Last night, while the country stopped to hear former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s resignation speech, another speech was delivered. Nova Peris, the first Indigenous woman to serve in the Australian Parliament gave her maiden speech.
She spoke of her Aboriginality, her mother’s life as a child of the stolen generaiton, her respect and love for her culture and art and her passion for the Northern Territory.
It is a beautiful, eloquent and moving speech. You can watch and read it below.
Thank you, Mr President.
I acknowledge the traditional owners, the Ngambri and the Ngunnawal people on whose country we meet today. I pay my respects to my elders, past and present. and to our future leaders.
I am Nova Maree Peris. I was born in Darwin in the Northern Territory and I retain my strong cultural and spiritual ties to my country, to Mother Earth. I am a member of the oldest continuous living culture on the earth. I am proud that this hill that we meet on here today is culturally significant to the Ngambri people as representing the womb of the ‘Woman’ on this Country.
It is very significant to me to be the first Aboriginal woman elected to the federal parliament of Australia. Through my mother, I am a descendant of the Gija people of the East Kimberley and the Yawuru people of the West Kimberley. I am also Iwatja from Western Arnhem Land through my father.
Through my life I have come across many people from all walks of life who have inspired me; some through their wisdom and some through their courage and their ability to overcome adversity. But no-one has inspired me more than my grandmother, Nora Peris, a proud Gija woman. She was torn from her mother’s arms and lived on the Mission of Moola Bulla in the East Kimberley. ‘Moola Bulla is a long, sad and painful story’, she used to say.
This was home to her for 12 years. A river separated her and her traditional Aboriginal mother who was still living on country. She used to always say they were so close—yet so far apart. My Nanna’s clothes on the mission were made from stitched-together hessian bags. When the Second World War hit, the kids were released from the mission and for two years she walked and lived off the harsh Eastern Kimberley land. These conditions and her will to survive shaped her, and it was where she met my grandfather Johnny Peris.
Johnny Peris was a Yawuru Man, a Beagle Bay mission survivor who was also a proud stockman. They met and had 10 children. Four of their children were taken away and sent to the Garden Point mission on the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory. One of the four children who was taken—and is here today—is my mother, Joan Peris. She lived on the mission for eight years. She worked every day and never received a cent in pay.
Mum became like a sister to many of the other children that were forcibly taken to the Garden Point mission. Over the years, people have said to me that it’s incredible what I have done in sport. I have competed at some of the biggest sporting events on the planet. Accolades, achievements and celebrations have been part of my life. But in my heart, I know that that part of my life is virtually meaningless compared to the ability to survive shown by my grandparents and my mother. I cannot imagine or comprehend how it must have been to live life during those days.
These stories are part of the truth of Australia’s history. It is what it is. The past is the past and no matter how hard we try we cannot change that history. But let’s start to undo the wrongs with what is right and just. I urge all my parliamentary colleagues to become champions for the recognition of Australia’s first nation people in our constitution. To Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, this has always been part of our story of struggle, injustice and heartache. But we are here today—and I am here today—because of this history.
Aboriginal Australians are symbolic of triumph over adversity. We represent knowledge and wisdom held in land and country, because in our hearts we know that we do not own Mother Earth; the Earth owns us. As a child growing up, I dreamt big. Most people would have looked at an Aboriginal girl from the Territory, where the statistics of alcohol abuse, youth suicide, domestic violence, imprisonment rates and substandard education point to every reason why I should not succeed. But I was determined to be successful. And yes, I am a product of that history, and I continue to live in a society whereby the odds are stacked against Aboriginal people.
I have always been inspired by those around me, and my sister, Venessa Peris, has undertaken an incredible journey of her own. She has lived an amazing and accomplished life serving Australia. She was a corporal and served for 10 years in the Australian Army. And last month she completed 10 years with United Nations Peacekeeping operations. Venessa served for seven years in the Ivory Coast and survived a West African civil war, and at one stage was involved in evacuating more than 4,000 people. She is currently carrying out her duties and resides in Monrovia, Liberia.
