Launch of Wisdom Man by Banjo Clarke

Federation Square, Melbourne, 5 March 2005

Introductions are becoming more and more necessary, because it is over 20 years since I left Parliament. A very large part of the Australian population has been born since I left Parliament. It is rather nice to be anonymous! Anyone under 30 has no real reason to know that I have ever been in Parliament or ever been Prime Minister. So I thank you for the introduction.

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners and elders of the place where we stand. I would like to pay my respects to all members of Banjo Clarke’s family – many of whom are here today. He was a wonderful person and led a wonderful family.

I would like to thank you very much for asking me here for this relaunch of the book – Wisdom Man. The fact that it is being relaunched I believe is significant.

Banjo Clarke was a remarkable person. Reading through this book, the stories in the book, the attitudes that are expressed, and the standards that he sought to live by – is a lesson to all of us which we should heed.

He was an extraordinary person who lived through many difficult times. I was telling a story a moment or two ago about a photograph album I was looking at the other day, which had belonged to my father. He had led a group of people up through the Northern Territory, from Adelaide, through South Australia into the Northern Territory in 1924/25. There were many photographs which showed there were not too many roads. There were many photographs of desert aboriginals with lots and lots of children. My father had written underneath these photographs – ‘Not dying out here’. As a youngster I had said, ‘What does that mean? Why did you write that?’

Of course in the philosophy and bureaucracy of the times, people of full blood were thought to be weak in the genes, and it was thought they would die out. The policies of separation were very much bound up in that attitude and that philosophy.

It was something which had obviously been much debated and struck my father in those years. It was just one more example of the difficult world into which people like Banjo Clarke were born. His belief in the essential goodness of people, and in the essential values which governed his own life, are also I think a reminder to us all.

In one particular way his life reminds me of the life of Nelson Mandela. Banjo Clarke hasn’t has his name in the headlines of the nation, or in the headlines of the world as Nelson Mandela has, but both were born into difficult times and lived through difficult times. The remarkable thing about Mandela was as he emerged from jail he had no bitterness for his jailers. He had no bitterness for the authorities who had put him in jail on false charges. He spoke of compassion and of forgiveness and of the need to look to the future to build a new South Africa.

I think in many important ways, those attitudes were also very much part of Banjo Clarke’s life because he also believed in looking to the future. He also believed in working for better times, and a better future, in which self respect, self esteem and true equality would be part of life for all Australians. That I think comes through the words of this book.

These qualities in today’s world are all the more in need. They don’t become less important. They become more important.

Australia, from the time of the Second World War was in many ways a narrow and inward looking society. A lot of it was Anglo-Saxon, or protestant. The migration of 1946 and afterwards changed a good deal of that and led to a multi-cultural Australia. It also led to a period in which I believed there was more genuine effort to assist in the advancement of Australia’s indigenous people. There was, certainly in those years, a better consciousness of the need to embrace indigenous Australians as full partners in building Australia. That I think was an important step.

There are some successes. There is still too much paternalism; too much saying what ought to happen; not enough partnership; not enough empowerment of indigenous Australians. These were all the years – both before and after the war – through which Banjo Clarke lived.

There were too many mistakes and sometimes those mistakes weren’t adequately recognised. So the mistakes were repeated and not enough progress in the real sense, was made. But there was, in those years at least, an inclusive view of people within the community, within Australia; an inclusive view of humanity and I think, that all people were part of it. That was a very important step.

In more recent times, I sometimes believe we’ve forgotten a number of the old lessons. There is more discrimination today. It might be discrimination of a different kind, but discrimination is there – alive and far too well. There is a belief that some people don’t deserve the protection of the law and some people should be judged guilty, no matter what the law says and even though there may have been no court hearing and no judgement from a court.

The hardest fought protections, some of which have been won not over a few decades but almost over hundreds of years – the right of Habeas Corpus, the right to a trial in a court of one’s peers, the right to no jail without a charge, the right to be taken to court – these things may not be so relevant to indigenous people as they once were. But even in Australia today, some aspects of mandatory detentions in the Northern Territory remain – and they remain to our shame.

Other problems, other concerns, other fears have led to discrimination and I happen to believe that once discrimination begins, it spreads, it embraces a wider view of people, society becomes less inclusive – ‘Oh these people don’t deserve the law; they don’t deserve their day in court.’ – and it is a much harsher world.

Maybe a lot of this is related to our reaction to terrorism.

I read a speech of Tony Blair’s the other day, and in that speech he had some major contradictions that weren’t picked up by any newspapers in Britain, and certainly not by anyone here.(1) On one page he said: ‘Terrorism comes from the darkest side of Islam; and it is because they hate us, because they fear us, because of our wealth, because of our liberty, because of our freedom. They hate us. We must fight it. We must destroy it.’ On the very next page of that same speech, Tony Blair had something quite different to say. He said he would renew his personal commitment to a peace process between Israel and Palestine. He said if peace there could be achieved, it would do more to overcome terrorism than all the guns, and all the bullets in the world.

Now both statements were not true. I happen to believe in the second of those two statements.

But so many people have been categorised into the first of his statements that in today’s world, to be Afghani, to be Iraqi, to be Muslim is virtually to be outside the law. Not to be respected for one’s individuality, for one’s humanity, for the person that one is. That I believe is a step backwards into a darker age.

To step backwards into a period in which indigenous Australians have themselves experienced over far too long, and therefore, the essential goodness of somebody like Banjo Clarke is not just relevant to the position of indigenous Australians within Australia, it is also highly relevant to the way we conduct ourselves in the wider world. It is highly relevant to the sort of people Australians, all of us, are. It is highly relevant to the kind of nation we are, or aspire to be.

