Marie-Louise Ayres: Good evening, everyone. A very warm welcome to the National Library of Australia, and to one of the highlights of our events calendar, the Kenneth Myer Lecture. I'm Marie-Louise Ayres, and it's my privilege to be the Director-General of the National Library of Australia.
As we begin, I want to acknowledge Australia's First Nations peoples, the first Australians, as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and give my respects to their elders past and present, and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Thank you for attending this event, either in-person or online, which is coming to you from the National Library building on a very uncharacteristically green, but always beautiful, Ngunnawal and Ngambri country.
It's a particular pleasure to see so many of you here tonight for the 31st Kenneth Myer Lecture. The Kenneth Myer Lecture began in 1990 as an annual event for the Friends of the National Library of Australia. Kenneth Baillieu Meyer AC was a visionary Australian philanthropist and businessman. He contributed to an extensive range of institutions and causes through significant personal donations, enthusiastic participation on boards, and his involvement in the Sidney Myer Fund and The Myer Foundation. A generous supporter and long-term friend of the National Library of Australia, Myer was a founding member of the National Library Council in 1961, prior to serving as its chair from 1974 to 1982. In 1989, he was the recipient of the Australian Library and Information Association's Redmond Barry Award for his service to libraries.
The prescription for the lecture has always been very simple, and it's based on Kenneth Myer's views. Aligning with his wide cultural and social commitments, he saw the lecture as an opportunity for an eminent Australian to make a significant statement on a broad subject of particular interest to them. He hoped that they would speak their minds and contribute to emerging national debates. The lecture's been presented by a host of eminent Australians, from the Honourable Gough Whitlam AC QC, to Professor Fiona Stanley, AC FAA, and more recently journalists, Professor Peter Greste, and Ms. Laura Tingle. The lecture series would simply not be possible without the support of Kenneth Myer himself, the Myer family, and since 2015, The Myer Foundation. As always, we thank them very much for their generosity.
Tonight, it's my great pleasure to introduce Professor Megan Davis as our 2022 Myer lecturer. Professor Davis is a proud Cobble Cobble woman from the Barrungam Nation in Southern Queensland. She's a professor of law, holds the Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law, and is Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous at UNSW in Sydney. Professor Davis was a member of the expert panel on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution; the work of which informed the Referendum Council operating between 2015 and 2017. Professor Davis chaired the Referendum Council subcommittee for First Nations Regional Dialogues, and the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in 2017. And since then, she has continued her legal work and community legal education via the Indigenous Law Centre at UNSW. Professor Davis has also represented Australia internationally as an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues between 2011 and 2016, and now as an expert member and chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council's Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Next month, Professor Davis, along with Pat Anderson, AO, and Noel Pearson, will accept the Sydney Peace Prize for their leadership of the deliberative processes that led to the Uluru Statement From the Heart. Please join me in welcoming Professor Megan Davis to present the 2022 lecture.
Megan Davis: Thank you for that kind introduction, and also your acknowledgement of country. And I just wanna also acknowledge, in the audience is Pat Anderson, my colleague, with a broken hand. She's also just informed me that she was born in Brisbane Women's Hospital, which she'd never told me before, so I am tremendously excited at the fact she's now a Queenslander and has to support the Queensland Maroons in the State of Origin. I did take her to an Origin after Uluru, 2018 or 20... One of the dates. 2017, 2019. She got really bored and asked to go back into the corporate box. So now, she's got someone to cheer for and a purpose at the Origin, so I can't wait to invite you on more, Pat. And also acknowledge Sally Scale's here. Sally's from APY Land. Sally is one of the young leaders who was involved in the Uluru Statement From the Heart, agitated at every... At a number of dialogues for the rights of youth, and then led a revolt at the National Convention with the Youth to hold another... To hold a separate youth meeting. I shouldn't say "revolt" because they were perfectly polite. So I just wanted to acknowledge that Sally is here. Sally is also, obviously, a renowned and up-and-coming artist, and her art is on our Uluru Statement T-shirts for the Voice Makarrata campaign, that you can... Oh, I sound like... I'm not gonna say where you can purchase it. I didn't really mean to go there with the merchandise. I just wanted to say that the shirts look really nice. Thanks, Sally.
So look, I feel really privileged to have been asked to deliver the Kenneth Myer Lecture. My intern, or my legal researcher, actually, she did a lot of research on him for me, and he was an extraordinary man with a really... The blurb says "broad ranging interests in politics and social issues," but it's true. It's quite extraordinary what he achieved. And of course, I was just listening to the introduction, thinking "I actually wanted to be a librarian before I wanted to be a lawyer." So Auntie Pat's looking shocked. We're coming out with all the big secrets tonight. And I did all my... Like, two lots of work experience in grade 10 and grade 12 at the Woodridge Library in Logan City, so it was pretty serious aspiration. But at some point, I can't remember what year, "Law & Order" started and then I kind of went down the law track from watching "Law & Order." But I love libraries and they've played a huge role in my life, and I'll talk about that a bit later. So I think I might begin, otherwise we'll be here for the next 40 minutes while I just talk about myself.
