The annual Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Oration was established in 2001, in honour of Dr Charles Perkins AO, the University of Sydney’s first Aboriginal graduate.
This year, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr Perkins’ graduation, a panel of high profile Aboriginal politicians and community leaders took part in a wide-ranging discussion examining 50 years back and 50 years forward in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Motivation to create change was a recurring theme, as The Hon. Linda Burney MP, The Hon. Ken Wyatt AM MP, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Richard Weston, CEO of the Healing Foundation, took to the stage in the University’s Great Hall.
Ms Burney, the first Aboriginal women elected to the House of Representatives, began by quoting Dr Perkins.
The wonderful Charles Perkins talked about ‘the fire in the belly’.
“We need to ask the question, is the fire in the belly still as strong as it needs to be when it comes to Aboriginal affairs? And my answer to you is, probably not. That is the theme for us to go forward for the next 50 years. Reigniting and finding that fire in our belly.”
Richard Weston, chief executive officer of the Healing Foundation, identified sources of inspiration to keep up the fight for justice.
“We can use heroes like Charlie Perkins to inspire us; we can look into our own families,” he said.
“We can also look at the amazing survival of our stolen generations to withstand a full blown assault on their identity and human rights as children. Their stories should serve to inspire us to make the most of the opportunities that they were denied.”
Speakers also presented their visions for the future, and how they might be achieved.
Mr Wyatt, the first Aboriginal man elected to the House of Representatives said: “If we want change, we need to take the same leadership stance that Charles took; we need to create the opportunities.
“I know we will see so many more of our people in significant roles in every aspect of Australian life. One day I hope we see one of the young people in this room as the first Australian prime minister. We have the capability. We have the strength. And we have the tenacity.
"We can call on our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters to join us to imagine a future that deals with the unfinished business of the stolen generations through telling the truth about our history, and to continue what the apology started.”
Senator McCarthy, the first politician to list her traditional land ownership on a declaration of interests in the federal parliament, described time spent counting the number of dialysis chairs available in local hospitals in the Northern Territory to treat renal failure in Aboriginal communities.
“The future was about how many chairs we could get for the communities,” she said.
“Not education. Not a vision of a prosperous life. If this is what our young children are growing into, knowing this is the expected vision for them, then we have to move so much quicker.”
She recalled one of Dr Perkins’ key messages: ‘never leave anyone behind’.
We have to make sure the vision going forward is about fairness, our children having the opportunities to maintain strength in language, in identity, in kinship, and not be ashamed to follow the paths that they want to follow in life. Just like anyone else.
Ms Burney clearly outlined her hopes for Australia.
“I want to see Aboriginal babies being born the same weight as every Australian baby,” she said.
“I want to see our constitution tell the truth. I want every child that leaves an educational institution to be proud of the whole history of this country, and to be able to talk about it with pride and a shared heritage and a shared belief. I want to see the parliaments of this nation truly reflect the breadth and the wonderfulness of Australia, I don’t just mean Aboriginal people, I mean who we are as Australians.
“And I want to live in a nation that can all stand up together and say that we are taking responsibility, we are such an amazing place, to live in and share a country that has the oldest humanity on earth. I want everyone to celebrate that.”
On the power of collaboration, Ms Burney said: “It can only happen in the way Charles Perkins worked. He brought people together, people from different backgrounds, different faiths, different beliefs, different political parties. And that is absolutely what is required for us to change the outrageous social justice outcomes that Aboriginal people are still experiencing in this country.
“There is nothing more powerful than putting people together. That racism, that ignorance, just falls away.”
Continuing this theme, Mr Wyatt outlined the issues that Australia’s five current Aboriginal parliamentarians would collaborate on: “One issue is recognition of Aboriginal people in the constitution... There are issues of education, in health. There are the incarceration rates. We cannot keep taking children away from family. There’s the richness of our culture that needs to be maintained and strengthened… and there will be other issues that relate to legislation that we need to discuss.
“I think we as a nation are better placed now to shape the future, but we also need to maintain that fire in our belly, argue with logic and still have a passion. That’s what the five of us will bring to the Australian parliament.”
The recipients of the Dr Charles Perkins AO Prize were also announced, recognising outstanding academic achievement by Indigenous Australian students at the University. On the eve of World Teacher’s Day, it was fitting all were training to be teachers: Mark Werner (Bachelor of Education Secondary, Aboriginal Studies); Brianna Waddell (Bachelor of Education, Primary) and Sharon Bunyan (Bachelor of Education, Secondary).
Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson and Dr Perkins’ wife Eileen then unveiled a specially commissioned portrait of Dr Charles Perkins, painted by acclaimed artist Daniel Boyd. Based on a photo selected by Dr Perkins’ family, the portrait will be formally unveiled and hung in the foyer of the Charles Perkins Centre at the University later this year.