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Key Forum on Education, Garma Festival

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


Garma Festival 2017

June Oscar
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Key Forum on Education

Friday 4 August 2017


Acknowledgements and Intro

[Introduction in Bunuba]

Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Yolngu yani u. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngarragi thangani. Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.

Good morning everyone.

I stand here today on the lands of the Yolngu People. There are many of us that have come from afar, we come speaking different languages, and we are strangers to these lands. The ear of this land is hearing our different languages and we reassure that we gather and talk together with good feeling.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land upon which we meet, the Yolngu peoples and I pay my deep respects to their elders both past and present, and the generations to come.

Thank you Stan/Galarrwuy for your warm welcome this morning. It is an honour to be at this important gathering on your country and I hope that the discussions that we have here are able to translate into meaningful change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across our nation.

I come from the Bunuba people, and Warangarri, my traditional lands in the Fitzroy Valley, Western Australia. Today I address you in this beautiful place as the first Aboriginal woman appointed to the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission in 30 years.

I look forward to bringing my experiences from living in community to this role and to elevating the voices of our people, throughout my term to address the various challenges facing our communities.

I thank the organisers for the invitation to speak at this nationally significant festival where our discussions this year will be themed around ways of ‘settling our differences’. This is an issue that goes to the core of who we are as a nation and where we need to go in order to be able to truly reconcile our issues.

Role of the Australian Human Rights Commission

When I was first appointed to this role, and before I made the long journey from my home in Fitzroy Valley in Western Australia to Sydney, I was spending a lot of time with the women in my community and preparing for my departure.

I had many people ask me about where I would be going and what my new role as Social Justice Commissioner would entail. I had people coming up to congratulate me but not quite understanding the role and the significance of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission? What was this thing called human rights?

This is a comment that struck a chord with me because although our communities know concepts around justice and equity well, found in our protests and marches, and in our stand offs with police and welfare- we don’t necessarily know about the language of human rights. I have said since my appointment this April that I will work hard to ensure that the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples are more than just words on a page and a part of our lived reality.

But a crucial part of achieving this goes back to the core roles of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

I know that some of you may not be aware of our important role as Australia’s national human rights monitoring body, responsible for handling complaints in relation to discrimination and human rights complaints and for promoting awareness of the human rights of all Australians but particularly through my role - the human rights of Australia’s First Peoples.

I am charged with promoting the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a number of ways:

  • Through producing a report to parliament, the Social Justice and Native Title Report;
  • Through making submissions to parliamentary and other inquiries;
  • Through developing policy advice on key issues affecting our peoples; and
  • Through participating in key forums such as this.

Rights based approach

I will direct part of what I am going to say today as is appropriate for this forum, around the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. However, I have been asked to go broader than this by the organisers but I will reserve those comments until later in the session.

We can’t begin a discussion about the education of our children without first talking about a human rights based approach to education.

International human rights law, defines the right to education as a fundamental human right and it is essential for the exercise of all other human rights[1].

This right is captured in at least two international treaties which Australia has committed to honour such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[2] of 1966 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child[3] of 1989.

However, these rights are also captured in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[4], which was adopted 10 years ago by the United Nations General Assembly this September. As a framework developed by Indigenous peoples, for Indigenous peoples, it speaks of the importance of our own educational institutions, our own languages and our own cultural methods as ways of teaching our children.

Broadly speaking, all of these instruments provide that:

  • Regardless of who you are and where you live, whatever your age, sex or race, you have the right to an education.
  • Education must be available, accessible and appropriate without discrimination.

Of course, we know that the benefits of education are crucial to our development as Indigenous peoples, our life opportunities and our ability to fully participate in society. We know that it is vital to addressing the significant challenges we have in relation to health, well-being and socio economic status.

We also know that the right to education is crucial to realizing our rights to self-determination and the broader goals of our people to pursue our own economic, social and cultural development.

How are our children faring?

But despite what we know about the benefits of education and a human rights based approach, we know that particularly for our children in the Northern Territory, that achievements fall well below these standards.

It saddens me to hear about the Wilson education review[5] talking about the need for yet another ‘new approach’ in this area, with the last period of reform not bearing fruit for the last generation of Territory children.

I have often said that our peoples endure conditions that would be intolerable to non Aboriginal Australians. And I believe that at least in the sense of remote education that this is true.

How is it acceptable that our children living in remote Australia:

  • are between three and five years behind their peers by the time they reach Years 5 and 9?[6]
  • That approximately 80% of children are not going to school once they reach the age of 12?[7]
  • That achievements are amongst the worst in comparison to the national averages?[8]

The answer is, that it is not acceptable. But I think that it is important that whilst we reflect on the nature of these challenges, that we do not lower, but lift our efforts.