So it's an interesting thing because the brief for this lecture was, "write on something that you want or you're interested in." And my first question to myself was, "Is there anything outside of Uluru?" It's all I've been working on for the past 12 years, I suppose, constitutional recognition. And since we issued the Uluru Statement as an invitation to the Australian people five years ago, that's all I think about, and all I talk about, and all I write about. So of course, tonight, I thought, "Well, yeah, I'll write... I'll talk about the Uluru Statement." but I'm going to also talk about a few other things that I think might be of interest. When I sat down to write this talk, I was reflecting on, I suppose, the referendum that will be end of next year and where Australians might stand on that, and how we communicate to Australians the invitation that we issued to them at The Rock on the 27th of May, 2017. And so, I wanted to do three things.
So I'm gonna start off reading... Not the Uluru Statement one page, but I'm gonna start off by reading what's known as "Our Story." So the Uluru Statement, many people don't know, is 18 pages long. It's not just the one page invitation to the Australian people, it also includes what we call "Our Story," which is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history of Australia. And it's, unfortunately, one of the parts of the Uluru Statement that is not often read and overlooked. So those 18 pages include Our Story, so our history of our people, and also a few pages, about four, on the reform, why do we want a voice, what will a voice do.
So I urge everybody, if they do have the opportunity, to look at the referendum council report and read that whole document, which we call the Uluru Statement From the Heart. Our Story is... Emerged from the dialogues where, as many of you know or may not know, our people didn't stop the meeting but said, "Before we can talk about the constitution, we need to talk about our place in this country and Australian history, and our exclusion from that history." And so, in each dialogue, we had to build in an additional half day to allow people to have that discussion about Australian history, and how they feel, or felt, that Aboriginal history and Torres Strait Islander history is being excluded from the story of Australia.
And so, as I read Our Story, in the actual referendum council report, every single line is footnoted because, as Sally and Pat know, our mob are forensic in ensuring that we are quoting from the right people from the right place. And so, you'll see each line has a footnote to where that quote or that statement might've been drawn from. And so, that's drawn from all of the 13 regional dialogues, which was 12 around the country, and then a truncated version here in Canberra, hosted by the Ngunnawal Elders Council. And then, as you listen to Our Story, for those of you who have heard the Uluru Statement From the Heart, you might recognise that a lot of the language in the Uluru Statement From the Heart actually comes from our people's voices. So a lot of the things that I'll read out are actually replicated in the Uluru Statement From the Heart.
So I wanted to start off with Our Story. Our Story, the people... The story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and then I wanted to kind of segue to what we hope will be our shared story through the Uluru Statement From the Heart. And so, that's really what I want to talk about tonight. And as I said, just reflecting on who we are as Australians, but I think how COVID and the lockdown actually accelerated a lot of reflection from the Australian people into who we are and their place on Aboriginal land.
"This is our story. Our First Nations are extraordinarily diverse cultures, living in an astounding array of environments, multilingual across many hundreds of languages and dialects. The continent was occupied by our people, and the footprints of our ancestors traverse the entire landscape. Our song-lines covered vast distances, uniting people in shared stories and religion. The entire land and seascape is named, and the cultural memory of our old people is written here.
“This rich diversity of our origins was eventually ruptured by colonisation, violent dispossession, and the struggle to survive a relentless inhumanity. This has marked our common history. The First Nations Regional Dialogues on Constitutional Reform bore witness to our shared stories.
“All stories start with our law. The law. We have coexisted as First Nations on this land for at least 60,000 years. Our sovereignty preexisted the Australian state and has survived it. Sydney Dialogue. We have never ever ceded our sovereignty. The unfinished business of Australia's nationhood includes recognising the ancient jurisdictions of First Nations law.
“Ross River dialogue. The connection between language, the culture, the land, and the enduring nature of Aboriginal law is fundamental to any consideration of constitutional recognition.
“Every first nation has its own word for the law. Tjukurpa is the Anangu word for the law. The Meriam people of Mer refer to Malo's Law. With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this surviving and underlying First Nations sovereignty can more effectively and powerfully shine through as a fuller expression of Australia's nationhood.
“The law was violated by the coming of the British to Australia. This truth needs to be told.
“Invasion. Australia was not a settlement and it was not a discovery. It was an invasion.
“Torres Strait Dialogue. Cook did not discover us because we saw him. We were telling each other with smoke. Yet in his diary, he said, "Discovered."
“Darwin dialogue. Australia must acknowledge its history, its true history. Not Captain Cook. What happened all across Australia, the massacres and the wars. If that were taught in schools, we might have one nation where we are all together.