I say this to all of my Indigenous brothers and sisters and to all people: within every one of us lies the ability to reach deep inside ourselves and draw upon our inherited strength that our ancestors have given us. There lies a spirit that needs to be awakened. Whilst I am obviously very proud of my Aboriginal heritage I want to make it clear that I do not consider myself an expert when it comes to finding solutions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s particular predicaments.
For too long we have all heard too many people say they have the answers for Aboriginal Australians and claim the moral high ground. If the answers were as easily provided as the questions are posed, we simply would not have a problem. In fact the answers are difficult and complex; but they do not lie in absolute positions and simplified slogans. Just delivering another government program will not end the appalling rates of youth suicide in our communities, for example.
These are uncomfortable issues but they must be confronted. But I have always been someone who has tried to do things, not just talk about them. I build things up; I don’t tear things down, and I have lived by the view that, ‘As much is given, much is expected.’ I have always been humbled and honoured to serve.
That is why I established the Nova Peris Girls Academy. I wanted to try to make a real difference to young disadvantaged Indigenous girls. Of course, I have now ceased active involvement in the academy, but I remain the patron. Like many before me, for too long, I have watched Aboriginal Australians and our plight be used purely for political purposes. I have seen some totally unscrupulous people try to use the misery of some of our people’s circumstances to promote their own cause and agenda. Should I see this happen, I will call it for what it is. It is racism—and I know that is confronting—but I will not stand by in silence.
How we change things—that remains the challenge, but I know from my heart that nothing can be achieved without total determination and a gut-busting effort. I have been fortunate enough to achieve at the Olympic levels of sport in hockey and athletics. I have experienced the total joy of winning gold medals for my country. And I have lived the exciting life of an elite athlete—fussed over and entertained—in more than 50 countries around the world. But I would swap all of that in a heartbeat—I would forgo any number of gold medals—to see Aboriginal Australians be free, healthy and participating fully in all that our great country has to offer.
It is my dream to see kids from Santa Theresa, from Gunbalanya, from Kalkarindji and from the Tiwi Islands all with the same opportunity as the kids from the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. That is one of the reasons I am a fierce advocate for Aboriginal people being taught to be able to read and write English. We cannot and should not be denied these basic tools. Of course, we should never be forced to renounce our culture.
Our beliefs sustain our spirits, they nourish us; but at some levels they can restrain us too—that is the collision point that confronts Aboriginal people. I make the simple point that in spite of difficulties like those I have described we are seeing some positive health benefits through the dedication of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal health professionals. We can make a difference, whatever our differences are.
The Northern Territory is currently the only jurisdiction in Australia that is on track to meet the Closing the Gap target on life expectancy. This improvement comes from people who have sought evidence and put that evidence into action. They have not acted on any fixed ideology but out of dedication and commitment. This evidence based method of approach is, in my view, a real road sign for the future and points the way to dealing with so many other areas of Aboriginal life that have seemed so intractable for so long. This is why I will be seeking to work not only with my colleagues in the Labor Party in holding the government to account but also with the current government to ensure we build on successes in primary health care—and to extend those successes into other areas of our lives.
Education remains the major foundation for self-improvement. And although education is a basic fundamental right of every child in this country, irrespective of their race, the fact remains we must work hard to convince people of the value of education.
I acknowledge I am a senator elected to represent all Territorians, and I fully intend to discharge this duty to the best of my ability, and I will always put our concerns—the concerns of Territorians—first and foremost. I believe it is my duty and the duty of all members elected to the parliament to answer questions and deal with issues honestly and openly. One such matter that is a very contentious issue is the location of Australia’s proposed nuclear waste facility.
Recently my Larrakia uncle, Eric Fejo, who is also here today, spoke about the previous government’s decision to locate the proposed nuclear waste facility on Muckaty Station in the Barkly region of the Northern Territory. He reminded a public forum that during the apology to the stolen generations it was stated that governments were wrong to make laws and policies that inflict profound grief, suffering and loss on Aboriginal people. That is what the Muckaty decision is currently doing. It is dividing a community of traditional owners. This policy is inflicting grief. I strongly urge my fellow parliamentary colleagues to reconsider their support for the current location of this facility. Of course Australia needs a nuclear waste management facility, but its location must be based on science, not politics.
