“Reconciliation and Us”

“Where we are, and where we are going.”
The following speech was presented by Associate Professor Bob Breen, President, The Podmore Foundation at the 2013 Spring Lunch held at the Royal Canberra Golf Club on 27 October 2013.

May I begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the Ngunnawal people who are the custodians of the land where we meet. I pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Lunch today is an opportunity to gather and affirm what the Podmore Foundation stands for, and believes in. We have conducted our Annual General Meeting this morning and set the agenda for 2014, as well as the direction thereafter. For the coming year, Podmore’s focus and first priority will be on educating members of the next generation of Indigenous leaders, role models and mentors.
The Board takes great pleasure and encouragement from our philanthropic partnerships in Canberra with Yalari, Canberra Girls Grammar School and KPMG-Canberra, as well as the support of staff and cadets from the .Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), members of the Army’s Indigenous Strategy team and alumni from the Duntroon Society.

While Podmore was founded in 2007 by a group of my Duntroon classmates – all but one of whom are from single mother and immigrant families – Podmore now involves a diverse group of organisations, benefactors, supporters and friends who want to create educational opportunities for others in gratitude for the opportunities they have received.

The title of my talk is ‘Reconciliation and Us’. The ‘Us’ I am talking about is Podmore and its philanthropic partners. Just as importantly, ‘Us’ includes scholarship recipients and their families. We are very proud to partner with Yalari and to have brought together organisations in common purpose in Canberra to begin a journey of Returning Opportunity that began in 2010 when Larissa Woosup, daughter of a single Mum from far north Queensland, enrolled as a boarder at Canberra Girls Grammar School, Australia’s premier independent Anglican school for girls. She arrived as a shy, uncertain girl from the bush. Three years later she is a confident public speaker with astute interpersonal skills.

So now that we know about who is ‘Us’, What is Reconciliation?

In its broadest sense, ‘reconciliation’ means ‘coming together’. The term emerged in our national conversation in the 1990s. In 1991 the Australian Government established a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. The Council’s vision then was for “A united Australia, which respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; and provides justice and equality for all.”

This vision evolved over the next decade into a national effort to “improve relations between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians through increasing understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, cultures, past dispossession and present disadvantage, and to foster an ongoing national commitment to cooperate to address their disadvantage.” Ordinary Australians, as well as their government, have expressed their commitment to these aspirations, both symbolically and practically, since the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk and similar walks across bridges in other cities in May 2000.

Supporting reconciliation means working to overcome the reasons that there is division and inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Gaps of disadvantage in health, life expectancy, education, income and living standards perpetuate division and inequality. Australia cannot achieve full nationhood until Indigenous people are able stand together on an equal footing with other Australians with their rights protected, and their culture and contribution respected.

So what does all of this unfinished business of Australian nationhood mean for us in Canberra?

Firstly, what we are doing is not ‘Us’ helping ‘Them’. This attitude is both out of date and inappropriate. Reconciliation will go nowhere if Indigenous Australians think that reconciliation is another effort by ‘Them’ to help ‘Us’, or for non-Indigenous Australians to characterise reconciliation as ‘Us’ helping ‘Them’.

Reconciliation is a shared journey of mutual respect, encouragement and partnership. Let me explain this journey in the context of what we are doing in Canberra. At one level, a group of well-meaning people are sponsoring and Returning Opportunity to five Indigenous girls at Canberra Girls Grammar School. And more girls from rural and remote communities and towns will follow over the coming years and receive the same support.

At first glance, the focus appears to be only on the girls’ receiving a good education at a good school to enable them to reach their full potential. It may appear that all we are doing is closing the gap of educational disadvantage for a lucky few. A deeper look reveals that the girls and their families, especially their mothers, are educating everyone they come in contact with.
Some may wonder how a group of Indigenous girls and their Mums from the bush can educate and inspire well-educated and affluent upper middle class Australians and iconic institutions and organisations, such as Canberra Girls Grammar School, the Australian Defence Force Academy and KPMG-Canberra. What is their contribution to reconciliation?