“The invasion that started at Botany Bay is the origin of the fundamental grievance between the old and new Australians, that Australia was colonised without the consent of its rightful owners. Now is an opportunity for the First Nations to tell the truth about history in our own voices and from our own point of view, and for mainstream Australians to hear those voices, and to reconsider what they know and understand about their nation's history. This will be challenging, but the truth about invasion needs to be told.
“In order for meaningful change to happen, Australian society generally needs to work on itself, and to know the truth of its own history. The Brisbane dialogue.
“Melbourne dialogue. People repeatedly emphasise the need for truth and justice, and for non-aboriginal Australians to take responsibility for that history and this legacy it has created. Government needs to be told the truth of how people got there. They need to admit to that and sort it out.
“Invasion was met with resistance. Resistance. This is the time of the frontier wars, when massacres, disease, and poison decimated First Nations, even as they fought a guerilla war of resistance. The Tasmanian genocide and the Black war waged by the colonists reveal the truth about this evil time. We acknowledge the resistance of the remaining First Nations people in Tasmania, who survived the onslaught.
“Hobart dialogue. A statement should recognise the fights of our old people.
“Everywhere across Australia, great warriors like Pemulwuy and Jandamarra led resistance against the British. First Nations refused to acquiesce to dispossession and fought for their sovereign rights and their land.
“Broome dialogue. The people who worked as stockmen for no pay, who have survived a history full of massacres and pain, we deserve respect. The crown had made promises when it colonised Australia. In 1768, Captain Cook was instructed to take possession with the consent of the natives. In 1787, Governor Philip was instructed to treat the First Nations with amity and kindness. But there was a lack of good faith. The frontier continued to move outwards and the promises were broken in the refusal to negotiate and the violence of colonisation.
“Ross River dialogue. Participants expressed disgust about a statue of John McDouall Stuart being erected in Alice Springs following the 150th anniversary of his successful attempt to reach the top end. This expedition led to the opening up of the South Australian frontier, which led to massacres as the telegraph line was established and white settlers moved into the region. People feel sad whenever they see the statue. Its presence, and the fact that Stuart is holding a gun, is disrespectful to the aboriginal community who are descendants of the families slaughtered during the massacres throughout central Australia. Mourning. Eventually, the frontier wars came to an end. As the violence subsided, governments employed new policies of control and discrimination. We were herded to missions and reserves on the fringes of white society. Our stolen generations were taken from their families.
“Melbourne dialogue. The stolen generations represented an example of the many and continued attempts to assimilate people and breed aboriginality out of people after the era of frontier killing was over. But First Nations also regathered themselves. We remember the early heroes of our movement, such as William Cooper, and Fred Maynard, and Margaret Tucker, and Pearl Gibbs, and Jack Patten, and Doug Nicholls, who organised to deal with the new realities. The Annual Day of Mourning was declared on the 26th of January, 1938. It reflected on the pain and injustice of colonisation, and the necessity of continued resistance in defence of First Nations. There is much to mourn, the loss of land, the loss of culture and language, the loss of leaders who led our struggle in generations past.
“Dubbo Dialogue. Delegates spoke of the spiritual and cultural things that have been stolen. Delegates spoke of the destruction of boundaries because of the forced movement of people, the loss of first peoples and sovereign First Nations spirituality, and the destruction of language.
“Cairns dialogue. The burning of Mapoon in 1963 was remembered. Mapoon people have remained strong. We are still living at Mapoon. Mapoon still exists in Western Cape York, but a lot of our grandfathers have died in New Mapoon. That isn't where their spirits need to be. But as we mourn, we can also celebrate those who've gone before us. In a hostile Australia with discrimination and persecution, out of their mourning, they started a movement. The modern movement for rights, equality, and self-determination.
“Perth dialogue. We have learned through the leaders of the Pilbara strike, we have learned from the stories of our big sisters and our mothers how to be proud of who we are.
“Darwin dialogue. The old men and women were carrying fire. Let's get that fire up and running again.” And as Pat knows, they brought that fire to Uluru, to The Rock, for the opening ceremony and closing ceremony of the National Convention.
"Activism. The movement for political change continued to grow through the 20th century. Confronted by discrimination and the oppressive actions of government, First Nations showed tenacity, courage, and perseverance. Adelaide dialogue. Those who came before us marched and died for us, and now it's time to achieve what we've been fighting for since invasion: Self-determination.
“Torres Strait dialogue. Torres Strait Islanders have a long history of self-government. The civic local government was established in the late 1800s. And in the 1930s, after the maritime strikes, local councils were created. And in the 1990s, the Torres Strait Regional Authority. The Torres Strait Islander peoples also have rights under the Torres Strait Treaty. Our leaders knew that empowerment and positive change would only come from activism. Right across Australia, First Nations took their fight to the government, the people, and the international community. From Yorta Yorta country to country, Yirrkala, and many other places, people sent petitions urgently urging the king, the prime minister, and the Australian parliament to heed their calls for justice. There were strikes for autonomy, equality, and land in the Torres Strait, the Pilbara, and Palm Island.
