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Senator Nova Peris OAM. Maiden speech, 13 November 2013

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.

Photo: Paul Wiles, CAAMA Radio

Thank you Mr. President

I acknowledge the traditional owners, the Ngambri and¬†Ngunnawal people on whose country we meet today ‚ÄĒ 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 the Mother Earth.

I am a member of the oldest continuous surviving culture on earth.

I am proud that this hill we meet on here today is culturally¬†significant to the Ngambri people as representing the¬†womb of the ‚ÄėWoman‚Äô on this Country.

It is very significant to me being 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 others through their courage and their ability to overcome adversity.

But no one has inspired me more so than my¬†grandmother. Nora Peris was a proud Giga woman ‚Äď She¬†was torn from her mother‚Äôs arms and lived on the Mission¬†of Moola Bulla in the east Kimberley.

‚ÄúMoola Bulla is a long, sad and painful story‚ÄĚ 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 always said they were so close — yet so far apart.¬†My Nanna‚Äôs clothes 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 Kimberly land.

These conditions and her will to survive shaped her; and it was there 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 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 achieved in sport. I have competed at some of the biggest sporting events on the planet.

Accolades, achievements and celebrations have been a part of my life. But in my heart, I know that part of my life is virtually meaningless compared to the ability to survive shown by my grandparents and my mother.

I cannot even imagine or comprehend how it would have felt 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 nations 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 ‚Äď I am here today ‚Äď 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 sub-standard education point to every reason why you 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 10 years in the Australian Army. And last month she just completed 10 years with United Nations Peace Keeping Operations.

Venessa served seven years in the Ivory Coast and survived a West African Civil war and at one stage was involved in evacuating more than 4000 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 ‚Äď 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’ve 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 ‚Äď 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‚Äôt tear things down and I have lived¬†by the view that ‚ÄėAs much is given, much is expected‚Äô.

I have always been humbled and honoured to serve. It’s partly why I established the Nova Peris Girls Academy. I wanted to try to make a real difference to young disadvantaged Indigenous women.

Of course I have now ceased active involvement in the Academy but I remain the organisation’s 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 our people’s circumstances to promote their own cause and agenda.

Should I see this happen ‚Äď I will call it for what it is‚ÄĒit‚Äôs¬†racism‚ÄĒand I know that‚Äôs confronting‚ÄĒbut I will not stand¬†by in silence.

How we change things ‚Äď that remains the challenge‚ÄĒbut 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‚ÄĒfussed¬†over and entertained‚ÄĒin more than 50 countries around¬†the world.

But I would swap all of that in a heartbeat ‚Äď I would forgo¬†any number of gold medals ‚Äď 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 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‚ÄĒour beliefs sustain our spirits‚ÄĒthey nourish us¬†but at some levels they can restrain us too‚ÄĒthat is the¬†collision point that confronts Aboriginal people.

I make the simple point that in spite of difficulties like those I’ve 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. 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‚ÄĒand¬†to extend those successes into other areas of our lives.

Mr President - 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‚ÄĒ and I fully intend to discharge this duty to¬†the best of my ability and I will always put our concerns ‚Ästthe 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.

Mr President 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 ‚Äď this beautiful gold silk fabric ‚Äď featuring dancing¬†brolgas was printed at Injalak Arts in Gunbalunya 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 friends & family here today, my mother Joan Peris, my aunty Tanya, my bunyi Jimmy Cooper from Minjilang who walked me into the chamber.

Also here today are Aunty Eileen Hoosan and Aunty Pat¬†Anderson.¬†To my Children ‚Äď Jessica, Destiny and Jack and grandson¬†Issac ‚Äď we may often find life difficult and challenging ‚Ästbut we always stick together, knowing wherever life‚Äôs¬†journey leads us ‚Äď we will all be true to ourselves.

To my husband Scott, I thank you for you unconditional love and support over the past years. As they say beyond each storm you will find the rainbow. Today is a rainbow. I thank you.

Viva la Vida.

I want to acknowledge Dr Ric Charlesworth, also a former member of Parliament, 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 John F. Kennedy’s famous space program speech.

‚ÄúWe 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.‚ÄĚ

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 to courage to ask him:¬†‚ÄúWhat makes millions of people love and admire you so¬†much?‚Ä̬†He simply replied: ‚ÄúNever look down upon those who look¬†up to you.‚ÄĚ

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 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 ‚Äď 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 everybody has the capacity to dream ‚Äď we all¬†have the capacity to believe ‚Äď but very few get the actual¬†opportunity that I have before me now ‚Äď I urge everybody¬†‚Äď particularly young people ‚Äď to pursue your dreams.

In this next stage of my life I hope to make 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 was amongst them at the athletics track and he greeted me and wished me well each day that I ran.

One the evening of the semi-finals of the 4x400m he didn‚Äôt¬†say anything, he just handed me a piece of paper and¬†said: ‚ÄúRead this just before you enter the stadium‚ÄĚ.¬†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.

‚ÄúNOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE TO THOSE WHO SEE THE¬†INVISIBLE.‚ÄĚ

I did not really know what it meant, and I didn’t 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: ‚ÄúIt 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

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  • 1
    Hector Lung
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Bold start. Well done Senator. Keep on running. The references to youth suicide particularly important. Some swagger here that might make a difference.

  • 2
    Melissa Sweet
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Dear Bob
    Thank you very much for sharing this speech in full. All Australians should read it.

  • 3
    Douglas and Milko
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Nova and Bob. A wonderful story, and it inspires me with hope that the future can be better. Nova, thanks for an excellent maiden speech, that somehow brought together the aspirations of all Australian who think the country is very special. I enjoyed every word of it. Thank you for taking on the difficult role of senator. I think your plain speaking and honesty will be an inspiration to many Australians, particularly those who have been left out in the present day, to be without jobs, and to forage as best they can for food, and to have no where to live.

    The inspirational story of you, your parents and grandparents will give them the hope to believe it is possible to strive for something better. Too often now Australian society divides people into good and bad. As far as I can tell, “bad” just means being poor. I was “bad” (i.e. poor), but was not willing to accept that moniker. I put a lot of effort into getting an education, and now am able to support my family. But I believe I was primarily able to do that because I saw others who had done it before me, and showed it was possible.

    So Nova, thanks for the inspiration, and never underestimate how empowering your presence and plain speaking is to people who are born in difficult circumstances, and would really like to do a lot to help both themselves, their family and their community.

  • 4
    HB
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I am also grateful to read this – thank you. An important and powerful start.

  • 5
    philro
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Go Nova!!!

  • 6
    Lyn Ellis
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant speech Nova we need more parliamentarians like you. Thank you Crikey for this inspiring link. Happy camper.

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