “Don’t worry darlin, mummy goin get ya a new daddy now”

“Stop hitting my mummy!”

“I never knew my mother’s love – and when I found her I could only weep at her graveside.”

“I love my kids but if I don’t get my hit … ”

“Its like she loves the drugs more than us.”

“I love her, I love my daughter — but why did she do this to herself? Why?”

“Dear Jesus, Buddha, Allah, God, anyone who will listen and hear my prayer. Please keep my family safe, please look after them, please help me be strong, let me have faith in something.”

“He died. I live with his absence every day. I stay strong for my children and grannies. I go down to the grave and talk to him every week. There are just times I need to talk to him. You know?”

Love manifests as relationships and connection. If we push away or abandon our sense of connection with others — our acknowledgement, our sensitivity, and our love; there is no limit to the sadness, terror and pain that our unchecked power can produce. When Michael Long asked that anguished question to the person with the most power in the country: “Prime Minister, where is the love for my people?” He was asking where was the loving relationship between all Australians. We all feel the anguish that results from the deficit of love. People like Merle and Alick Jackomos were moved to do something about it and in doing so introduced me to a different notion of love.

“We have the baton now firmly in our hands. And we need to innovate as never before.” 

Love is the drive to unite the separated. Merle and Alick through their lifelong work inspired a world anew — not because the world changed overnight, but because they provided yet another opportunity to see ourselves and our role and responsibility to create the world. They sought to encourage loving power and created institutions that facilitated power for the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

They had resolve, and dignity and grace. They were concerned about suffering and showed incredible personal leadership by being prepared to do whatever it took to alleviate suffering for us all. They united us. They found common ground. They were capable of loving the 300 nations of people that we are.

In my view their greatest contribution was in establishing health services, for building capacity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and for mobilizing resources to generations of Victorians. In many ways, these early efforts have now transferred to you, the public sector. You now have the responsibility to establish services, build capacity and mobilise resources. Whilst our effort should be to “close the gap” for the vulnerable among us, we do have cause for celebration.

We are professors, lawyers, barristers, judges, teachers, health workers, doctors, nurses, academics, politicians, dancers, athletes, public servants, people who are trained in governance, business, entrepreneurial thinkers and actors. We have people in decision-making and powerful positions. We have chief executives, chairmen and women, we have marine biologists, social scientists, rangers, researchers, we have people working in corrections, youth agencies as lecturers, representing us locally, nationally and internationally. We have done our teething in health, education, academia, natural resource management, in regional autonomy, leadership development, organizational management, youth empowerment, media marketing and public policy, land purchasing, business development, economic development, human rights and political strategy.

The early legacy of Alick and Merle Jackomos and their peers has been the backbone of our current success. We have the responsibility to carry on their legacy, to be role models, to assume the emergent leadership roles, to make decisions others are afraid to make. We need to become wealthy, to build a middle class, to provide opportunity to those who demand it and to achieve equity.

We have the baton now firmly in our hands. And we need to innovate as never before. The world being what it is, the technological breakthroughs, the lifestyle opportunities, the rapidity of change the education, stress, climate change, environmental degradation, the sheer number of our one species on the face of the planet means we cannot be complacent. We cannot stop. We cannot settle for a satisfying but bland life. We need champions who are going to take it forward: champions for the cause, champions on the sports field, champions in our families, champions in politics. Champions who feel destined to unite people who had become separated. Champions who dared to dream for equality and justice. The Jackomos’s were compelled and compelled others to have the next big dream or possibility, then make it happen. We all have had people throughout our lives ask us to find the champion within. Leaders like Alick and Merle already saw us all as champions, and that it is up to us to realise it. No excuses.

I can say with absolute certainty and pride that the architects of the road ahead are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have heeded that call, “Who among us are champions? Who among us dare to find, then follow, the champion within?” And we have answered. There are three ideas I have to maintain our success both now and into the future. Einstein once said insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. We need to do things differently, here are some ways in which the public sector can enhance what it is already doing.

