Remarks, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

05 Jan 2022
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Well thank you first of all Jude for that wonderful welcome to country.

G’day everyone. Can I also thank all of you for coming here today.

Over the years, I have been continually been inspired and encouraged by the open hearted kindness of the Ngunnawal people here in this region.

I remember the generosity of, as does Jenny, of the Ngunnawal women, when my family and I joined them, at a water blessing here just outside of AIATSIS on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin a very short time after my father’s passing.

And there was an openness, there was an empathy, there was a grace to what they called my ‘sorry time’ and my family’s sorry time. And we have never forgotten that kindness and generosity. And I thank them again today for that incredible warmth we felt on that day.

So I do pay my respects, heartfelt, to my friends, the Ngunnawal people and to all the elders past, present and emerging.

I also acknowledge the boys who are here from the Clontarf today. My own journey of reconciliation, my own understanding has been keenly informed by my relationship with the Clontarf Foundation. And an incredible fellow called Col Hardy, he was a boy from Brewarrina, I remember I stood there at the Fish Traps, up there in Brewarrina with Col and he told me the stories of what happened there many many years ago, not just when he was a boy, but for the centuries and centuries before that. And his kind heart has taught me a lot. And I want to pay my respects to Col and to Clontarf, and the wonderful work they do for Indigenous boys all around the country. And the many organisations who do the same particularly the Academy program for girls as well.

As well as paying my respects to Indigenous peoples, I particularly want to acknowledge more specifically those Indigenous Australians past and present who have and continue to serve in our defence forces and You just saw a wonderful representation of that Craig in the gallery area, the Anzac Warrior. It is a poignant reminder of the many Indigenous Australians who have served and continue to serve and I’ve met them all around the country and to any other defence force personnel or veterans here with us today. I say the same thing to you, thank you for your service.

We have many who are separated by state borders - and three of them are joining me on the screens here - I see very strong Western Australian representation when it comes to the issue of addressing these very important matters of understanding Indigenous history and the important light that it shines to our future.

I particularly want to acknowledge my dear friend Ken Wyatt who is an inspiration to all of us in our Cabinet and across our Government and I think particularly to Indigenous Australians across the country.

Some years ago, when I spoke to Ken’s own story and held up his [inaudible] for Western Australia, it was a very touching moment and a reminder of Ken’s tenacity and despite the great challenges that he’s faced in his own life as an Indigenous Australian, here he serves today in the Cabinet as Australia’s first ever Indigenous Australian to be a Minister for Indigenous Australians and a member of the Cabinet.

We are also joined by Ben Morton from Western Australia, the Minister assisting myself on these issues in Cabinet and another great Western Australian, Nola Marino, Assistant Minister for Territories. And I welcome them being with us here virtually today.

To you Craig, Craig Ritchie the CEO here at AIATSIS and Chair Jodie Sizer thank you so much for your inspiration on this project and inviting us to be here today at AIATSIS.

Can I also acknowledge all the members of the Council and the staff of AIATSIS past and present for their extraordinary work.

Can I also acknowledge Heather Henderson who is here, the daughter of Sir Robert Menzies, who I asked to come along today, because this is another great chapter in our national capital. It’s also another great chapter in AIATSIS, both of which flourished under Sir Robert’s stewardship as Prime Minister.

AIATSIS is a national treasure. It really is.

Sixty years ago, Liberal backbencher, Bill Wentworth, argued that Australia needed a national institute to capture Indigenous languages, art and culture.

We needed it to better understand ourselves.

Because you can’t understand the present unless you understand the past.

And you can’t shape the future unless you have made peace with that past.

And that is a journey we are all on.

So AIATSIS was established by the Menzies Government back in 1964.

And it is a decision that will be remembered for generations.

For over half a century, AIATSIS have been studying, collecting and expanding the world's understanding, not just Australia’s, the world’s understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and doing so because of an abiding belief that this knowledge, wisdom and history should be treasured by the world.

And of course, here in our own land.

It enriches all of us and has ensured that this heritage was not lost to memory nor to future generations. AIATSIS powerfully adds to the bonds between us by telling the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia. It creates opportunities for Australians to encounter, engage and be informed by and transformed by that story.

This is a national institution led and driven and faithful to the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

That work over half a century has drawn together an extraordinary collection of artefacts, artworks, poignant images from the past, records, audio recordings of languages and of stories.

The collection tells a timeless story of Indigenous Australians.

One of dignity, one of pride, one of wisdom and beauty, one of endurance and defiant survival of sadness, of tears, injustice and loss. Of understanding. Grace. Tremendous accomplishment of spirit again and joy.

But most importantly, a story I believe of hope.

It's a journey that's far from complete. The lines of this story extend well beyond the horizon and forever will.

The vastness of this collection says more than words possibly could.

It boasts a staggering collection of more than one million items.

This collection includes academic research materials and works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge keepers, artists, filmmakers, storytellers, artists.

Craig was telling us, 40,000 hours of audio recordings. That'll be quite a sitting.

The collection reflects both continually, the continuity and change in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in Australia. The art object collection alone includes over 6,000 items and continues to grow through donations and purchases, and we acknowledge all of those who have contributed so generously to the collection here over many years, past and present.

The books and printed materials contain over 175,000 titles and almost 1,400 reference texts. There are more than 18,000 books, including 4,000 rare items.

Also in your collection the Australian Indigenous languages collection was established in 1981 to bring together printed material written in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Now that includes over 4,500 titles and has been deemed to be of such world significance that it was placed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register in 2009.

