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Estimates Reply - Minister Barnett

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 13 June 2019

Tags: Veterans

Ms O'CONNOR - Mr Chairman, I rise to make a brief contribution on Mr Barnett's Estimates, particularly in relation to the issue of Veteran's Affairs.

The history of conflict in Tasmania does not only reach back to the Second World War, the First World War and the Boer War. We need to acknowledge the sacrifice of Tasmanians who went to those wars and the loss felt by the people who loved them back home when they did not come back. All of us share respect for the veterans for the past century's wars and the families they left behind.

The history of conflict in Tasmania actually goes back tens of thousands of years. One of the most significant wars in Tasmania's history was actually fought on this soil and they were known colloquially as the Black Wars. They began in Tasmania some 20 years after the arrival of the first Europeans at Risdon Cove in 1803. They were particularly brutal and destructive wars that led to significant loss of life both amongst the colonists and the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. I had a conversation with Mr Barnett at the table about recognising the first Tasmanian warriors, who are the palawa, the pakana, recognised by Professor Henry Reynolds, who talks about the extraordinary skills of the first Tasmanians in his remarkable book Fate of a Free People. He says -

Anzac Day will never be an inclusive national day until the national also commemorates and mourns black Australians who died defending their homelands from invading Europeans. Such a development might benefit all Australians by providing an antidote to the national tendency to romanticise warfare, to emphasise dying rather than killing, bravery rather than brutality, sacrifice rather than suffering. With frontier warfare as part of the story, the dawn landing at Gallipoli could be juxtaposed with the many dawn raids faced by sleeping Aborigines. Heroic bayonet and cavalry charges were such incidents as John Batten's murderous assault on the unsuspecting Aboriginal camp in northeast Tasmania and the assassination of true, wounded soldiers.

Earlier in Professor Reynolds' book there is another reference to the skills held by the Tasmanians when the first Europeans arrived. This is the language George Augustus Robinson used to describe the warriors -[quote TBC]

They have a tradition amongst them that white men have usurped their territory, they have driven into the forests, have killed their game and thus robbed them of their chief subsistence, have ravished their wives and daughters, have murdered and butchered their fellow countrymen and are want, whilst brooding over these complicated ills in a dense part of the forest, to goad each other on to acts of bloodshed and revenge for the injuries done to their ancestors and the persecution offered to themselves through their white enemies.

What I put to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs is that it would be a long overdue and fitting recognition of the sacrifice that was made by Tasmania's First People after the arrival of the first Europeans for us to have a monument of some sort to the Black Wars, a monument that recognised the incredible skill, the tenacity, the sacrifice and the terrible loss endured by Tasmania's First People after the arrival of the first Europeans and the settlement in 1803. All in this House are deeply grateful to the ANZACs, to those of our sons and daughters who have gone to far shores ostensibly in the defence of freedom. This proposition takes nothing away from that.

This is proposed as a true act of respect and reconciliation and until we, as a state, fully absorb, accept and are prepared to compensate for the terrible history of this island as it was experienced by Aboriginal Tasmanians, reconciliation will continue to be too slow a process. There are all sorts of aspects to reconciliation and justice for Tasmanian Aborigines. The return of lands, negotiations over a treaty, moving to change our national day but this is one step that is legitimate, it is inclusive and it acknowledges the true history of Tasmania's First People.

It is only in relatively recent decades that, as an island community, we have even started to come to terms with that history. I am sure the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs would agree with that because she talked about the removal of the offensive and racist 1876 cut-off date in the Relics Act of 1975 during the Aboriginal Affairs component of Estimates. That 1876 date was the marker of when Truganini died. In our schools, the history told to young people was that Truganini was the last Aboriginal Tasmanian. We know that is not true. Within our statutes was this racist provision which stated that there was no Aboriginal heritage after 1876 because the last of the Aborigines had died in 1876. We know that is not true and, as a parliament, we have corrected that and it was an important thing that we did.

We have a responsibility to be genuine about justice. I am standing in front of the Aboriginal flag of Australia in a Chamber that is far too homogenised and pasteurised, there is not enough diversity in this Chamber and it is a matter of regret. I know Ms Houston is a member of the palawa pakana and I hope Ms Houston would agree that we need to acknowledge, pay respect to, the first Tasmanians and the sacrifice of the warriors - and they were warriors. They were defending their country just as the ANZACs were sent to defend their country, freedom and democracy.

Mr Barnett and I had quite a constructive conversation about this. I knew it was a bit uncomfortable for him at first because, in Veterans' Affairs, it is not usual to talk about the veterans of far-past wars. Arguably, the most lethal war intimately connected to Tasmania was on our land mass and it led to enormous suffering, dispossession and the banishment of Aboriginal people to the Furneaux group of islands where, as we know, they were ravaged by disease, depression and heartbreak. I hope Mr Barnett, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, can take on board in good faith the proposition the Greens made at the table that it is time we acknowledged the Black Wars and that this is an important step towards reconciliation in the Veterans' Affairs portfolio.