We need to acknowledge the strengths that children already bring once they enter the classroom and intensify the efforts around early years learning. The evidence tells us time and time again that if we do not set our children up right in the early years with the basic foundation of skills that they are unlikely to ever recover. Initiatives such as the Families as First Teachers program[9] are encouraging. By focusing on providing support from birth to age five, these programs are working to create a better foundation for our children as learners by engaging parents as well as students.

I was recently reminded by my colleague, an extremely talented Aboriginal woman and lawyer in her own right, Professor Megan Davis who said that ‘leaders are readers’. This is so true and if programs such as these can encourage parents and community people to step up and set a good example by being engaged in their child’s learning journey then only good things can follow. We know that our children do better at school if their parents are actively involved in their child’s education and that programs such as this may add significantly to a parents’ own literacy as well.

We know that learning begins at home and that parents should be given every opportunity to create an environment where their children can thrive. This is about recognising that efforts focused on the classroom alone and not the broader environment a child grows up in are flawed. If basic supports and the employment opportunities simply do not exist locally- this can make it very difficult to see the benefits of gaining an education.

Similarly, I can also understand the reluctance of many families to send their children to boarding schools to complete their secondary education when that means moving away from home and their connections to community. However, the reality is that in many remote communities that these services simply do not exist. Initiatives such as the Wunan Foundation[10] in the Kimberley, have had some success with matching up students with adult carers from their communities so that they can stay connected and feel comfortable culturally in order to thrive.

This model places a small group of students together with the support of the ‘house parent’ and unlike other boarding programs, recognises that our children do better whilst they are away if they feel connected to home and culture. These children are now role models for their community but there need to be sufficient opportunities in a child’s own community to encourage them to come back and give back to their community when they finish their studies.

As this example shows, the onus is on learning institutions to be good partners and to find innovative solutions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the country to deliver education that meets our needs.

We know that setting our children up well in the early years will prepare them for later schooling however, we need to make sure that where secondary schooling opportunities are available that the environments are right to enable our children to flourish.

However, it is important that when we are talking about education as a whole, whether it is through primary or secondary approaches, that we are talking about ensuring that the curricula, pedagogies and teachers are all equipped to deliver the right kind of education to our children.

We know that teachers play an incredibly important role in the classroom and take on much of the lion’s share of work with our kids. In providing them and our students with the right supports, we need to ensure that teachers are trained in Indigenous ways of knowing and learning which includes being informed about ‘our’ history, culture, identities and aspirations.

We need teachers that approach their work in a way that places non-Indigenous knowledge alongside Indigenous knowledge and allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to incorporate western ideas on their own terms, from a position of strength within their own culture.

But ultimately, if we are serious about addressing the educational outcomes for our children, particularly in remote areas, we need to acknowledge that parents, governments and schools alone cannot solve these issues without working together. We know that there is much to be done and that a generational and integrated approach that doesn’t divorce education from other areas is urgently needed.

We must focus our efforts outside the classroom as well as inside it if we are to see any changes.

Balancing Western and Indigenous systems

I know that one of the biggest balancing acts in education is about providing our children with a culturally secure learning frameworks which bring together the wealth of Indigenous and western knowledge systems. We know that this is no easy feat.

We know that students who speak English fare better throughout their schooling but we need to ensure that our children have a curriculum that is enriched with our own cultures so that other skills like literacy and numeracy can be scaffolded and enhanced.

But we must acknowledge that efforts to improve the educational outcomes of our young people, can’t be at the expense of who we are.

Finding a balance between having our culture reflected back to us in the classroom with the benefits of English is important. But, in a world where ‘success,’ as defined by doing well in the mainstream, is fast becoming the norm, we cannot afford to become cardboard cut outs of a western system.

We cannot afford to be ‘absorbed’ into the white population just as people such as A.O Neville had hoped.[11] We must determine our own version of success.

These figures speak of a time in our history, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and knowledge were given very little value by Australian governments and society. But there would be some of you here today, who, like me were discouraged from using your own language at school and on the mission when you were growing up - as I was. These events are still in our living memory. We need to acknowledge the damage that this agenda has wrought on our people and stress that the survival, practice and teaching of our cultures and our languages is critical in the modern world.

We need systems that draw on the strengths of both Indigenous and western systems so that we can still retain who we are and our connections to our languages and culture that have kept our people strong for millennia.

We only have to look around us here at this Festival to see that we surrounded by a culture that is rich and complex and unwavering. We have lore men and women, senior people in our communities who carry our traditions and stories and whom have nurtured them and us through the generations.