“Cairns dialogue. The history of petitions reminded people about the nationally significant Palm Island strike. So many people from this region have been removed from country to the penal settlement of Palm Island since its establishment in 1916. The strike was also sparked by a petition, this time from seven Aboriginal men demanding improved wages, health, housing, and working conditions, but being ignored by the superintendent. We commemorate 60 years of the strike in June, 2017. Our people fought for and won the 1967 referendum, the most successful 'yes' vote in Australian history. In front of the world, we set up an embassy on the lawns of Parliament House, and we marched in the streets of Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games. In the west, grassroots leaders like the late Rob Riley took the fight on sacred sites, death in custody, and justice for stolen generations to the highest levels of government.
“Land rights. At the heart of our activism has been the struggle for land rights and recognition of native title. This struggle goes back to the beginning. The taking of our land without consent represents our fundamental grievance against the British crown. The struggle for land rights has united First Nations across the country. For example, 10 embassy activists down south supported traditional owners in the territory who fought for decades to retain control over their country. The Yolngu people's fight against mining leases at Yirrkala and the Gurindji walk off from Wave Hill Station were at the centre of that battle. Their activism led to the commonwealth legislating for land rights in the Northern Territory. The epic struggle of Eddie Mabo and the Meriam people resulted in an historic victory in 1992, when the high court finally rejected the legal fallacy of terra nulius and recognised that land rights of First Nations peoples survived the arrival of the British.
“Makarrata. The invasion of our land was met by resistance, but colonisation and dispossession cut deeply into our societies, and we have mourned the ancestors who died in the resistance, and the loss of land, language, and culture. Through the activism of our leaders, we have achieved some hard won gains and recovered control over some of our land. After the Mabo case, the Australian legal system can no longer hide behind the legal fiction of terra nulius. But there is unfinished business to resolve. And the way to address those differences is through agreement-making.
“Dubbo Dialogue. Treaty was seen as the best form of establishing an honest relationship with the government. Makarrata is another word for 'treaty' or 'agreement-making.' It is the culmination of our agenda. It captures our aspirations for a fair and honest relationship with the government, and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
“Wreck Bay Community. If the community can't self determine and make decisions for our own community regarding economic and social development, then we can't be confident about the future for our children. Through negotiated settlement, First Nations can build their cultural strength, reclaim culture, and make practical changes over the things that matter in their daily life. By making agreements at the highest level, the negotiation process with the Australian government allows First Nations to express our sovereignty. The sovereignty that we know comes from the law.
“Ross River Dialogue. The group felt strongly that the Constitution needed to recognise the traditional way of life for Aboriginal people, to acknowledge , our own constitution, which is what connects Aboriginal people to their creation and gives them authority.
“And finally, the Broome Dialogue. There is a potential for two sovereignties to coexist, in which both Western and Indigenous values and identities are protected and given voice in policies and laws.”
And that is the end of Our Story. It's, as I said, a part of the 18 page document known as the Uluru Statement From the Heart, which is an invitation to all Australians to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for what we say is a better future, and that is beginning with the referendum to enshrine a constitutionally protected voice to the parliament.
So I wanna move on from Our Story to talk a little bit about what might be our shared story, and I wanna begin with a small story about myself. Sounds really narcissistic. Pat's like, "Oh, surprise, surprise." Sorry.
So I grew up in Eagleby, which is a small housing commission suburb in southeast Queensland, so it's in Logan City. And we grew up in a small, three bedroom housing commission home with my mum and my four siblings. And we moved there after my mum left my dad in Hervey Bay. And Mum still lives in that house 34 years later. There was one period where we thought we might lose the house, when Campbell Newman was going to privatise social housing, but that didn't happen, and so she still lives there, and she's 84. It's very hot in Southeast Queensland right now, but also growing up much hotter than now. The storm's only started this week and it's almost the end of October. And the storm season starts a lot earlier than it had... Than it has this year, which is, of course, climate change.
But I was thinking about... I was actually thinking about the Queensland Art Gallery, and how in our house, in southeast Queensland, we had no fan and no air con, which is pretty common for... Pat's like "yeah." For housing commission homes and the underclass in these suburbs. We also had a concrete floor, which always makes me laugh because we couldn't afford flooring. Like, we couldn't afford carpet or anything or rugs. But then as I got older and moved away, you'd look at these architectural magazines and interior design magazines, and concrete's really, really sophisticated and cool, and I wish I knew that at the time. And there was this story that went around our suburb, our housing commission suburb, that we needed to pull the curtains closed during storm season because concrete is like a conductor of lightning. But at this point, in '86, like mum... We didn't have many curtains because we couldn't afford them, and so we were always terrified of being struck by lightning. And then, it turns out, of course, concrete isn't a very good conductor of lightning, but we didn't have Google back then.
