Ben Roberts-Smith, Chair of National Australia Day Council, address 17.01.16

Leaders in the local community, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman

I acknowledge the Darug people, the traditional custodians of the land we gather on this morning, and I pay my respect to the Elders, past and present, of all Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

And to the people of Bankstown gathered here, I pay my respect, and thank you for your very generous welcomes, to country, and to the local community.

It’s only been since the early 1990s that the Indigenous Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country have been embraced as part of official ritual by so many institutions and organisations across Australian society. On occasions from the opening of parliament, to a school speech night, to the closing ceremony of the Australian Open tennis. To here in Bankstown this morning. Occasions that ask us to pause and reflect on something bigger than ourselves, to think about how we came to arrive at a certain significant point, whatever that may be, and how we might move on to the next.

These rituals of welcoming and acknowledging country are tens of thousands of years old. They were, and are, the conventions observed by Indigenous tribal clans when visiting others’ homelands or receiving others into their own. It is a practice of paying respect to one another’s ancestral territory and all that it represents in land, livelihood, culture and spirit.

It was due to the cooperation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian leaders working together to bridge and heal the rifts of history that Indigenous Australians were given back the authority to do what they’d done for thousands of generations.

For non-Indigenous Australians who now take part in these rituals, and there are millions I would think, it is, each and every time, a quiet yet profoundly important acknowledgement of what was denied of this nation’s First Peoples for so long.

For Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians together, it is a precious mark of mutual respect and understanding.

What does it take to grow a nation?

It takes a lifetime, multiple lifetimes. The Australian nation is still in its youth – its hopeful, exuberant youth – and may we be that for a long time yet.

It takes a lot of stumbles, heartache, and serious wrongs. No nation sets out for these things to happen. They happen because we are human; we make mistakes. Yet, mostly, the biggest triumphs emerge from the biggest failures. And that’s because human resilience is more powerful and transforming than anything. We are wired to get up and get on with it, to right wrongs, to make life better.

Like every other nation of the world, Australia has had its own version of adolescence, and as we all know, adulthood is hardly a guarantee of perfection. The measure is not in an impossible perfection, but in the might of our efforts and the length of our strides.

It’s only been in the last forty years or so that non-Indigenous Australians and governments have come to genuinely understand that claiming a nation as one’s own to the exclusion of the ancestors and descendants of those who came before is no way to grow a whole nation, only to deepen the divide within it. That acknowledging shared claims is a first step along the pathway to a whole nation.

It’s only in the last fifty to sixty years that Australia’s fear of threat from foreign powers began to ease, having suffered the devastating human and economic costs of our involvement in overseas conflicts over many decades. We went from a nation that saw itself through the lens of the British Empire to one that opened its eyes and arms to the world. Over time, Australians learned that it takes many and varied threads to weave a nation’s fabric.

Australian journalist and author, George Megalogenis – himself, part of the Australian migrant story – has done some numbers for us in his recent book[1], for which I’m grateful.

In the second half of the twentieth century the Australian population grew by 2.2 million per decade of which migration accounted for one third. Between 2003 and 2013, the population increased by 3.3 million, migrants representing nearly

two-thirds of that number. It takes people to grow a nation, and our birth rate just can’t keep up. Today, around 28% of Australia’s population is overseas born. In Sydney, it’s 39%, and much higher if you add second-generation migrants with at least one parent born overseas.

People who have resettled here because of the hope and promise this country offers, some of whom have been driven by the crises and conflicts in their homelands to the unbearable limits of fear, despair and poverty.

Here in Bankstown, the officially declared “Refugee Welcome Zone”, more than 63% of residents have both parents who were born overseas. There are countless ethnicities sharing this theatre this morning! Bankstown City Council proudly asserts its claim as one of Australia’s most culturally and ethnically diverse, and they were an absolute first in 2008 in signing the Refugee Council of Australia’s Refugee Charter for the legal, ethical and humane protection of refugees.

So, it takes time, failures, suffering, resilience, and people to grow a nation. A lot of people. And, in Australia, indeed anywhere and everywhere in the world, that means a lot of different people. We’re different because of our gender, our origins, our ethnicity, our culture, our sexual orientation, age, values, politics, abilities, our likes and dislikes. That’s what diversity is. It is naturally occurring, we didn’t invent it; it is critical to our evolution as a species and it is critical to the success of any nation, and certainly to the Australian nation.