” … engage with universities to ensure the outcomes of the wonderful work you are doing is able to be accessed by those who need it the most.”

The first idea is to engage with universities to evidence about what is being achieved through the investment of time, financial and human resources by the public sector. Not only are universities able to draw on national and international links to provide better and more accessible individual educational outcomes, but universities work with communities to positively contribute to community growth and sustainability and collaborate with organisational partners to achieve success. Academics can provide critical advice to government, we build capacity at local and regional levels, we are skilled in doing needs analysis, in service gap assessments, in longitudinal studies, in quantitative and qualitative research in surveys, in reviews, evaluations, in cost benefit analysis.

We do randomized control trials, we facilitate, we investigate effectiveness of interventions, we partner, support, and deliver peer review publications. Universities need sustained relationships with regions and services, communities and individuals to test new models of interventions. Some of us in universities are culturally minded people who know we have ethics processes to adhere to. We consistently deliver on a range of knowledge exchange products; we take evidence into our teaching programs and support Indigenous students and scholars.

I know there are a range of regional and local plans being developed now, particularly as Taskforces and reviews wind up, that have not included universities, or institutes, or any research agency that has the capacity to provide some thought leadership on issues affecting our communities. We need your work to be in the peer reviewed literature. We need it to contribute to evidence, we need researchers to engage with your data sets, and we need these data sets linked. In the right hands, and under the right auspice, research is a very valuable tool — as are the people who conduct good quality research. Can you please, in the next authorising environment, engage with universities to ensure the outcomes of the wonderful work you are doing is able to be accessed by those who need it the most.

The second idea for all of us is about practical reconciliation. Very soon, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will join together in the NT to propose a Referendum Question that will be put to the vote by the Australian public. I know this country was never ceded. I know that we have rights. I also know that we need to fix the historical inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from Australia’s Constitution — the nations rulebook and founding document.

We also need to eliminate racial discrimination in the Constitution — such as the section that still says people can be banned from voting based on race. Australia’s Constitution was written more than a century ago. By then Aboriginal people have lived on this land for more than 60,000 years, sustaining and evolving the oldest living culture on the planet. Yet, from its inception, Australia’s founding document did not recognize this first chapter of our national history. When it took effect in 1901, the Constitution mentioned Aboriginal people only to discriminate, and Torres Strait Islanders were not mentioned at all, and excluded as citizens. Merle and Alick Jackomos gave their all in the effort to overcome this exclusion. By theirs and the efforts of others, more than 90% of Australians voted yes to this. When the time comes, please vote in a way that your children’s grandchildren will be proud of.

“Make the rubber hit the road with policy that supports whole of government quality parenting, early childhood advantage programs.”

The third and final idea was a favourite saying by Dr. Lowitja O’ Donoghue — “Be where the rubber hits the road”. She reiterated a story to me one day where two younger women came up to her and said to her “when was she going to move over so they could be leaders?” There could be no quicker way to wind that woman up. I won’t tell you the rest of that story, needless to say her eyes would spark and her speech would slow down and even though she is propa tiny compared to me — you know when a woman is fierce! Long story short, she advised those women to go out and make their own mark on the world, they didn’t have to take her place, go out, do a few hard yards, get rolled a few times, get back up, dust yourself off and do it again.

I have a similar story — none so hard but it is true: My cousin who has just completed her PhD rang me up and was telling me one night that she thought it was so hard. Almost too hard. I said, “I know honey. Of course it is hard. It is meant to be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do one. But the hard”, I said to her, “the hard is what makes it great!” This Oration celebrates those who did it hard, and because of it, became great. All of us have a chance in our lives, to do something hard, and make it great. Even when we don’t necessarily want to. Opportunities for greatness can be found where the rubber hits the road.

Here are three areas where I think the rubber will be hitting the road in the next few years:

Firstly — In early childhood — the evidence is overwhelming that this is a high investment area, which impacts on health and wellbeing, educational and employment opportunities across the lifespan. There are a range of opportunities to build evidence based practices and strategies joined up action between government agencies and across sectors. We in Victoria need to build and replicate a comprehensive program that supports parents be the best they can be, we need to build a workforce that can be present to vulnerable families and we need to stop making our men invisible. We need to partner with universities and others in order to make this happen, particularly in the development and implementation of regional plans that implement findings relating to TaskForce 1000.

