Setting the Foundations: Day One of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Conference

“We’re making history here today,” Assistant National Secretary Ian Bray exclaimed as he opened the inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander conference in Perth today.
 
ATSI delegates from every major port are joined by a variety of guest speakers and officials in a four-day conference that intends to review the relationship the union has, not just with its ATSI membership, but with the wider Indigenous community around Australia.

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The delegates were treated to an intimate Welcome to Country by Nyungar elder Barry McGuire who has a connection to the union through his nephew Roger Pickett, an ATSI Committee member and Australian Marine Complex wharfie.
 
McGuire outlined in his Welcome that it was about making the country safe for visitors at which Bray pointed out that it was also the intention of the trade union movement.

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“Unions are about making the country safe, making our people safe,” he said.
 
“The Aboriginal struggle is similar to the worker’s struggle – it’s about dignity, it’s about equality, it’s about fighting for basic human rights.”
 
He said the conference was a bit of a celebration of the union's achievements and that he was proud of the MUA’s track record, but said there was always room for improvement.
 
“The whole point of this conference is to pave a way forward and to build upon the work that’s already been done.”
 
Bray gave an emotional special mention to Terry O’Shane who had been integral in developing ATSI policy and organising the conference.
 
“I knew when we wanted to fix ATSI engagement and activism I had to bring Terry back,” he said.
 
“This conference wouldn’t have happened without Terry, we sent him around the country doing this incredible work.”
 
CFMEU State Assistant Secretary Joe Mcdonald gave a brief impromptu speech and introduced Dorcas Colburg, a young Nyungar woman who had recently been unfairly sacked from construction company John Holland.
 
He said Dorcas’ story in particular had resonated with him and was symbolic of the problem between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and business.
 
Following McDonald, WA Deputy Branch Secretary Adrian Evans took to the podium talking about the relationship ATSI people have with the Labor Party.
 
“The importance is to ensure the ALP don’t take for granted the ATSI vote and that ATSI people have a say in ATSI policy that truly delivers for Aboriginal people, rather than self-interested business owners such as Twiggy Forrest.
 
Evans countenanced this with a reminder that despite some of the problems with the ALP, the party still delivered more for Aboriginal people than the Liberal National Party.
 
“You have to remember the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’, the bloke who promised the world to Aboriginal people before the last election – Tony Abbott – has delivered next to nothing for Australia’s first people and has ripped $500 million from Indigenous programs,” he said.
 
A panel session with AMWU WA Secretary Steve McCartney, Terry O’Shane and Ian Bray rounded off the morning session by discussing some of the background of the MUA and AMWU involvement in historical and current ATSI campaigns.
 
As a sponsor, McCartney gave the charity 'Feed the Little Children' a plug, which aims to keep Kimberley Aboriginal children fed which in turn increases school attendance and decreases crime.
 
After lunch, three groups broke away to hold discussions and to come up with ideas to form resolutions and the day wrapped up with another panel session with Adrian Evans, Terry O’Shane and guest speaker Violet Pickett who discussed the ins and outs of forming a Reconciliation Action Plan and the possibility of the MUA developing one driven by the conference delegates.

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For all of the photos from the conference click here.