Standing up for Canberra

Dr M Yunupingu 2013

I want to speak briefly tonight about the loss of a wonderful Australian, Mr Yunupingu. In 1992 I had the honour of meeting Mr Yunupingu when he had just been named Australian of the Year. I was working for the Attorney-General's Department on the public consultation process for the racial vilification legislation, a bill that was highly controversial and deeply confronting to many Australians at the time. I was travelling around with a group of colleagues from Attorney-General's to consult right throughout Australia with a variety of groups and the general public to get their views on the legislation.

This public consultation was very tough. I was a relatively young and fresh public servant and during some of the consultations I was faced with some of the most confronting, difficult, and often aggressive conversations about racism that I have ever experienced. There were people who did not agree with the racial vilification legislation. In fact, there were people who were actively agitating against it, and I found this very confronting and deeply depressing. I remember when we were in Adelaide—and this was probably the most confronting of all the sessions we had—we had a group of neo-Nazis turn up to the consultation, and they basically blockaded the community hall that we were in. There were a number of other community groups and organisations and Indigenous communities who were keen to ensure that this bill got through, and the neo-Nazis were doing their level best to disrupt the proceedings. I did not even know we had neo-Nazis in Australia, with shaved skinheads and swastikas and the whole thing. It was deeply confronting.

While conducting these consultations I travelled to different parts of Australia, including Alice Springs. It was there that I met Mr Yunupingu, who was a friend of one of my colleagues. My colleague had spent quite a bit of time up north and had done a lot of work in the legal services with the Indigenous community there. It was Mr Yunupingu who reinforced to me the importance of these racial vilification laws that I was working on and the importance of the community consultation process, despite the fact that it was deeply confronting. He reminded me of the challenges faced by Indigenous Australians, and he reminded me of the challenges faced by those Indigenous Australians who were vilified—how it shattered their self-esteem, their confidence, their will to succeed.

As I was saying, Mr Yunupingu reminded me of the challenges faced by those Indigenous Australians who were vilified—how it shattered their self-esteem, their confidence, their will to succeed. And he reminded me of the need to continue to fight against racism and hateful language and abuse. My brief conversation with him gave me the inspiration I needed to continue with the job of going out there and finishing off this consultation and making sure that this legislation was going to be introduced, and it remains one of the proudest achievements of my career. As I said before, it was in that year that Mr Yunupingu was named Australian of the Year, so there was just a lovely synergy to the whole thing. I have always been thankful to him for the inspiration he gave to me at that really critical point, and also for the inspiration he gave to the whole nation. He was a great Australian who spoke to us and exposed us to the conditions and challenges of Indigenous Australians through the very accessible and popular medium of music. What he spoke was incredibly powerful, and it was done through a medium that was easy to reach for all Australians. It spoke in a very strong way about the conditions, the situation, the challenges of Indigenous Australians. Mr Yunupingu was a great Australian and will be very much missed. Lest we forget.

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