Australian South Sea Islanders 20th Anniversary

(6.30pm 25 August 2012, St John's Hall, 132 St John's Road Glebe)

Thank you, Emelda Davis, President ASSI, and hello, everyone. I'd like to thank Uncle Vic Simms for his Welcome to Country, and Philippe Saibiri for his acknowledgement of the South Sea Island forefathers.

I acknowledge the original custodians of our land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their Elders, both past and present. I also acknowledge the people of 200 nations who live in our City.

Today marks a significant step forward in recognising the important contribution made to our country by people from the South Sea Islands.

It's now 20 years since the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's "Call for Recognition" of that contribution. At the same time, the Commission pointed out the need to redress the many disadvantages faced by Islander descendants.

It seems that accurate figures are hard to obtain, but certainly in the second part of the 19th century, many thousands of South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia - as many as 60,000, according to one estimate. At the height of the demand for their labour, as many as half the adult males were taken from some islands.

In Queensland and northern NSW they worked not only in the sugar industry but also in other primary industries including cotton and cattle, doing the hard physical labour that the colonists themselves felt was unfit for white fellers.

They were treated as little better than slaves but when trade unions began protesting at the loss of work for their members, and conservatives began agitating for a white Australia policy, a ban on indentured labour was eventually introduced.

Under the Pacific Island Labourers' Act, the Federal Government had the power to deport any Islander living in Australia after December 1906, though some, who had arrived before September 1879 would be allowed to stay.

Over 7000 were deported, though some managed to elude the authorities and stay, along with the 1,200 formally granted residency. We don't know how many were actually returned to their ancestral islands - it seems many were just dumped in the Torres Strait.

It was a sorry and shabby way to treat proud and dignified people who had done so much for this country.

It was not until 1994 that the Commonwealth Government officially recognised the Australian South Sea Islanders as "a distinct ethnic group in Australia with its own history and culture".

Following the National Conference in Bundaberg earlier this year, the new National Representative Body was formed to give Australian South Sea Islanders a voice in the national conversation.

It aims to empower and inspire ASSI people, to give them a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to promote pride in their unique heritage.

As was pointed out at Bundaberg, this body can also play an important role in developing cooperative and respectful ties with Australia's Pacific neighbours.

The City of Sydney, as Australia's only global city, has a responsibility to foster respectful relations with other nations, especially with those of our region. We are also responsible for promoting harmony within our city, and that begins with recognising and respecting the many cultures living here.

I'm pleased to be here today, to see South Sea Islander culture honoured, and to recognise all it has done in the shaping of Australia.

I also congratulate Emelda and all those working to build this national body and wish you all every success in promoting greater recognition of your people's culture, and your contribution. Thank you.