The first contribution is to change unhelpful, negative perceptions of Indigenous capability, capacity and achievement. They turn around low expectations, not only among non-Indigenous Australians here in Canberra, but also among members of their own communities back in the bush. The determination and achievements of the girls, as well as the aspirations and sacrifices of their families, especially their mothers, both educate and inspire everyone they meet and who know their stories.

The girls and their families are prompting a better and more respectful way of thinking about Indigenous Australians and their culture, history and contribution. This is the meaning of reconciliation – shared high expectations and commitment, mutual understanding and respect, partnership and, most importantly, lifelong friendships.

One of the major barriers to reconciliation or ‘coming together” in the past has been physical, economic and social separation. This was most dramatically demonstrated when Indigenous communities were relocated to missions and reserves, and parts of rural and remote towns were segregated. For the vast majority of non-Indigenous Australians living in the cities, the First Australians were invisible except for occasional, and often negative, descriptions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the media.

The presence of the girls in Canberra and their efforts in class, on the sporting field, in other extracurricular activities and at social events give everyone who is in contact with them a first-hand understanding that, as was sung so evocatively by Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, these are ‘Sisters doing it for themselves’.

Hundreds of people working at and graduating from Canberra Girls Grammar School, and ADFA, and hundreds more at KPMG-Canberra, who will have contact with thousands of people in the coming years, will be able to say when they encounter casual racism that is still all too common in our society, “I knew some Indigenous girls in Canberra. They did OK. They were great kids. I met some of their Mums. I was proud of them.”

This shared journey of mutual discovery with the girls and their families will be challenging and occasionally bumpy, but it has the exciting and worthy promise of making a difference in our nation’s journey to reconciliation. Over time, through word of mouth and publicity, tens of thousands of Australians will come to know and respect what is being done here in Canberra.
The presence of the girls at Canberra Girls Grammar School has already prompted the school community to think more deeply about its contribution to reconciliation. Each year the recognition the school gives to Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week has had deeper meaning through the girls’ participation, contribution and example.

May I suggest a way forward to create more impact and for Canberra Girls Grammar to lead from the front. One way of coming to a shared understanding of ‘Reconciliation and Us’ is to embark on consultative and collaborative process that produces a Reconciliation Action Plan. These plans are public statements made by Australian organisation outlining the actions they will undertake, within their sphere of influence, in the national effort to close the gaps of disadvantage. KPMG-Canberra already has a Reconciliation Action Plan. ADFA is covered in the Defence Department’s plan and Yalari and Podmore are Reconciliation Action Plans in action.

May I suggest that the time has come for Canberra Girls Grammar School to consider developing a plan, and to consider doing so in collaboration with Podmore and representatives from KPMG-Canberra who have developed and are implementing a plan. The process of consultation with the school community, that must include students, will not only raise awareness, but also distribute ownership of the plan and deepen commitment to its implementation.

The collaborative development of a public statement of intent will answer some hard and sensitive questions. How far should the school go in identifying the Yalari/Podmore girls as a group that should receive additional support compared to other students, in general, and as boarders, in particular? How much should the school community know about and acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, history and contribution, and accord special consideration to the school’s Indigenous students?

An equally important question to answer is how far the girls and their families want the school community to acknowledge them as Indigenous, and give them special consideration. Gone are the days when the girls and their Mums are seeking hand outs, they are really seeking a hand up – the opportunity get access and resources to have a go.
So, there is the challenge and the promise. Canberra Girls Grammar School is the nation’s leading independent school for girls and it is located in the nation’s capital, the epicentre of Australia’s political life and governance. Here is a chance to lead independent schools around Australia by example.

Five Indigenous girls and their Mums from the bush have built a reconciliation bridge head in Canberra. From this bridgehead, the school community and other organisations supporting them can begin a walk that emulates the symbolism of May 2000 when hundreds of thousands of Australians crossed bridges and committed the Australian nation to reconciliation in a public and meaningful way.