But so to keep cool on the weekends, Mum used to take us on the Beenleigh train every weekend to the Queensland Art Gallery, which is why we're all amateur art historians. But we went up there because the train was air conditioned, and the gallery was air conditioned, and it would keep us cool. And with five kids, if you're not cool in that kind of heat, you just fight. And I was thinking back to some of the earliest exhibitions, which actually makes me really old, but... In the 80s, that went to the Brisbane Art Gallery. Now when I reflect on it, it's quite extraordinary the kinds of exhibitions that came to Brisbane actually. And I remember in '86, the 20th century Masters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I remember my mum buying that painting with Nasturtiums, which I think is called, "Nasturtiums with the painting "dance";" A Matisse piece that still is sitting, or stuck, with really old 80s blue tack on one of Mum's lounge room walls. It's a place where I first fell in love with Picasso, but it's where I fell in love with Australian art.
As a child, my mum being non-indigenous, she felt the best education she could give us, given that my father was aboriginal and our cultural teachings came from him, was to teach us about Australian history, and Australian poetry, and Australian art and literature. And especially, she taught us and read to us the art and the stories of the Australian poor and the underclass. They say today, "you can't be what you can't see." Henry Lawson, John Shaw Neilson, this was such a big part of my childhood. And I was a fierce child republican, a fierce kind of patriot, which is a weird word to use in the Trumpian era. But for poor kids, to be able to see these kinds of pieces of art live, it has a very... It's a big deal. It has such a profound impact on the way you think and who you become.
And I mentioned earlier, the libraries, it's the same with the Queensland State Library. We used to go every weekend from grade 10 to grade 12, catch the Beenleigh train up, head up to the state library, and that's where we would study on Saturday and Sunday, catching that air conditioned Beenleigh train up and back.
But I wanted to talk about Frederick McCubbin because my story about myself is actually a segue to something that had a really profound impact on me during the COVID lockdown. So the Queensland Art Gallery brought up a Heidelberg exhibition of Streeton and McCubbin. And in particular, it was my first exposure to "On the Wallaby Track" and "Down on His Luck." And I really loved, loved McCubbin's paintings. I still have the bookmarks from that art gallery exhibition in the 80s when I was a kid, and I have my name written on it in pencil on the back of the picture.
And I wanted to talk about it in the context of a painting that came upon my way just as we'd headed into lockdown. Lockdown was a strange time for us with the Uluru Statement because how do you mobilise a nation to activate and to accept the invitation of the Uluru Statement if we're all in lockdown, we can't talk to people, and we can't travel? We adapted though, didn't we, Sally? Friday Night Zooms, and everybody became quite f... But we weren't... How do you talk to the Australian people about something like... Something so profound as the Uluru Statement From the Heart? And another thing happened in the COVID period that, again, we really reflected on in the context of "What do we do about not being mobile and educating Australians on the Uluru Statement From the Heart?"
And that was this proliferation of acknowledgements of country that happened in that first year of lockdown, and has continued ever since. In the Zooms, and the Teams, and the Skypes, and the Webex, and the... There's so many different platforms that you used to have to ring into. But everybody would begin, by putting in the chat, the country on which they sat or the country in which they lived. It was a strange phenomenon for a lot of black fellows because it seemed a little bit over the top. And just prior to lockdown, I'd written, in The Monthly, an essay about the futility of acknowledgements of country. But as we reflected on it more, we thought about it in the context of what the Uluru Statement From the Heart presents for the Australian people, for who we are as a nation.
It got really intense at some points of 2020, I think, the acknowledgements. I remember, at my university that the Commonwealth had left universities alone, as many of you would know, out of JobKeeper, so we had mass redundancies and restructures. And I remember being a manager, going into a workplace change briefing where they were training us to make people redundant, and this external private agency starts off by doing an acknowledgement. And then, everybody starts putting their con... Where they're from, their country into the chat. And I remember sitting there, thinking, "This is not what acknowledgements are for."
But what was it about acknowledgements that, in that time when Australians couldn't leave the house, and I accept that there was a... It changed across the course of the year. But this was occurring when no one could leave. I was in New South Wales, though I know it was much more difficult for Victoria, but let me not get into the nuances of the lockdown and the lockdown legislation. But when you can't put your feet on country, what that does to people, what that does to a community, what that does to a society... Who are we if we are not that flying kangaroo? Who are we if we don't see ourselves in the eyes of people overseas? And we see ourselves as that, this affluent country, the takeoffs and the landings. Who are we if we are not that? Who are we if we're grounded? And we thought then that there was some value in the acknowledgements, in that it enabled Australians to reflect. "Okay, if I can't go overseas for this year, or possibly two years or longer”, the uncertainty was extraordinary for everybody, "then I'm Australian, and what does that mean? What does that mean if you can't put your feet on country? Who am I?"
