Andrea Kelly urges action in the face of powerlessness and pain

8 June 2022

“Change begins with brave actions in your daily life – where you live, work, play and socialise.”

These were some of Andrea Kelly’s opening remarks during her powerful address at the University’s annual National Reconciliation Week (NRW) Lecture on Friday 3 June.

A proud Waramungu and Larrakia woman, Andrea has had a stellar 30-year public service career, where she has focused on leading, shaping and influencing the public policy agenda to achieve positive and real change.

This has included actively and constructively engaging in policy that explicitly and respectfully recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As acting Group Manager of the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), Andrea draws on her cultural and professional experiences to support and mentor others.

She spoke about the strength in how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to survive and identify.

“Despite the killings, the sexual enslavement of women and children, the theft of land and resources, the prohibition of ceremony and use of mother tongue; despite the forced removal of children and the destruction of sacred and other sites of significance," she said.

“For my own people, the Warumungu and Larrakia, the process of dispossession began 40 years after the Ngunnawal, but the impact was similar – driven by a similar set of policies and the same colonial attitudes of superiority and racism.

“Policies and attitudes enforced by the system, a system my parents and grandparents lived under, and unfortunately lived by.

“A few years ago, I asked my mother why she was not angry, she said it was just the way it was – but as she said those words, I saw the hurt and pain in her eyes.

“I wonder how my great-grandparents and grandparents would have reacted to that question.”

A sense of powerlessness was a strong theme for Andrea, who spoke about how First Nations people are proportionally the most incarcerated people on the planet.

Quoting from the Uluru statement from the Heart, “We are not innately criminal people,” she said.

“Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

“These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.”

Urging everyone to take on board the need to engage in reconciliation, Andrea also questioned whether taking part in the usual NRW events really goes far enough.

“People often want to know about practical ways to engage in reconciliation. And generally, the response is – join a local reconciliation group, organise events to commemorate other days and weeks of national significance, or simply educate yourself on the stories, cultures and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” she said.

“But truly, is that enough? Ask yourself is that brave enough, is that change enough? I suspect the answer will be no,” she said.

“It might be time to give us a voice, give us space for that voice. And I’m not talking about the Voice to Parliament, I’m talking about our voice – in the workplace, in the lecture halls, on the sports field, in everyday conversations.”

Andrea spoke about her non-indigenous husband’s quiet commitment to promoting reconciliation.

“My husband, a retired policeman, has since prior to the 2019 election, worn his ‘Truth, Treaty, Voice’ t-shirt every Saturday," she says.

“And he told me he will continue to wear this shirt until the day the Uluru Statement from the Heart is implemented in its entirety.

“This is his practical step to bring about knowledge, understanding and giving a voice to First Nations people.”

We all have a role to play in promoting reconciliation, and in breaking with the past polices of control and disempowerment, Andrea concluded.

“What is preventing us from achieving this is Australia not relinquishing control to us,” she said.

“It’s this continuing unequal relationship that causes and maintains the powerlessness and disadvantages suffered by many.”

You can watch Andrea’s National Reconciliation Week Lecture in full here.