Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Two of the Greats

Their two lives have made such an impact in shaping the way we think about our identity as Australians. One of them, Governor General Quentin Bryce, is one of the most recognisable Australian women in the world. Sharp, thoughtful, hard working, determined and oozing class Her Excellency is a force to be reckoned with.

The other, less well known, but arguably as impressive member of this odd couple is sitting at the table across from the Governor General. Hailing from Groote island in the Gulf of Carpenteria, Tony Wurramarrba, the Chairman of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, his road has been a long one to be sitting here.

Around these two are an eclectic mixture of people including the top dogs of Canadian life, their GG, Chief Minister, head of Business Council, the Australian and Canadian High Commissioners respectively  This is a serious place.

It's April 5, 2013, and we are sitting in Government House, Ottowa, Canada. Across the road from the Prime Minister's House, and snow is falling outside. It's the first time that Tony and I have seen snow.

Team led by GG arrives in Ottawa on Air Force Plane. Snow!

We mention this to one of the Canadian GG's staff during that traditionally odd and awkward pre drinks period before an event, and she sparked into life immediately "You haven't seen snow! Quick let's duck outside and teach you how to throw a snowball." I looked at Tony, and he gave me a little nod, and next minute, suits and all we throw our first ever snowballs at Government House in Canada.

Tony was this year awarded an Order of Australia, and was last year the Northern Terriory's local hero for his work playing hardball as the key negotiator with BHP and the Australian government over a deal with the mining company to see the Groote island community receive long term investment in infrastructure development, education, and health services. It's regarded as one of the most comprehensive agreements in Australian history in this space, and Tony was the lead negotiator on the piece.

Tony spots a mate on the way out of the National Museum of the American Indian, New York.

He has a wickedly dry sense of humour. When we go through the security check at JFK airport in New York, they make us take our shoes off, I roll my eyes at Tony who responds back with a quiet "Shirts too?" and then has a little chuckle.

The reason we are over here is we are travelling with the Governor General and an official Australian delegation to check out the Indigenous set up in Canada and the US. Other members of the delegation include Chris Fry, CEO of Indigenous Businesses Australia, Anne-Marie Roberts, a senior member of FAHCSIA in Australia, and Megan Davis who is the Director of the Indigenous Law Centre at UNSW and an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples. A seriously diverse, and impressive bunch.

With Megan and Tony at Uni of British Columbia in front of our hectic Men in Black style ride.

The idea for the trip was all GG Bryce's work. Having spent the week with her in a trip that saw us, meet University and key Indigenous reps in Vancouver, then head over to Ottawa to kick it with their GG, Prime Minister and also check out Rideau high school (some cool kids there, over 70 different language groups in 1 school, and 30 Indigenous kids!), before we strapped ourselves in for destination Iqaluit, to meet with the Inuit people and see how they did their work there. Throughout the whole show I was truly inspired by the GG's utter professionalism, generosity and class. She's one of those people, who when she talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the world.

She grew up in country Queensland and for her whole life has fought for equality, for women, for rural Australians, for Indigenous people, for us all. On this trip I could see her belief in our ability to reach for our potential, to strive to be better, and overcome the challenges that may come

This type of belief is woven permanently through the veins of both Tony and our Governor General. They live their lives to make others lives better.

Back in Ottawa at our dinner table, Tony Wurramarrba AO, rises to tell the table his story.

"Your Excellencies, I want to thank you for your welcome and pay my respect to the people whose land we meet on today..." Slowly, purposefully and thoughtfully Tony lays out his story with a rhythm that Shakespeare would have been proud of. Their is pindrop silence, this is presence personified.

"Your Excellencies, I knew we had to take this opportunity (to negotiate with the mining company) because we had to think of life after mining..." Don't we all. He continues his story of how he left the table 3 times because the offer was not good enough for his community long term, and with the hint of a grin he says."...I'm not easy to compromise with."

Sitting here, in the house of the Crown on the other side of the world, with all these people, and all this ridiculous protocol and formality, I couldn't help but think, "man, this guy couldn't be further from his comfort zone right now." And as I watch the leaders of this country captivated by his every word, images start flicking through my mind of some of the groundbreakers throughout history that have inspired me, the Mandela's, Mabo's, King's... people that themselves were willing to conquer the elements, new worlds, the people that met immovable objects head on with unstoppable force.

When Tony finished and sat down, I looked at him and was so humbled to be Aboriginal, so proud to be Australian, and even more determined to make sure our kids seize the opportunities that have arisen because of people like Tony. People who have been unfalteringly driven, pigheadedly hopeful, and unwilling to settle for anything but success. 

The Governor General Quentin Bryce, and Tony Wurramarrba AO have negotiated with subtlety, patience, class, vision and strength, and the result is a seat at the table for the people who follow in their footsteps.

We are often a pessimistic bunch back home, but after travelling through Canada and the US and seeing the similar challenges they face, I'm convinced that greatness is not far from reach for our country.

It will come from the Tony's, the Quentin's, it will come from you and from me, if we are willing to step up to the challenge to help shape a world where everyone gets a seat at the table.

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