These are the knowledge holders in our community who having lived off this land for at least 65,000 years according to the most recent evidence, have survived because of their intimate knowledge of our lands, waters and climates.

Knowledge holders like my grandmother who knew every animal, rock and plant, who knew how to find water amongst the tall and endless plains of spikey spinifex and boabs. These lessons take a lifetime to learn and to pass on, but are often more complex than that what is contained in any piece of paper.

I know that these systems are gaining more respect in the Western system and I want to acknowledge the efforts through initiatives such as the Mawul Rom project[12] which belongs to the Yolngu people of Eastern Arnhem Land and the Burnawarra group from Maningrida for forging partnerships with formal institutions such as Charles Darwin University around their own customary systems. Slowly these institutions are beginning to value the richness and depth of our knowledge alongside western systems. And so it should be.

Personal reflection

I have been extremely fortunate in my life to be educated across a range of formal and informal settings but my love of learning started long before I entered the classroom.

I want to say to all of our young ones out there to work really hard at school but never let go of who you are and never think that the smallest opportunity isn’t leading you on to a bigger road in life.

My own path in life is probably not what you would expect.

I have lived as a kid growing up in the blackfella camp, as a student in a dormitory, a legal secretary, a dental nurse, a switch board operator, out- patients clerk in our local hospital, a stock camp cook, an ATSIC Commissioner, a consultant, language teacher, women’s project officer, a drop in centre co-ordinator, and formerly as a CEO of a Women’s Resource Centre who also chairs the Board of a Cattle Company.

I have had all of these roles, wide and varied whilst still being a partner, a mother, grandmother and Aunty and friend to many. Today, I address you as the first Aboriginal woman appointed to the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. This is a role that I had long dreamed about but probably didn’t think would actually be a part of my own reality.

I am proof of what it means to dream big and work hard. But I have never lost sight of who I am. Indeed, much of what I owe to my current trajectory is a testament to my strength as a Bunuba woman, instilled in me by my mother and grandmother before me.

Our knowledge as Indigenous peoples is intergenerational that emanates from a distant past, collecting wisdom through lessons learned across tens of thousands of years. For me, learning this knowledge was an intimate experience that unfolded through the relationship that existed between myself, my grandmother and my mother.

It involved the careful watching, listening and learning that takes place in the day to day living and practicalities of existence.

The foundation of my learning can be found in the expression of my identity, in the imprint of my heritage and in the essence of my ancestors and their wealth of knowledge.

I know that this same strength exists in all of us.

What lessons have we learned?

I am going to switch gears a little now. I have been asked today to talk a little bit about a few issues that our nation is currently grappling with.

We can’t be talking about educating our children in the classroom without preparing them for the world that awaits them outside of that.

I saw footage recently of Aboriginal students being asked how many of them had a family member that was currently in or had been in gaol. Almost every student raised their hands. Our kids know the odds that they are up against. They know the stories of young Elijah from Kalgoorlie and Dylan Voller. Every Indigenous community across the country has their finger firmly on the pulse of what is happening right across our nation.

We feel the same immense pain and loss of what happens to our people each time they die in custody, are locked up for unpaid fines, and each time that the justice served up by our system seems so grossly inadequate. These wounds run deep, stretching back through the history of our country and flare up whenever another injustice is served upon us.

Unfortunately, this is an experience that is more common than we would like.

I felt the pain of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the country last week as they once again mourned over the loss of Elijah as the court decision was handed down.

We felt the anger but probably not the same shock that accompanied those disturbing images of young people being mistreated in Don Dale. We have come to know and expect this from a justice system that is supposed to protect our communities. Most shocking to us was probably the fact that it was recorded and broadcast across the nation.

Unfortunately, these events have laid bare some of the uglier truths about our society. I can’t believe that the reaction to Elijah’s death has been met with some people in our country entertaining even for a second that this is appropriate treatment of a child – or any human being. We start to go on a slippery slope if we try and justify the ill treatment and death of children in such a way. The same sentiment stands for the public discourse that has surrounded young Dylan Voller.

Of course Dylan should be accountable for his actions but do we really defend a system and its treatment of human beings and children - no less with restraints, strip searching and spit hoods? This brutality is undignified and indefensible. It is an affront on human rights.

But pointing out the home truths is uncomfortable for those of us who would choose to think that such things do not exist or that punitive and brutal responses are appropriate.

But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are experienced in these attitudes that confront us almost daily.

Sadly, we have also come to expect the same predictable response of ordering yet another inquiry. Whilst I am hopeful that through the leadership of Commissioners Gooda and White that the NT Royal Commission can lay a path for reform that might be followed not just here but across the country, we know that reports and inquiries are not a substitute for action.

