Superfecta: Reflections from ‘Meetings’ with remarkable Australian leaders

Superfecta: Reflections from ‘Meetings’ with remarkable Australian leaders by Sheilagh Kelly

Oh, what an amazing series of inspirational addresses I have been privileged to hear, see, or listen to digitally over the last month or so. Truly what a Superfecta! Perhaps the number of these talks coming in such quick succession has been coincidental but the cumulative impact at least on me has been profound so much so that I wish to share them with as many others as possible hence this Readers Contribution. 

I refer to four public addresses all delivered by remarkable First Nations leaders from different generations. They are: the Sydney Peace Prize Oration 2021-2022; the ABC’s Boyer Lectures 2022; the Inaugural Lecture of the newly appointed professor of School of Indigenous Studies, University of Divinity Melbourne and the annual Charles Perkins Memorial Oration. All speakers focussed on ‘where we are as a nation today and what lies ahead for us all’; all  made reference to the request to the Australian people to walk with First Nations people as articulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

At the end of each ‘meeting’ I felt relationally moved by their words in ways that years of researching, talking, reading, and writing about the issues they spoke of have not done so. While listening to each I felt simultaneously uplifted and in awe of the courage and clarity of their words. I felt pierced again, listening to excerpts of Truth-telling. And above all I felt overcome and humbled by the generosity of spirit, the kindness of spirit which shone through their words. 

1.Award Ceremony for the winner of the 2021- 2022 Sydney Peace Sydney Town Hall Nov 10, 2022 

The recipients of the Sydney Peace Prize are Prof Megan Davis, Pat Anderson, AO and Noel Pearson.  Noel was not able to be present at the ceremony. All three have been leaders in their own right, over decades and in particular were drivers of the Uluru Dialogues which led to the three- day Convention at Uluru in May 2017 that in turn led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Statement is a mere 439 words- although as Megan told us in her oration the original document goes to 18 pages. 

An awe-filled silence was interspersed only by clapping at the end of each of the several introductory acts.  All were so recognisably expressions of First Nations cultural values: from the hauntingly beautiful Chant (in language) of the 90-year-old Elder, brought to the stage in a wheelchair by her Uluru Dialogue representative daughter Sally Scales, to singer songwriter Dan Sultan singing sad songs that ‘make me happy’, to the historic Referendum Council video that was shot on location in 2017.

I think you could have heard a pin drop in the capacity filled main hall as Megan made brief reference to how her family history shaped her intention to become a constitutional lawyer. In the context of recounting the total absence of First Nations people in the 1901 establishment of the new Federation’s Constitution, Megan read from a 2001 publication, A Dumping Ground: A History of the Cherbourg Mission (1900- 1940’s). To paraphrase, while white Australia was undergoing its ‘rite of passage into nationhood’, another group of citizens was undergoing another kind of ‘rite of passage, not into nationhood and independence but into institutionalisation and dominance’. Megan’s grandfather and his brother were among that second group of citizens. They had been forcibly removed from their Cobble Cobble country to the Queensland mission settlement of Barambah later known as the infamous Cherbourg settlement in the early years of the twentieth century Protection era.  In brief conversation between Megan and Aunty Pat before the closure of what was an inspirational occasion, Aunty Pat left us all with a sobering admonition:

            Our people are sick, our Country is sick…. 

and she urges us to take the window of opportunity offered in the Referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament for Australia’s First Nations people.

To listen to the powerful 20 mins lecture delivered by Prof. Megan Davis go here

To watch the event in full go here.

Boyer Lectures, Colonial Bondage Inaugural Lecture, Charles Perkins Memorial Oration
2. Noel Pearson Boyer Lectures

In a series of five lectures Noel Pearson traverses the lived experiences of First Nation Australians from 1788 to the present. The first lecture was showcased on ABC Iview, the other three broadcast on ABC RN. He frames lectures 1 and 2 around: who we were, who we are and who we can be and argues cogently why and how a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament if legislated effectively, could break the impasse of the voicelessness of his people. He charts the long and torturous road that has led to the promise of a referendum in the first term of the present government. He notes that the social and cultural disintegration evident in the lives of many of his people requires a new settlement. 

He says: ‘until our First peoples are afforded a rightful place, we are a nation missing its most vital heart’. Noel expresses his conviction that the promised referendum is his people’s best chance to receive recognition and that the people’s consensus articulated in the Uluru Statement of the Heart is his people’s greatest act of faith, hope and love: faith in the possibilities and in the Australian people….; hope for the future…; and love for the country for we could never walk away from Australia… 

The 3rd lecture outlines Noel’s policy approach to a way out for Indigenous Australians ‘trapped in the bottom million of the nation when it comes to economic development’. The final two lectures are still to be broadcast.

To view or listen to all lectures go to: ABC Iview, ABC RN.

3. Colonial Bondage: Liberating Theological Education

Dr Anne Patel-Gray’s inaugural professorial lecture delivered at the University of Divinity, Melbourne, 2 November 2022 

Please do not be daunted by the formal academic language of the title or reference to theological education! I do not believe that I have listened to a more courageous and forthright truth telling of the sorrowful history of the Western Christian Churches’ complicity in the oppression of Australia’s First Nations over the last 238 years. And certainly not from a First Nations practitioner and researcher, Dr Anne Patel-Gray, who has spent decades working in this field. 

She opened her lecture with a description of a rich spiritual, religious, cultural heritage that embraces creation stories and the Creator Spirit developed over millennia. Dr Anne then pulled no punches in describing what happened from 1788 onwards. To paraphrase, she spoke of the ‘forced indoctrination’ by western Christendom which would be the beginning ‘of our nightmare’. Every aspect of biblical texts was used to justify ‘racist views, colonial theft, dispossession, subjugation and oppression, massacres and cultural genocide, rape of women and children’. 

But the recounting of this chapter of the colonial project is not what drives Dr Anne. Her goal with other scholars in the newly established School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Divinity is to ‘decolonise’ the Biblical narratives that keep all Australians in colonial bondage!

Listen to her lecture and as allies respond to her invitation to ‘walk with us’ in what she describes as our last chance to be heard- a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

To watch Dr Anne’s lecture go to: inaugural professorial lecture

4. Charles Perkins Memorial Oration

Oh, the joy and hope that watching one of the emerging younger First Nations leaders brought to this senior ‘whitefella’! Larissa Baldwin was invited by the Perkins family to deliver the 22nd Charles Perkins Memorial Lecture at the Alma Mater of the first Aboriginal citizen to graduate from Sydney University. If you want to hear how Charlie himself viewed his success in whitefella terms, follow the lyrics of Paul Kelly’s song, ‘A bastard like me’, based on Charlie’s own words from his autobiography .

But to return to this powerful oration delivered without a note in sight! Larissa spoke of her family’s connection with Charlie Perkins but said that the ‘legacy of these giants is not a history lesson but a call to action to continue to fight until we have achieved real self-determination and justice in this country’. Her address explains how intimately connected are the futures of First Nations people with the ravages befalling the globe right now. She spoke to how the droughts, fires, floods, and pandemic impact many First Nations people living on the front lines of these climate change impacts. She believes

‘We are entering what could be a transformative decade for First Nations rights and climate action, but my biggest fear is, if we squander this moment, we won’t have learnt the lessons of what people like Charlie taught us’. In her concluding remarks Larissa describes the  Referendum as a gift to the country.

‘We know that by expanding our democracy and seeing First Nations people with a seat at the table, that’s a gift that we can give to the rest of the country.’ 

To watch Larissa Baldwin deliver an inspirational address go to: Charles Perkins Memorial Lecture