This year’s Charles Perkins Oration on 19 September held particular significance as Australia prepares to vote in a referendum to recognise the First Peoples of Australia in the Constitution by enshrining a Voice to Parliament. The Oration was delivered by Rachel Perkins, daughter of Charles Perkins, who played a key role advocating for a ‘yes’ vote in the 1967 Referendum and in organising the Freedom Ride while a student at the University of Sydney.
This is a nation-building moment, a chance to make a change of profound symbolism that also has a practical benefit, and it can be achieved with just a few words.
Ms Perkins has worked as an Australian film and television director, producer and screenwriter, and has dedicated her life’s work to better inform Australians on the history of Indigenous peoples and culture. She began the Oration by recognising the annual event as a celebration of the life and legacy of her father, while reflecting the occasion was a bittersweet moment for their family.
“As we stand on the brink of the Referendum in this country, it presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to bind this nation together with its First People. Our greatest ever handshake, if you like, placed in the Australian constitution. And it's this time that I miss him most acutely. I miss his leadership, his fearlessness and his ability to reach out and touch the Australian people with his words,” said Ms Perkins.
The defining feature of Charles Perkins’ leadership was that it came from the grassroots, said Ms Perkins.
“His leadership was not a singular effort of one individual, it was one part of a combined network of Indigenous people – that connected him from the Torres Strait deep into Arnhem Land, across Queensland and into outback NSW, and from the south of WA right up into the Kimberley – a leadership that was forged in him, here at the foundation of Aboriginal affairs in Sydney in the 1960s.
“He was connected to our people across the country, like the songlines that flow across our land and waters. And it was our greatest privilege as children, to trail behind him.”
Ms Perkins said she was committed to seeing out the vision of her father and leaders of his generation for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their request to be heard.
“For the first time since 1967, the nation will have to collectively pause – just for a moment – to think about our country, its deep past and its future.
“This is a nation-building moment, a chance to make a change of profound symbolism that also has a practical benefit, and it can be achieved with just a few words.”
She described the proposed alteration to the Constitution of Australia as a way to unite Australia’s past and future.
“In this amendment – we entwine our ancient Aboriginal past and our British foundations to a modern nation, into one of the most successful multicultural nations in the world.”
“Its significance for the First People is momentous, but for most Australians, this will not make any material difference in their lives. For them, nothing will change in accepting this hand of friendship offered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, apart from being a moment of unity, recognition and inclusion.
“But for our people it comes with a guarantee of hope for change in our lives to realise what we call the Voice.”
Ms Perkins provided context for the proposal to establish a Voice to Parliament, acknowledging many Australians were unsure of it would mean.
“Today, Aboriginal children are born into hardship and disadvantage of a kind unknown to any other substantial group of Australians: one in two of my people live at or below the poverty line. The purpose of the voice is to find remedies for now and reasons for hope.”
“Here’s the other reason for the Voice – every time we take even the smallest step towards lifting our Indigenous people out of the mire, Australia takes a step forward too.”
Ms Perkins said the vision for constitutional recognition through The Voice was supported by the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at a grassroots level: “Consistent polling shows us that over 80 percent of Indigenous people support constitutional recognition.
“If you don’t believe the polling, look to our representative organisations, where they exist – every major land council on mainland Australia supports this movement. These organisations are led by democratically elected people from their own communities across the country, representing hundreds of thousands of our people.
“So, when you support the ‘yes’ vote, know this – you support the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at the grassroots.”
In her closing remarks, Ms Perkins described her father as a patriot with a profound attachment to the idea of the fair go.
“He was determined to fight not only to right the historic wrong, and not only for Australian Aboriginal people, but for this, our country. He was nothing if not a patriot.”
“And today, in less than 30 days, we ask the patriots of Australia to rise together to consider a better future for our nation. Not just its First Peoples, but as a nation that is united for generations to come. This is the invitation from the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We ask you to walk with us on that journey on 14 October.”
The University of Sydney is proud to acknowledge the ABC as the host broadcaster for the Dr Charles Perkins Oration event, helping share this important conversation with Australians. View the 2023 Dr Charles Perkins Oration.
Celebrating the University’s deep history and connection to First Nations Peoples, the Oration includes a recognition of academically gifted students through the Charles Perkins Memorial Prize. Awarded to the top Indigenous students at the University based on the highest academic results in their field, each winner is awarded $4000.
The 2023 recipients of the Charles Perkins Memorial Prize are:
The Charles Perkins Memorial Prize is made possible through the Charlie Perkins Scholarship Trust and the University’s Indigenous Strategy and Services portfolio.