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National Reconciliation Week 2017

24 May 2017

27 May to 6 June 2017 marks National Reconciliation Week. This year it is a very special week marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and the 25th anniversary of the High Court of Australia’s judgment in Mabo.

It is timely on this occasion to recall one of the many insights in Sir Gerard Brennan’s judgment in Mabo when reflecting on the courts’ role in honouring reconciliation efforts. His Honour stated ‘it is imperative in today’s world that the common law should neither be nor be seen to be frozen in an age of racial discrimination’.

In this statement Sir Gerard recognises that reconciliation requires not only symbolism but significant action. This is not to undercut the importance of symbolism but rather to remind us of our constant responsibility to respond to the challenges and opportunities of reconciliation.

In line with this sentiment it is important for courts to recognise the traditional owners of the land on which our court buildings are built and operate. It is important to show respect to the traditional owners and their Elders past and present. For some years now the Supreme Court has marked the traditional ownership and paid its respect in a number of ways. For some these things might be regarded as small. Some matters might be seen as emblematic.  

On 20 May 2015 the Supreme Court held its first smoking ceremony. The occasion was significant and solemn. An Elder of the Wurundjeri people, Aunty Margaret Gardiner, delivered a welcome to country while her son Jesse conducted a traditional smoking cleansing ceremony. There were a number of speeches including by the Honourable, the Attorney-General, Martin Pakula MP. The ceremony was attended by many judges including from other courts and court staff.

On the same day as the first smoking ceremony, the Supreme Court opened a meeting room named ‘The Barak Room’. It is a room used for meetings between judges and court staff with the legal profession and the wider public. The naming of the room as the Barak Room pays respect to the last traditional Ngurungaeta, Elder of the Wurundjeri clan. He was an influential spokesman for Aboriginal social justice and an important informant on Wurundjeri cultural lore. The naming of the room is a reminder of what Barak stood for and is an appropriate acknowledgment that the Supreme Court sits on the land of its traditional owners.

The Barak room is adorned with ongoing exhibitions of Indigenous art. The art exhibitions are conducted by the Supreme Court in conjunction with the Worawa Aboriginal College. The College is Victoria’s only Aboriginal school and caters exclusively for young Aboriginal women in the middle years of schooling, who may be considered ‘at risk’. The approach at Worawa is to strengthen the identity and self-esteem of young women as Indigenous Australians so that they are able to bridge both worlds and take their place as leaders within the Indigenous community and Australian society. At Worawa, Aboriginal language, song, dance and story-telling give expression to Aboriginal identity and are embedded in the College curriculum. Through narrative and the arts, students tell their stories and stories of their people. Artwork created by students reflects the stories of community, family and land in the context that they know. A selection of these artworks are exhibited on an ongoing basis in the Barak Room.

In the Supreme Court Library the main room is sometimes called ‘The Chiefs’ Room’. It exhibits portraits of all 11 Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of Victoria. On one public occasion an Elder making a welcome to country pointed out that there was no portrait of the Wurundjeri Chief, William Barak. That has now been rectified and the Supreme Court Library ‘Chiefs’ Room’ includes a fine portrait of William Barak.

There are other things that the Court has done. The Supreme Court has a Koori Inclusion Action Plan. The Court displays Indigenous flags within the building. During National Reconciliation Week there will be an appropriate flying of an Indigenous flag. 

There is also a plaque at the front entrance to the Supreme Court, in William Street. It acknowledges the traditional owners and serves as a reminder that those who enter into the Court are coming onto their land.

The Supreme Court is represented on national Indigenous justice committees (the AIJA and the National Judicial College) and is a member of the National Diversity Council.

In addition to these things the judges of the Supreme Court also participate in a special program for Indigenous interns. This is arranged in conjunction with the Federal Court of Australia, the Victorian Bar and the Law Institute of Victoria. The program involves young Indigenous law students being able to come to the Court and work for some weeks as an associate to a judge. In this way the Indigenous student gains experience in a judge’s chambers and in court. It is a program to which the judges of the Court are highly committed. The judges see it as a way to support and facilitate the development of young Indigenous lawyers. This year the program marked its 10th anniversary. It has been extremely successful. The Supreme Court judges also participate in a co-mentoring scheme with the Victorian Bar for Indigenous law students and young Indigenous lawyers.

The judges of the Supreme Court engage in extensive judicial education particularly through the Judicial College of Victoria. Each year, the Judicial College provides important cultural awareness programs for judges. A special component of the programs has been devoted for many years to education for the judiciary on Indigenous culture and in socio-economic factors that affect Aboriginal persons who come before the courts. Supreme Court judges have attended these occasions. Every second year the College runs a special residential program entitled ‘Back to Country’. This program involves judges staying on traditional land, meeting and engaging with leaders of the local Indigenous people and learning about cultures, practices and history. Included in the program this year was a visit to Wurdi Youang, an important cultural area for the Wathaurong people.

The Supreme Court has had, for a long time, a judge generally responsible for raising awareness of Indigenous culture and matters within the Court and more widely in the legal community. A long time ago, former Justices, the Honourable Frank Vincent AO, the Honourable John Coldrey, and the Honourable Geoff Eames AM in their careers as barristers worked in the Northern Territory appearing for Indigenous people who otherwise had no or little legal representation. They played a very important part in the administration of criminal justice. Later in time Justice Eames performed the role of counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Other current judges of the Court, when working as barristers, had extensive engagement in cases involving Indigenous matters such as native title. These days the judge responsible for coordinating activities and raising awareness of Indigenous issues is the Honourable Justice Kaye AM. His Honour plays a very important role in keeping judges aware of what is happening and encouraging their participation. Justice Kaye chairs the Koori Inclusion Action Plan Committee of Court Services Victoria. The committee supports the development of action plans by all the courts and tribunals.  

Speakers who have addressed the Supreme Court judges from time to time have included Mark Leibler AC, Senator Dodson and Richard Frankland. These individuals have engaged with the judges on important topics such as reconciliation. 

During Reconciliation Week the Supreme Court will hold events in the Library to increase knowledge and awareness about Indigenous issues and the significance of the Mabo judgment.

In my remarks on the occasion of the first smoking ceremony I said:

This day has been a long time coming, I regret that. There have been 10 Chief Justices before me and over 140 Supreme Court Justices. No real offer of welcome, acceptance, acknowledgment or friendship has been given. 

To the traditional owners I say: I stand here today on behalf of all the judges, associate judges, judicial registrars and staff of the Supreme Court of Victoria. I welcome and acknowledge you and I offer you our friendship.

There is nowhere here I can pick up grains of sand and tip those grains into the hands of the Elders. I ask instead that the Elders press their hands against the sandstone when they come here and mark this place again as their place.

On behalf of all the judges I thank the Elders and the Wurundjeri people for handing to us the custody of justice in this place.

We commit to deliver justice fairly, with no favourites and to treat all who come before our court with equality.

National Reconciliation Week is a time when we may pause and reflect upon the significant Indigenous issues of our time. Let us acknowledge this important week and pay our respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we operate and deliver justice.

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