Therefore, in relaunching of this book – Wisdom Man – which is appropriately named and written, I would like to give enormous credit to the family and all those involved. Because it is such an important book – written about one man, but written really about a culture, about spirituality, about the important things in life.

Again, who would have thought that people in authority in this country - also in the United Kingdom, and in particular in the United States – would spend a great deal of time trying to devise a legal excuse to treat people outside the law; to say the protections of the law do not apply to these people. It might be about people in Guantanamo Bay; it might be people in Iraq, or people in Afghanistan.

The United States Supreme Court has made some courageous decisions (2) – that such people are not beyond the reach of law; they have a right to access to American courts. Two Federal Court Judges have said in recent weeks, that the military tribunals established to try people in Guantanamo Bay are quite unlawful, unconstitutional, beyond the reach of American Presidential power. Another Federal Court Judge has said the President did have power to do this even though they didn’t like it very much.(3) That issue will probably be decided by the United States Supreme Court.

But at least their courts have started to speak and to speak with authority in a way that cannot long be ignored. One of the reasons their courts have been able to speak in that way, have been able to restrain their government is because there is a Bill of Rights in the United States.

In Australia, how many of us realise that we are virtually the only English speaking country – certainly the only Western English speaking country – that does not have a Bill of Rights. New Zealand does, America does, Canada does, South Africa does and so does Britain. And every country in the European Union has a Bill of Rights.

So, if they, from their various and different backgrounds, all believe that for the protection of individuals you need a Bill of Rights, how is it that in Australia there is no movement which says, we also need a Bill of Rights?

I used to think that the law would protect people adequately. I now know that the law does not protect people adequately. This has been so in relation to indigenous people. It has been so in relation to refugees. It has been so in relation to people in Guantanamo Bay.

The Australian government for example, has said that the military tribunals are adequate; that they are lawful; that they will achieve justice. The highest law authority in the United Kingdom has taken a different view.(4) And the courts in the United States have taken a different view.(5) But the Australian government has supported the President of the United States in saying ‘No. These are good enough, because these are a certain class of people who deserve really to be treated as people.’

That is what I think it is all about.

Practical reconciliation is one thing. The spirituality of people, of their traditions, of their heritage, of their place, of their country – and the basic pride and self esteem that comes from a recognition of these things – that to me is what Banjo Clarke stood for; what he argued for; what he wanted to achieve.

The old structures that we have had in Australia have not been as successful as indigenous or other Australians would have wanted. We do need new approaches. Some of those are unfolding at the present time.

But it is not going to be structures, institutions, or indeed governments that achieve success in relation to these things. It is going to be Australians working together, understanding what is needed, and making sure that all Australians have the due respect which their essential humanity demands. If that can be achieved, I believe Banjo Clarke will certainly rest peacefully.

I hope many people will read this book, and reread this book. I hope that many will also try to make the principles lying within it, a governing factor in their lives. I wish everyone associated with the project, all good fortune and all the best for the future. I happily relaunch the book Wisdom Man and wish it every success.

Q&A following the address:

How long did you know Uncle Banjo for?
Quite a long while. It would have been in the early 70s or late 60s when we first met and we were in touch off and on up until his death.

He says in his book, that quite often he’d get a phone call from you. Did you often ring him for advice?
Yes. Especially in the time when there were negotiations involving both the State and the Federal governments over land rights in relation to Framlingham. That was a very busy period, and we probably had more communication just then than in other periods. But it was pretty constant.

There was a lot of downtime in your relationship too I wonder – where he was just a friend and not only an adviser, but a confidante at times?
He was a wonderful person, and the kind of person who would be of value to any society, to any community, to any family.

If you would, would you recall for me one of your favourite moments of discussion with Uncle Banjo?
I think one of the early times when we first met – he was leading a delegation, and we were talking about the future and it was just his attitude to it. He was firm, but relaxed; he was such a gentle person, such a fine man.

Did you visit him often at his property?
Not all that often, but occasionally.

Did you find that tranquillity a reasoning for understanding how Uncle Banjo worked?
Yes, but I also think for many people it is part of indigenous culture. Aboriginals are, I think, a gentle people. They are in many ways very forgiving people. They take a kindly view of things; and so often, when it might be hard to do so.

Do you find that even in your retirement, there are moments when you really want to get back into politics and try and change the politics of the day?
Yes, when I think people are making a mess of it, or doing what they ought not to do. But you can’t. You are just one voice and the ideals by which I tried to govern aren’t really accepted in today’s world. The whole political spectrum has moved leagues to the right. On many issues, there would be not much difference between John Howard and Kim Beazley.

Even given that Kim Beazley Snr. was a big advocate of indigenous people here in Australia?
Well he was, but that was also in a different time. I really believe that Kim Beazley Jnr is one of the more conservative politicians in the Parliament. Certainly, one of the most conservative in the Labor Party.

Do you think that under the new helm of Kim Beazley as Prime Minister that things might be better for indigenous Australians?
Well I would like to think that more attention could be paid to the spiritual things. I’ve always believed that true reconciliation not only involves a better life style in material terms, but involves being treated in all ways as equals; equal participants and contributors to the Australia that we all want to see. He may be more willing to go down that track, but let him speak up. Let him demonstrate it. The ball is in his court on those issues. It is not point in me speculating about what Kim Beazley Jnr is going to do. He is going to have to tell Australians and convince them that he has something they didn’t think he had the two previous times he stood as Leader of the Opposition.

Do you think Kim Beazley could do with someone in his corner like Uncle Banjo Clarke?
I am sure he could. Anyone could, so long as he’d listen.

Thank you very much for your time. The friendship you shared with Uncle Banjo I hope will always live on.
Thank you very much. It is something I’ll always remember. And the reason for us all being here today – the book, Wisdom Man – is very well named.