And so, I was thinking about that, and about the commonality between our people and Australians, given that we see the Uluru Statement as a bridge. As a bridge between us and Australians. I'm just gonna put up a piece of work that, at this time, had appeared. It was a... It was shortlisted for the Telstra Art Award. And I was really taken... I was really, really moved by it, I was overwhelmed by it, because of my love of McCubbin. But what I found really fascinating was this artist, whose name is Amala Groom, an Aboriginal artist, a Wiradjuri artist. The bulk of her work is very much about sovereignty and about resistance. And I thought it was such an unusual painting for her. For her to move into a space in which she's drawing upon universality and commonality between us, our people, and the Australian people. And I mean, she really... I stalked her that year. I was obsessed with this piece because I'm like, "There's something in this piece, something that speaks to what we're trying to achieve, in terms of the Uluru Statement From the Heart."
She tells a pretty interesting story about why she painted it and how she painted it. And she said that she was walking past an Aldi shop, and in the car park there's those bins where they put rubbish. And leaning up against one of the Aldi bins was this painting, but not with all... Not with "we are all in this together," of course. And she was really taken by the side of "this bushy," she called him. She says that it resonated with her. And this painting really took off in the COVID period, but she painted it because of the bush fires. She painted it because of a palpable feeling that she was getting among the Australian people that government isn't listening to what Australian people want or say. She said that she found it discarded in the Aldi car park, and she said the discoloration of the print she found reminiscent of Picasso's blue era, or blue period, and that his monochromatic tonal years stooped in depression and ironically now reflected more so across McCubbin's already sombre subject. And she said this, which I was really taken by. She said it was so faded and he looked so sad, this old bushy, "I just hugged the print and said, "it'll be all right, mate."" She said, "I just wanted to hug the bushy." She said it was her way of hugging Australians and Australian history, and saying "it's going to be all right because we have survived."
And I thought that this piece was so profound in terms of this, what she called, a cross generational conversation between the Bushy and Australians now. That feeling of being abandoned by the people who are meant to protect you. Bushfires, rural infrastructure, the failure of government to hear. And I saw this piece and I felt it really spoke to what the Uluru Statement From the Heart invites all Australians to do. We are all in this together. In fact, that's why we issued the Uluru invitation to the Australian people. This was a such a profound decision by our old people at the national convention to decide that we weren't going to hand the Uluru Statement on a bark petition to the politicians who have always let us down. But rather we were going to issue the Uluru Statement to the Australian people. And they said, "Megan, go out there, look down the camera, and read the statement to them. Issue the invitation to them to walk with us."
Uluru rose from a very lengthy period of inertia in law reform and policy. And it's hard to look back on that now because we have a prime minister who's enthusiastically embraced the promise of the Uluru Statement, and he's going to run a referendum. But the genesis comes from being let down and not being listened to. And there is a lot of commonality in that with the Australian people because the Uluru Statement will be our story together, things that we have in common so that we can recognise the things that we don't have in common. The Uluru Statement is about combining our stories as a nation. We have Our Story, I read it out at the beginning, but what is our story as a nation?
The invitation, as I said, asks Australians to walk with us, but it also asks you to contemplate that the word 'reconciliation' was the wrong word. It is the wrong word. It's the wrong framing because the Uluru Statement says that we have never met. We have never met. And the Uluru Statement is an invitation for you to meet with us at the rock and listen to our grievances, and then walk with us in this movement of the Australian people to write a new story for all Australians. Uluru is that bridge.
And so, I'm going to end by, once again, issuing that invitation to you all to walk with us. "We gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart. Our aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This, our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the creation; According to the common law, from time immemorial; And according to science, more than 60,000 years ago. This sovereignty is a spiritual notion, the ancestral tie between the land, or Mother Nature and the aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil; Or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and it coexists with the sovereignty of the crown. How could it be otherwise that peoples possessed a land for 60 millennia, and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last 200 years? With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia's nationhood. Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alien from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”
“These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds, and their culture will be a gift to their country. We call for the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the constitution. Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda, the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia, and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination. We seek a Makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments, and First Nations, and truth-telling about our history. In 1967, we were counted. In 2017, we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country, and we invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.” Thank you.
Marie-Louise Ayres: Thanks very much, Megan, for a really thought-provoking lecture, and particularly for the way that you've focused on this amazing artwork, which has also acted obviously as a bridge between different kinds of dialogues. It was a fantastic story.
I was actually reflecting on the fact that you wanted to be a librarian, and thinking what might've happened if you'd seen "The Librarians" before "Law & Order."
But on a more serious note, I guess that earlier on Megan was talking about the long history of activism in this country, and the collections of libraries like ours are full of the records of this activism, whether it's through published newsletters or it's through flyers, or it's of personal papers of great leaders, including, of course, Edward Koiki Mabo. Our libraries are full of these rich documentation of exactly that struggle. There is no way to ignore the activism of Australia's First Nations peoples for a long, long time. And the really satisfying thing, for those of us who work in libraries now, is that peoples around the country are using those collections to tell their own stories in their own voices, to seek that redress and, in particular, to tell the story of resistance. So we have a small part to play, I think, in being the custodians of a small part of that activism, and it's something that we're proud of, and that we take that responsibility very, very seriously.