Along with the written record, it is an unparalleled photographic collection, the world's most comprehensive photographic record of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, with more than 90 per cent of the collection consisting of unique materials. 700,000 photographs dating from the late 1800s to the present. And it includes important work done by non-Indigenous people also, documenting the cultures, lives and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This Collection is a hidden trove, a hidden treasure trove. It's never had a home where these stories and histories can be laid out in the open to match the ambition of those who have collated it. This building is, of course, part of that journey, as was the one very humble building that Jenny and I visited a few years ago, and this is the trajectory we're on.

This has meant, though, in not having such a home, that Indigenous Australians have not been able to see their own stories of localities and loved ones and histories in the way they should be able to, and all Australians.

The new home that we are announcing today will mean we can all see and reflect on our nation's own reconciliation journey, so it is now time to create this place. It is now time to throw open the doors of this amazing trove of treasure that is maintained here and other places. And, more importantly, to open our minds to what these collections have to teach us all, to open the conversations that we need to have across the generations and across our peoples to continue on the important journey of reconciliation that we are on.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Australians come to our nation's capital to experience and absorb our shared national journey and to understand their place in that story, particularly children. It's a story expressed through a vista and a wonderful Canberra landscape. The hallowed Australian War Memorial that speaks of duty and sacrifice. The Old and New Parliament Houses that speak about our history and our freedoms and our democracy. The High Court that reminds us that we are a country of laws - the rule of law where there are rights and there are responsibilities for all Australians to adhere to. And the wonderful National Gallery and the National Library and Questacon, which is a great favourite of the kids when they come to visit Canberra.

All of these lift our eyes and enable us to see the future. So together, these sites speak of our becoming, but it's not complete. This vista is not complete, for there has not been, to this day, a permanent place of honour to recognise 65,000 years of Indigenous history.

When we build the Ngurra Cultural Precinct here, which we will, between the hill and the water, that vista will now be more complete. Australians will experience and see not only the story of the last two centuries or so when they come to visit our national capital, but the story of 65,000 years of our history, of memory, and of spirit.

Here amongst the instruments and institutions of modern Australia, we will set out apart a place of honour for Indigenous Australians, their ancient history and their modern journey. A place of reflection and recognition for Indigenous Australians, the oldest living culture in the world. A national resting place for the ancestral remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people taken from their country, whose provenance has been forgotten or erased.

A new home for AIATSIS, in the Parliamentary Triangle, where it should be.

New breath to Billy Wentworth’s view that when we celebrate and bring to light Indigenous languages, art and culture, then we are all lifted together.

And new vision to Sir Robert Menzies’ own ambitions, Heather, for our national capital, for which you have told me how much he had a dear heart for, by ensuring it provides a home for all of our stories, preserves all of our national memories, and pays honour and respect to all of our peoples.

Our capital must reflect who we are and be an inclusive place where all Australians can come and connect with our past and our shared future.

We really have come so far as a country. We’re not perfect. We don’t get everything right. We know that. But there’s no place any of us would rather be. And this announcement today celebrates the enduring truths of Indigenous art, culture, language and connection across this continent.

Building on the record, work and leadership of AIATSIS, which you’ve already heard about, my Government is committing the full $316.5 million dollars to build this project.

The project will proceed exactly as AIATSIS has proposed to the Government. We did not change a letter, a full stop, a comma or a font. We adopted it holus-bolus, as we should, because we trust AIATSIS and the process that you’ve been through, Craig and Jodie, to bring us to this point and the journey that we are still to now go on to bring this to completion.

The project will proceed as has been proposed. The proposal was carefully prepared and consulted on by AIATSIS. This is the culmination of many years’ work. I've been looking forward to this day for the past more than three years as we've worked steadily, and I particularly want to thank Ken and Ben for the great work that you guys have shown in bringing us to this day, Ken and Ben. This has been an ambition of our Government to do this, from when I first heard this proposal. And each year, as we’ve sought to get there, we have had to be patient so we could wait and ensure the proposal that we proceeded with was the one that came forward.

This significant investment in this project shows the importance of this place to our nation's story. It is the result of listening. My own journey on the, on the, on the story of reconciliation has been driven by my own process of listening and listening and listening, and that will continue as I look forward over the generations to come of coming here with my own family, with my own kids and their kids, I hope, and being able to share in these stories, like so many other Australian families.

It complements the significant record of investments that our Government has made and the genuine and innovative partnerships we have formed directly with Indigenous Australians, as we work together to close the gap, through that process we have entered into with the Council of Peace.

‘Ngurra’ is a word in many languages. It means country. It means home and belonging. Ngurra will be a home for Indigenous belonging, experience, knowledge and value in the heart of our nation. It will make our heart beat.

The Ngurra Cultural Precinct will further bring First Nations perspectives into our political system as well, and our national capital. It's about presence. It's about voice. It's about being heard and seen. It's a place of memory, a place of healing. A place of truth-telling.

The late Charlie Perkins often remarked, “We cannot live in the past. The past lives in us.” But so too does the future, and we can make it together.

This precinct is all about that future that we aspire to and yearn for. A future where all Australians are heard, feel at home and can see the brilliance and wonder of this continent's Indigenous culture and heritage.

This precinct will be a place of healing, a place of memory, and with this precinct, we can further knit together the threads of our own shared story and continue our journey forward together. Stronger together, forward together. Thank you very much for your kind attention.