To this end we need to be innovative: as part of discharge plans from prisons, ensure the father gets parenting programs. Change child and maternal health services to child and family services to understand the social and cultural contexts of families and locate children in them. Invest in outreach family support services, implement abecedarian programs for under stimulated children, look at international evidence and bring that into the development of our workforce. We need our children to be able to perform cognitively, behaviourally, culturally, socially and emotionally when they get to school. Taking a strengths based approach to doing this work will be a critical component of this work. For more on this, take a look at the Heckman Equation: invest in early education for disadvantaged children and develop cognitive skills, social abilities and health behaviours early. Then sustain early development with effective education through to adulthood to gain a more capable and productive workforce. Make the rubber hit the road with policy that supports whole of government quality parenting, early childhood advantage programs.

” … over 90% of people who engaged with services said they had experienced discrimination, which compounded chronic stress.”

The second emergent area is in the management of chronic stress. Believe it or not, but some stress is good for you — sharpens focus, gets your adrenal system pumping and make you alert and capable of getting things done. Chronic stress, though, is different. Chronic stress is recently found to be capable of changing brain function and leading to depression. In a recent study in Victoria that focused on racial discrimination, over 90% of people who engaged with services said they had experienced discrimination, which compounded chronic stress. Most of us know what it is like to have a bad day, but that combined with funerals, poverty, child removal, overcrowded housing, addictions, family violence, societal abuse, child rearing, lack of access to education and employment opportunities, not having resources or being able to meet bills is a source of stress. This as an area to tackle is in its infancy but the impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families is the same and warrants further attention.

Thirdly, I think there is much to do in an area we have at Onemda called Transitional health — that is the health and wellbeing of people between institutional care and their homes. Patient journeys are critical: what is the experience of people who have cancer who need to access hospital services, then go back home? What are the experiences of vulnerable mums and their children upon discharge from CMH services? What are we doing to properly plan for the discharge of men and women from prison? How about for people who access drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, sober up and then get released into the very same situation that saw them enter rehabilitation services in the first place? What are the roles of support groups, home visits, a consistent case management workforce, the relationships between services and families and individuals in this case? I think we are onto something here.

We also felt the same for young people leaving school early — what are their options? What are they transitioning too and how can health and wellbeing be maintained and improved upon during that transition? I have many questions and not a lot of answers at the moment. Quietly, I suspect we all do. I also think that we are great at the conceptualization of ideas, and lousy in the implementation of them. We need to have honest conversations, know all our strengths and limitations roll up our sleeves and get to work. That is what Merle and Alick Jackomos did. That is what we all can do, given the opportunity.

In closing, I want to thank you all for being here, for doing what you do and for taking on board what I said, and what it might mean for all of us. Get a little bit entrepreneurial in your thinking and action. If you are entrepreneurial, join Kinnaway — The Victorian Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce! I know I did! And while you are thinking about that if I may share with you a little something that I aspire to, take what need and leave the rest:

May all beings be filled with joy and peace.

May all beings everywhere,

May all be filled with lasting joy.

Let no one deceive another,

Let no one anywhere despise another,

Let no one out of anger or resentment

Wish suffering on anyone at all.

Just as a mother with her own life

Protects her child, her only child, from harm,

So within yourself let grow

A boundless love for all creatures.

Let your love flow outward through the universe,

To its height, its depth, its broad extent,

A limitless love, without hatred or enmity.

Then as you stand or walk,

Sit or lie down,

As long as you are awake,

Strive for this with a one-pointed mind;

Your life will bring heaven to earth.

The 2015 Alick and Merle Jackomos Oration was given by Professor Kerry Arabena on June 26 in Melbourne as part of IPAA Victoria’s Public Sector Week.

Read more at The Mandarin: Fred Chaney: what is fairness for Indigenous Australians?