Diversity arises from difference and yet when people come together we are surprised and reassured by our similarities. While it is instinctive for us to notice our differences, to see them as points of divide and dispute is simply not. Rather, we look for those small gestures and moments of shared feeling and togetherness to build our everyday relationships, at school, at work, and in our communities.

Researchers and leaders tell us of the benefits of diversity, in experiences, talents and backgrounds. It makes us more adaptable, more creative, more productive, and better citizens. I think we all know this from our own life experiences, but I don’t think we set out to make connections with one another so as to be diverse. We are that already. We make connections, again, because that’s what we naturally do, and do well.

The challenge in diversity is ensuring that in a society such as Australia that encourages participation by all its citizens, fairness and equality prevail. Among all of our differences, how do we ensure that the things fundamental to human dignity are the same for all of us? How do we take the lessons from our Indigenous, migrant and refugee histories – stories that continue today – and recognise that it is deep-seated, generational disadvantage that erodes and breaks human dignity? How do we restore equality and fairness to those who’ve known only disadvantage?

Remember that decades-old expression of the environmental movement, “Think Globally, Act Locally”? It’s a persuasive message that’s been used to great effect by a range of social and political movements over the years. The difficulty more and more is that Internet and social media technologies have blurred the borders between local and global. And even thinking, or at least clicking or blogging, can be a form of acting. There is good in all of this, of course, but we must pay attention to our innate sense of the personal and the local – our own life experience – in trying to make sense of the global.

While the issues facing the world and its nations are immense, and immensely complex, it is people in the end who resolve them. I relearned this every day as a soldier in war: on the frontline, at the coalface, what matters is the strength and resolve of individuals responding to circumstances as they see and experience them first hand. Though, for those of us who are far distant from the action, the more overwhelming the problems seem to become, and the more we tend to simplify or ignore the detail. Hugely diverse peoples are bundled into groups and labeled. Stereotypes replace individuals; we rush to assumptions. Individuals and communities become involuntary symbols of a problem they don’t belong to. Antagonism rises and useful dialogue stops. It’s all too hard to work out what’s really going on, so we don’t bother.

And yet in our personal and local relationships, this is not what we do. In tackling our big and (smallest of) issues, we focus on the things that drive each of us, no matter our myriad differences. Australian social researcher and author, Hugh Mackay, says it is the things that make us fundamentally human: our desire to be taken seriously, to connect, to be useful, to belong, to love, for something to happen, for something to believe in.[2]

These are the things that are essential to the notion of equality. When we see our own desires in others, we are able to approach one another as equals, despite our differences, and we’re able to thrive together because of them.

This is what it takes to make a grown-up nation.

Australia Day is as much about our nation’s past as it is about its future. We have time and again shown our capacity to confront our stumbles, heartaches and serious wrongs with compassion and reason, to change attitudes and actions, and to convey irrepressible hope and resilience. We will keep doing this, we will do it together, and we will get better and better at it.

The commitment rests with all of us here today, with the fine Australians who are honoured on Australia Day for their remarkable work in growing and sustaining this nation. It rests with all Australians. And it happens – as it’s already well and truly happening – in places like Bankstown. 

The National Australia Day Council puts up its hand today to join and lead fresh conversations around the nation to explore your questions and mine in striving for a renewed sense of human dignity, diversity and equality that we can all share.

I ask all of you here – all Australians everywhere – to find your own unique ways of being part of these conversations.

Whether it's a typical Australian hello – a welcome G’day to someone you’ve never met, or curiosity and generosity expressed around a table, in a song or across a canvas, on a sporting field or a stage – all and any of the rich expressions of the human spirit, but always in the spirit of mutual respect and understanding.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for celebrating Australia.

[1] Megalogenis, George, Australia’s Second Chance: What Our History Tells Us About Our Future, Penguin Random House Australia, 2015, p278.

[2] Mackay, Hugh, What Makes Us Tick? The Ten Desires That Drive Us, Hachette Australia, 2010.