I think that, of course, Megan's also given us a lot to think about in terms of the really important democratic processes that we will all be asked to participate in at the end of next year. In a conversation last week with The Myer Foundation, the chair, Rupert Myer, asked, "What are Australian libraries going to be doing in relation to the referendum?" Which I think is a sign that nothing really has changed in terms of how the Myer tribe think about their role in this country in terms of asking questions like that.
Now, we do have some time for questions. Those who are regulars know that if you put your hand up, we'll bring a mic to you because otherwise the people at home can't actually hear your questions. So we've got mics on either side of the... Of the theatre, and Luke is going to give me the word... Right, Okay, that's fine. It was just if we had online questions, he was gonna rush them out and give them to me. So, okay, folks, don't be shy. It's your opportunity to ask Professor Davis a question. Okay, in the middle there. Okay, so one, and then have you got a mic up there? So we need one here... Right, great. Terrific. Go ahead.
Audience member 1: Thank you, Megan. That's a really thoughtful talk that you've given us. I'm really pleased when I heard that Albanese was... The prime minister was going to emphasise the referendum, and presumably, Makarrata, as part of the process and proceeding Australia moving to republic, and as a necessary part of that. Thinking beyond that, and especially given your discussion about law, do you think... Have you given any thought to the idea of what kind of head of state we might have as a republic, and what would you think of a constitutional lawyer, for example, being... Yeah, being... Well, given that we've had a lot of generals and that this is essentially a constitutional role, would you agree that a constitutional lawyer might be a good kind of... An ideal kind of head of state, and would you consider taking it?
Megan Davis: That's a definite no. So I'm not sure if Albanese sees Uluru, or his enthusiasm for it, as a step to get to the republic at all. So I would just make that point. And then, if we're gonna talk about the republic, we'll be here all night. But I mean, I think, I'm not 100% sure then, given my answer is no, what the question is. But I would say... So what I think is that if Australia's gonna embark upon a republic, an exercise to become a republic, they need to go out to the Australian community now and have that conversation with who Australians are now, and not who Australians were in 1999, would be my first point. I think the census statistics show how dramatically changed.... [phone alarm briefly rings in audience] I love that someone put their alarm on. The census stats show us the really dramatic demographics have changed in Australia, particularly in terms of our multicultural brothers and sisters. And I always felt the republic model was so minimalist. That's not to say... I understand in political imperative, that is to say you're not gonna go big if you've got politicians who have a really minuscule idea of what a republic is. But I think process matters and I think... I think you've gotta have that conversation with Aussies. So they're gonna have to start again, as far as I'm concerned, before we can get to a point where we feel comfortable that people want it. I know what the polling says, but people need to be involved in that conversation to feel like they have some ownership. And right now, like the , it just looks like rerunning 1999, and I'm just not sure... Just not sure if that's wise. That's my answer to that.
Audience member 2: Thank you very much for... I'm on, yeah? For a very interesting talk. I'm coming from the point of view of a retired senior college teacher. Prior to the Howard government coming to power, many senior colleges were actually teaching about the indigenous experience through literature and also through history, and I feel an essential part of leading up to the debate... The acceptance of the Voice to parliament is going to be for the education of many Australians. Then we had the Howard government come to power and the nationalisation of the history curriculum, and the attitude of the black armband teaching of history. And history teachers and literature teachers, we snuck it into literature, were very constrained in what they could teach. I'm not au fait with what's happened since the election of this government or during Morrison's time, but has education broadened and do you see that understanding of indigenous experience as essential to the general Australian public?
Megan Davis: That's a good question. Look, I only teach constitutional law students, so I can't really speak to what the curriculum's doing now. I'm complete... I'm across the debates in relation to the post-Howard curriculum, and also the most recent iterations of what that looks like in terms of fencing in what people can and can't teach. It's come up.... So I'm on the referendum working group that they've set up to prepare for referendum, and it's come up. I can't tell you anything substantive about how that might change or what the Department of Education is going to do. But of course, it's important.
I mean, there's two components really. One is the history element, and there's many ways of being able to teach Australians that, both in the classroom but also outside of the classroom, in terms of how Australians consume their news or their information now. I had a second point. Oh, civics. So the other part is... And so, I studied... I did a lot of research on civics education as a public lawyer 20 years ago, so my information may be dated, although I do try and keep up with the literature, but I'm pretty sure we are still pretty poor at teaching civics. So there's also a huge... I think they're more worried about the civics side of things. What's a parliament? What's a senate? What's a bill? What's a constitution? What's a federation? Like, what's a federal system? What's a referendum? There's a lot of really fundamental civics as well that needs to be... That needs to be thought about in terms of the classroom and in terms of how adult Australians consume their news, or their information, or their education outside of the classroom.