It’s hard to talk about improving educational outcomes for Aboriginal children without addressing the structural reality that confronts them after school.

Our country needs to learn the lessons contained in the voices and decades of reporting and inquiries of Bringing them Home[13] and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody[14]. The fact that we sit here decades later with little learned and little changed is a hard fact for our peoples to swallow. But it’s also a bit of a double standard.

The learning needs to be two way. As I have said earlier this year, nice words are no measure for action and proper implementation.

We can’t continue the discourse of deficit, about the gaps that exist between our peoples and the broader population with issues such as education, without a conversation about the responsibilities of government.

Ongoing deaths, injustice, intolerance and above all, inaction only feed an existing discontent that rests with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Our peoples need confidence that like all other Australians that inadequacies with our laws, our police and our detention centres must be addressed.

As important as our children’s achievements are for growing the next generation of future leaders of our country, we need to be talking about the world we are sending them into after school. What is the point of doing so much work at the front end for a child’s education if the structures, laws and systems they encounter after that time do not reflect them or serve their interests?

Constitutional reform

I would like to close now by making some remarks as I have been asked to, regarding the process for achieving constitutional reform regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Too many of our peoples do not feel at home in the place we call our own. We feel at unease at the ever increasing role of governments and other agents in our lives. We feel the normalisation of brutality, injustice, intolerance and pain. And we feel the powerlessness of it all.

I am convinced that the current push for constitutional reform, of the desire to have an enshrined voice to the parliament, is the expression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to address our powerlessness.

This call may be new in constitutional terms but it is a call that has its origins well before the constitution was ever created. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have sought greater control over our destinies, for the ability to live freely and equally, and for greater recognition of our rights as the First Peoples of this land since the arrival of the British on our shores in 1788. This has been an unresolved source of friction.

Despite the myth of terra nullius, the policies of destruction aimed at ourselves and our families, and the void in the nation’s founding document that existed before 1967, our peoples have not rested.

As I said to the delegation at the Uluru National Convention earlier this year, our peoples have continued to assert our rights through the Wave Hill Walk Off, the National Day of Mourning and in the great Yirrkala Bark Petitions which can be found in the halls of Canberra, in the ochre and bark, and the laws and language of the Yolngu people.

The Uluru Statement[15] is the latest in this long line of calls. We humbly ask that our governments listen, respect and act on these requests. As has been captured time and time again but more recently in the united words of our people in the Redfern Statement – “we have the solutions.”

I have heard our people from the Northern Territory argue powerfully for change that is much greater than a mere change to the race powers; because such change would not have prevented what was thrown at them in the form on the NT intervention a decade ago. And I know that our peoples are still reeling from the after effects.

The ground has shifted in relation to this debate because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not see a way to guarantee that racially discriminatory laws will not be directed at them in the future. The current approach is grounded in our experience not to expect governments to always act in our best interests.

The ground has shifted, and our politicians must shift too.

Our political systems and institutions remain inadequate at providing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with a voice in the matters that affect our lives, futures and communities.

An Indigenous body gives us an opportunity to address this flaw, and to elevate our voices in a country where we are a minority and occupy a space on the fringe of government policy. A voice gives us the ability to address Parliament directly through our connections to our communities and regions.

More than this, an Indigenous voice means government walking the talk on Indigenous disadvantage. This country spends a lot of time and money on the question of ‘Indigenous Affairs’- much of it done without us.

We seek a means to address our powerlessness and we are asking for you to allow us to do that.

5 million Australians cast their vote 50 years ago because they believed in our fundamental right to be included in society, despite the unintended consequences. I have seen that same spirit in the Bridge Walk, the Apology and the sentiments around the current push for constitutional reform.

We were able to remind our fellow Australians in 1967 of the shortcomings of the national document and its power in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We must do that again.


Thank you.

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Right to Education, <>.

[2] United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, <>.

[3] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, <>.

[4] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, <>.

[5] A share in the future: Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory, <>.

[6] Bruce Wilson, A share in the future: Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory, 54.

[7] Bruce Wilson, A share in the future: Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory, 137.

[8] Bruce Wilson, A share in the future: Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory, 53.

[9] Families as First Teachers (FaFT) program, <>.

[10] Wunan Foundation, <>.

[11] Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity, Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, Part 2: Tracing the History.

[12] Mawul Rom project, <>.

[13] Bringing them Home: Report of the national Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997), <>.

[14] Commonwealth, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, National Report (1991), <>.

[15] Uluru Statement from the Heart,<>.

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

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