ABORIGINAL LANGUAGES BILL 2017

11 October 2017

2nd Reading Speech


The Hon. ADAM SEARLE ( 12:32 ): I speak in support of the Aboriginal Languages Bill 2017 on behalf of my party, the official Opposition, the alternative government of this State and the oldest political party in the country, the Australian Labor Party. I acknowledging that we meet on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and extend that respect to those First Peoples of New South Wales who are also present with us today in this place, the Legislative Council of New South Wales—the first Parliament in Australia. It is fitting that here is where the parliamentary journey of this legislation commences. But, as Minister Mitchell outlined in her second reading speech, this is not where the story of this bill commences.

The governmental journey commenced with the funding of the local community language revival in the early part of the first decade of this century by the former Labor Government, leading to the Aboriginal Languages Policy of 2004, the establishment of the Aboriginal Languages Research and Resource Centre, and the development of the Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests—a network of communities connected to a base school, united by a connection to an Aboriginal language, in five locations across the State. I note from the Minister’s speech that the number of students receiving education in Aboriginal languages has increased by 1,000  in just the past year. That is not due to governmental action alone, but to a persistent desire of the First Peoples of this land to know their language, despite all the hardship and dispossession that has been visited upon them by white European settlement.

We should remember that more than 250 Aboriginal Australian language groups were present on the continent at the time of European settlement in 1788. Today, only around 120 of those languages are still spoken, and many are at risk of being lost as elders pass away. Systematic attempts to deprive Aboriginal people of their languages has meant that the link between generations of speakers has often been broken, so that many children had little or no knowledge of their traditional language. Their parents were partial speakers and their grandparents were the remaining few speakers of a language that, as elders, they alone could pass down to the next generation. Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia are speaking out about the need to strengthen their languages. People in many communities are working hard to learn more about language and to ensure it is passed on to the next generation before it is too late.

I note the contribution and presence today of many key language stakeholders including the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council and too many others to list. I acknowledge the role of the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Leslie Williams, in bringing forward the concept of this legislation in 2016, and that of the present Minister for bringing it to this, the next stage. I also acknowledge the hard work of my colleague in the other place the shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, David Harris, MP, for his careful attention to this matter, for his work with a range of language stakeholders, for being part of this conversation, and for ensuring a cross‑party approach is taken to these important matters, which should unite us and not divide us.

Language is central to the human experience in every place on this planet. It is how we describe and try to understand our experiences of the world around us, of other people and ourselves, and it is how we share that with each other and with the generations to come. We can see that in the songlines of the First Peoples, connecting people to place, across time and generations, holding knowledge of country and its many stories, reflecting the special relationship of Aboriginal people with the land. Language is the gateway to culture; it is vital to developing and maintaining identity, as a people and as individuals within that context. Without it individuals are cut off, isolated, deprived of a sense of who they are. That is what white European settlement did or tried to do to the First Peoples of this land to try to deprive them of their identity, commencing with silencing their language. How that can ever have seemed a kind or just course of action is, today, beyond all rational understanding.

In those places where language has been lost Aboriginal people experience a sense of grief and inadequacy due to the resulting loss of culture. This is one of many things that has substantially contributed to the disempowerment and disadvantaging of Aboriginal people in New South Wales and Australia. This legislation is but one measure—although an important one—along the long road back from this tragic, historic wrong. In one sense there is nothing in this legislation that could not be undertaken without there being a special Act of Parliament; each of these steps could be taken by administrative action alone. But the fact of this bill and its contents, the fact that the collected, elected representatives of all the people of this land acting together are consciously willing these courses of action and are committing to them in the context of all that was done to destroy Aboriginal language, culture and identity in the past, this small step today has important symbolic resonance. However, let it not be merely symbolic.

Let us not, after the passage of this law, allow it to pass from conscious thought to become someone else’s responsibility. Today, let each of us commit to be vigilant in support of this enterprise, and to commit those forces in society that we all represent to do the same in the time that is to come. The Minister pointed out that it is unusual in legislation to have a preamble, but for this particular legislation it is entirely fitting. I note the careful and diligent work of Dr Ray Kelly and others that has gone into this important aspect, which has both symbolic and practical meaning.

I will not read out the preamble because the Minister has already done so, but, as she drew to our attention, we must never forget that speaking in language was once forbidden. People were arrested for speaking their language, and children were removed from family and from country because of it. We should be conscious that supporting Aboriginal people to know and to grow their language reconnects them with their culture and identity. This will continue to assist in building resilience, which in turn will be another small step towards practical reconciliation between our peoples. The choice of language, the use of words to describe what we do or what we want to do, is so important. It really frames how those actions are perceived and it influences how they are done.

I note that legislation does not seek to protect or to preserve Aboriginal languages, rejecting the language of past colonial injustice, but rather seeks to reawaken them, as if they were a strong flame thathas been caused to die down to embers, but not extinguished, continuing to glow and to smoulder until given oxygen and nourishment, to be given support, they grow back into their full glory once more. I note the last part of the p reamble, “It is acknowledged that Aboriginal persons are the custodians of Aboriginal languages and have the right to control their growth and nurturing.” We must never forget the agency or the autonomy of Aboriginal people and the ownership they have and must have over their own language. This is the hope and the aspiration embodied in thi s legislation, for the estimated 35 first languages and the more than 100 dialects of those languages spoken across the rich wide lands of this State, which we all share.