Australia Day message to Prime Minister Rudd

Subject: Restoring well-being of senior indigenous men.

Comment: Australia Day, 26 January 2008

Dear Prime Minister Rudd,

Your 2008 Australia Day speech represents a refreshing change, particularly in regard to issues relating to indigenous well-being, and reconciliation.

We lost much valuable time on this front during the life of the Howard government. There is now a major catch-up effort required.


I draw your government’s attention to one of the most neglected parts of indigenous Australian life – the well-being of indigenous men.

Senior indigenous lawmen are sacred in the full sense of the term ‘sacred’. The condition of their lives accurately reflects how non-indigenous Australians relate to this country.

The well-being of senior indigenous men constitutes one of the most neglected parts of Australian life. This unfortunate legacy is no accident.

Australia’s most senior ‘citizens’ die younger than other parts of the Australian population. This results, in good part, from leading lives full of uncertainty resulting from the failure of the colonial, State, Territory, and Commonwealth governments to recognise and embrace First Peoples Ways.

For two centuries, senior indigenous men have been treated as a threat to non-indigenous values and vested interests. Under the greatly mistaken doctrine (and associated system of attitudes) of terra nullius, indigenous values were negated and denied.

The non-indigenous law-making bodies (governments) have produced much of the increased chaos witnessed in some indigenous communities today. It is time for powerful lawmakers in Canberra to accept mature responsibility for this simple truth, and to jointly resolve to act on it.


The recent Northern Territory National Emergency was wide of the target. While there can be no denying the urgent need to restore well-being to indigenous life, it cannot be done by using a ‘child centred approach’.

What is required, to ensure those children have a future which includes their culture, is an Elder centred approach, which includes all family members. An indigenous approach is one which knows it has to focus on the Elder-to-be within the child.

Until full well-being is restored to senior indigenous men, so they can carry out their roles in life as Elders, there can be no ‘stability’ in their communities.


In 1993, as part of a response to the common law recognition of native title, the Keating ALP government obtained certainty for Australian business. A third part of the deal negotiated at that time was an indigenous social justice package.

This was a great opportunity to start the healing process which this country so urgently requires. Various comprehensive indigenous social justice reports were prepared and provided to government.

There is good reason to think that the comprehensive measures contained in an indigenous social package would go some distance to restoring well-being to senior indigenous men – and, of course, to the whole of their communities. This has to be good for all Australian life!

As you will know, this third part of the deal sank without a trace with the election of the Howard government. The Howard Government, charged with representing Australia’s non-indigenous peoples in this matter, reneged on a deal which was (and remains) crucial for business certainty (and international standing).

Certainty, once gained for business, was matched with another decade of ongoing uncertainly for the very people whose hard-won common law rights were being converted into statutory form. How shameful is this? This is nothing for Australians to be proud of in this business until the package is delivered! Then we may move on.


What is required at this time is a ‘bi-partisan’ approach by all sides of Parliament to do three very important things:

1. to make restoring full health and full well-being to senior indigenous men (in general) and senior indigenous lawmen (in particular) a key objective for Australian life.
2. to ensure that the standards of health and well-being for senior indigenous men in all Commonwealth Territories are, at least, level with those of other men in those Territories – as an example to the States of best practice.
3. to implement, by way of full and properly funded consultation with indigenous peoples-in-communities, those parts of the indigenous social justice package which remain to be acted on after the long years of neglect by the previous government.

I urge you to personally become a champion for restoring full well-being to senior indigenous men (as a focal area in the reconciliation process).

Could you please advise me what your Government will be doing in regard to the three points above?

Yours truly

Bruce Reyburn
Lionel Murphy Scholar 1990