A story to be told

This year’s Charles Perkins Oration, presented by Counsellor Tony McAvoy SC, took a journey into the legacy of Charles Perkins and shared a powerful story, unfortunately not an uncommon story, that has played out across our continent many times.

Battles over lands and waters, leading to different life trajectories, experiences and outcomes was the focus of this year’s oration by Counsellor McAvoy. Mr McAvoy, a Wirdi man from the central Queensland area, is Australia’s first Indigenous Senior Counsel and Co-Chair of the Indigenous Legal Issues Committee of the Law Council Australia.  Appointed Senior Counsel in 2015, Mr McAvoy has developed a strong native title practice and has been an adviser and negotiator for various Indigenous treaty processes. 

Mr McAvoy’s oration highlighted the extraordinary achievements of Charles Perkins and how his legacy was grounded in the country of his Kalkadoon father.

The territory of the Kalkadoon People is a vast tract of land, in what is now known as north western Queensland, which includes the inland city of Mount Isa. The Kalkadoon People formed a powerful, spiritual relationship with their surroundings, fostering a lifestyle that was able to be maintained in perpetuity.

Mr McAvoys says: "The notion of a peaceful transition is convenient fiction." His experience is gathered through travels and work undertaken with the Kalkadoon people as counsel on their native title claim in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s. Through this work, he became aware of their history in intimate detail; the battles that began in the 1880s, the near extermination of the Kalkadoon people, and the deep scars left behind.

It was a lesson in history and story needing to be told and shared: ’It tells us that the extermination of First Nations people who offered any resistance was carried out with government sanction," said Mr McAvoy.

"It tells us that the perpetrators of war crimes, engaging in arbitrary and summary execution of First Nations people, were rewarded for their actions."

The oration stressed we should not allow these events to be forgotten and left to drift into a hazy past, that they should be part of the national school curriculum and hold a position in the national narrative alongside Gallipoli and the Kokoda Track.

"The story of the Kalkadoon People is one survival against all odds but they, and all First Nations People, bear the scars of our dispossession," Mr McAvoy said. He stressed their past and their connection to these lands and waters is a profoundly spiritual affair and their identity and wellbeing depends on the preservation of these connections.

Celebrating the University’s deep history and connection to First Nations Peoples, the Oration includes a recognition of academically gifted students through the Charles Perkins Memorial Prize. Awarded to the top three Indigenous students at the University based on the highest academic results in their field, each winner is awarded $4,000.

This year’s recipients are Tully Brown, Bachelor of Education (Health and Physical Education), Georgia Mantle, Bachelor of Social Work, and Benjamin Wilson, Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications).

Named in honour of Australia’s first Aboriginal graduate, the Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Oration and Prize was established in 2001 to recognise and celebrate the outstanding contributions made by Dr Perkins and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to our community, country, and society.

The Charles Perkins Memorial Prize is made possible through the Charlie Perkins Scholarship Trust and the University’s Indigenous Strategy and Services portfolio.

The University of Sydney is proud to acknowledge the ABC as the host broadcaster for the Dr Charles Perkins Oration event, to help share this important conversation with Australians.

2020 has highlighted the need for a renewed focus on racial equality. Marking its 20th anniversary, the Charles Perkins Oration continues to emphasise the need to continue the fight for equality of First Nations people as Charles Perkins himself had envisioned.

Wiradjiri woman and Federal MP for Barton, Hon Linda Burney, has paid tribute to the revered leader at the University of Sydney 2018 Dr Charles Perkins AO Annual Memorial Oration and Memorial Prize recognising his achievements and celebrating his legacy.

On the eve of cabinet’s rejection of a proposal to enshrine a First Nations Voice in Australia’s constitution, Indigenous health advocate Ms Pat Anderson AO presented a passionate argument for change.


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