I do intend to finish my speech on a positive note.
The art of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is stunning. It is truly a gift to Australian culture. The outfit that I am wearing today is made in the Northern Territory. This beautiful gold silk fabric featuring dancing brolgas was printed at Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya in Western Arnhem Land. It was made by my Dripstone High School friend Sarina Cowcher in Darwin. I also wore a Gracie Kumbi Merrepen printed design for my official swearing-in yesterday.
I am a Territory girl. I am immensely proud of who I am and where I hail from. It is majestic. The Northern Territory’s very talented musicians, our artists, our sports men and women, our culture, our iconic and diverse landscape that boasts a number of World Heritage listings—there is certainly is no other place I would rather call home. I want to thank the members of the Australian Labor Party and particularly those members of the Northern Territory branch. In particular I thank party president Matthew Gardiner and party secretary Kent Rowe.
I acknowledge all of my family and friends here today: my mother Joan Peris, my aunty Tanya and my bunyi Jimmy Cooper from Minjilang who walked me into the chamber—actually, he blessed me before walking me to the chamber; thank you. Also here today are Aunty Eileen Hoosan and Aunty Pat Anderson.
To my children, Jessica, Destiny and Jack and my little grandson Issac: we may often find life difficult and challenging, but we always stick together, knowing wherever our journey leads us we will always be true to ourselves.
To my husband, Scott: I thank you for your unconditional love and support over the past few years. As they say, beyond each storm you will find the rainbow. Maybe today is that rainbow. I thank you. Viva la vida.
I want to acknowledge Dr Ric Charlesworth, also a former parliamentarian, one of the greatest hockey players in the world, and now coach; he was one of my life mentors. In the Hockeyroos team we had a mantra that took us to the gold medal. This was loosely based on JFK’s famous space program speech: We choose to go to the Olympics. We choose to go to the Olympics in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
I also want to mention the legendary Muhammad Ali. I was lucky enough to spend a day with him, and after several hours I worked up the courage to ask him: ‘What makes millions of people around the world love and admire you so much?’ He simply replied: ‘Never look down upon those who look up to you.’ These are the people who taught and continue to teach me the right values that have enabled me to achieve so much in life. I also particularly thank the former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, from the bottom of my heart for her faith in me and for giving me the chance to become involved. My duty now is to work hard and make a real difference.
Mr President, when Dr Martin Luther King spoke of his dream in Washington, it inspired millions across the world. I believe everyone has the capacity to dream—we all have the capacity to believe—but very few get the actual opportunity that I have before me. I urge everybody, particularly young people, to pursue your dreams. In this next stage of my life I hope to give all those who have had faith in me every reason to continue to believe in the power of those dreams.
I would just like to close today with a story that has stayed in my heart for many years. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics there were hundreds of very excited and enthusiastic volunteers. An elderly man amongst them at the athletics track greeted me each and every day and wished me well.
On the evening of the semi-finals of the 4x400m he did not wish me well, he just handed me a piece of paper and said, ‘Read it just before you enter the stadium.’ I put it in my pocket and proceeded to the check-in and then walked with my team-mates, Tamsyn Lewis, Susan Andrews and Jana Pitman. We were without Cathy Freeman that evening, and we had to finish in the top two to reach the Olympic final.
We all felt the weight of Australian expectation resting on our shoulders, our adrenaline was pumping and we did our best to stay cool. We walked into the stadium to be greeted by 110,000 screaming sporting enthusiasts. I reached into my pocket and read the words on the paper: ‘NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE TO THOSE WHO SEE THE INVISIBLE’.
I did not really know what it meant, and I did not have much time to reflect on it. But it seemed to inspire me, those words written by a kind, elderly man. The four of us went out that evening and ran the race of our lives. I anchored the team and we broke a 23-year-old Australian record. And we made it into the Olympic final.
I returned to the warm up track where he greeted me with a big hug. And I asked him: ‘What does it mean?’ He simply replied: ‘It was my ticket to freedom, I thought about it every day that I was held captive.’ It turned out he was a former prisoner of war!
Ma, Bor Bor.
Please share this speech – every person should read this remarkable woman’s words.