So I suppose the only thing that I could say to you is, I think, those people who are experts in that area are aware of it. I think the government tends to run a civics campaign. So that's where we are. But your point is well taken. I think there is enormous appetite these days... I mean, Tim Rouse is in the audience, he knows more than me. But there's a huge appetite from Australians now for Australian history, and that includes aboriginal history. And certainly, in the work that we do at UNSW as the Uluru dialogue, we can't keep up with the demands for information about aboriginal history and about the Uluru Statement.
I'll just also note that somewhere on the internet, that sounds so old, we did do a almost 30 minute history. It's 20 minute... 21? 22. History of Aboriginal activism, demonstrating the connection between activism and engagement with the state and change, or not change. And it kind of follows trajectory... The trajectory from the invasion, the conciliation period, the frontier times, then the protection era, then assimilation, and self-determination. And so, it shows that trajectory of the way in which law and policy has had this huge impact upon how aboriginal people have lived in their lives, how the law has dispossessed and subjugated, but also that notion of how the law can redeem. So that's available somewhere on the internet. On YouTube. In addition... So we showed that in the dialogues, and then we also have... We have a civics... A 10 minute civics... What are they called? Films. That we showed in the dialogues as well to bring our mob up to speed so that when they got to the point of talking about the constitutional reforms, that they had had substantial civics knowledge to be able to engage in the discussion in an informed way. So I'm only telling you that because the dia... We produced that material in the course of the referendum council work to get to here. But that DVD is really a useful educational tool, people really like it.
Marie-Louise Ayres: Yes. Up the back here. Great. And I think this might be the last question, for the gentleman in the blue jacket here. Thank you.
Audience member 3: Thank you very much for a wonderful talk. I'm really curious about what you call it, the use of your words, like the Uluru Statement From the Heart, and it sort of flows like water and it feels light like air. But they're very carefully chosen words and words matter, and words have an emotional content, and each of us has a different feeling for each of those words. Why did you choose the word "heart" to put there rather than any other word?
Megan Davis: There's two... There's a number of answers to that. So when we set out to design the dialogues in late 2015, we... We were initially going to 35 sites, but we weren't given a lot of money from the Commonwealth so we had to cut it down to 12. But we had decided we would have the last meeting at Uluru in the heart of the country. So I accept it's not really technically in that... Sally's from... So, but that's why. We wanted to go somewhere that was spiritually significant and had significance to many mobs that had traversed, and travelled there, and met there, or were related to people from there. And because it is... So we say it's the heart of the country, it's a very overwhelming experience to go there. It was very difficult for some aboriginal leaders to go there because it's a very difficult place to be, in term... I don't mean "difficult," but it's spiritually it is really overwhelming for aboriginal people. And... And also, because of the heart. Yeah, we wanted to speak to the Australian people, and because the Uluru Statement is about love. At the end of the day, that's what it's about. It's about love.
Marie-Louise Ayres: Thank you very much, Megan. We have run out of time. We hope you'll join us upstairs for refreshments, and I think that Megan may even be willing to sign some of her books. But I think on that wonderful note of the incredible generosity of inviting every one of us old and new Australians into that circle... Into that circle of dialogue and activism, we thank you for that generosity and for all of the people who participated in your dialogues. It's generosity that I think is not necessarily... You didn't have to offer it. And I think many of us are grateful that you did. So thank you very much. Let's thank Megan again.
The annual Kenneth Myer Lecture invites an eminent Australian to make a significant statement on a broad subject of interest to them.
In 2022, the lecture was delivered by Professor Megan Davis.
About Professor Megan Davis
Professor Megan Davis is a professor of law and holds the Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law and is Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous at UNSW Sydney. She is a proud Cobble Cobble woman from the Barrungam nation in south-west Queensland. Professor Davis was a member of the Prime Minister’s Referendum Council and the Prime Minister’s Expert Panel on the Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution.
Professor Davis designed the deliberative dialogues and chaired the Referendum Council’s sub-committee for the First Nations regional dialogues and the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in 2017. Since 2017 she has continued her legal work and community legal education via the Indigenous Law Centre UNSW. Professor Davis is a globally recognised expert on Indigenous peoples rights.
Professor Davis was an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2011-2016) and is currently an expert member and Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous peoples (2017-2022). In 2022, she is a co-recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
About the Kenneth Myer Lecture
The Kenneth Myer Lecture is generously supported by The Myer Foundation.
The Kenneth Myer Lecture commenced in 1990 as a major annual event for the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The lecture was named for Kenneth Baillieu Myer, AC who was Chairman of the National Library Council from 1972 to 1982 and a long-time friend of the Library.
The prescription for the lecture is simple and based on the views of Kenneth Myer. As a businessman and philanthropist with a wide range of cultural and social commitments, he saw it as an opportunity for an eminent Australian to make a significant statement on a broad subject of particular interest to them.
Learn more about the Kenneth Myer lecture and previous speakers.