Boyer Lectures aim to reignite recognition debate




One month from today the 2019 Boyer Lecture series entitled The End of Silence will be delivered by Rachel Perkins to inject new momentum into the call for a First Nations voice to Parliament.


Since 1959 the Boyer Lectures have been a platform to stimulate conversation about critical ideas. This year will be one of the most important lectures in recent times.


Ms Perkins (pictured, photo by Zimbio) is the daughter of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins who was born in Alice Springs on a wooden table at The Bungalow in 1936.


He was the first male Aboriginal person to graduate from an Australian university. He became Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the first Aboriginal person to head a Commonwealth agency.


Like her father, Ms Perkins has developed a reputation for challenging long established attitudes and historical representation of Indigenous issues most poignantly in the 2008 documentary series The First Australians which she directed.


In 1968 anthropologist Bill Stanner coined the term The Great Australian Silence when he proposed that Australian history had been wiped clean of its Indigenous past during his Boyer Lecture.


The title of the 2019 lecture refers back to this phrase.


The End of Silence lectures will build on the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s call for a First Nations voice to Parliament and aim to facilitate a positive discussion on the recognition of Indigenous culture.


Perkins laments the missed chances to make bold change over recent decades.


“Being present at all these opportunities that were lost. Whether that be the bicentennial, which was the celebration of 200 years of European occupation, or in 2000 with the statement of reconciliation rejected, or the anniversary of the 1967 referendum in 2017, I’ve just been part of all these pushes, to get people to reckon with the history and past of Indigenous people,” Ms Perkins said in a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.


For Perkins the eve of the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first landing at Botany Bay in 1770 will a perfect time for an attempt to reignite dialogue with wider Australia.


Perkins’ profile in the arts and entertainment industry may provide her with an ability to engage a broader audience beyond the usual academic focus that the Boyer Lectures attract.


“I think ordinary Australians need to talk to other ordinary Australians about this. Giving lectures isn’t really my thing, I’m a filmmaker,” she said.


Perkins believes that some of the typical misunderstandings about the voice to Parliament need clarification.


“There’s a couple of big ones. One is that there’s going to be a third chamber of government. That’s just not true,” she said.


“The other is that it will divide our country by race. People have accused us of trying to create some kind of apartheid system … it’s the polar opposite of that. What we’re talking about is bringing the country together by recognising the history of the Indigenous people.”


Perkins also considers reconciliation with Indigenous people to be a troubling issue for Australia’s international reputation.


“If you travel around the world and talk about Australia, its relationship with its Indigenous people comes up as a point of concern as a thing that remains unresolved,” Ms Perkins said.


Each year the ABC chair chooses a prominent Australian to deliver a series of lectures about major social, cultural, scientific or political issues.


“The end of silence might be a voice to parliament, it could be a part of truth-telling in that the nation comes to terms with the roots of its origins. It’s across all three themes of the Uluru statement and gives us a pathway,” said ABC chair Ita Buttrose.


“Rachel Perkins’ remarkable contribution to Australian storytelling gives her unique insights into the complex and controversial debate over the Uluru Statement from the Heart.


“Hearing one of our most powerful Indigenous voices make the case for constitutional recognition exemplifies the role of the Boyer Lectures in stimulating discussion and debate about major issues in Australia.”


Past Boyer Lectures have been delivered by Quentin Bryce, Peter Cosgrove, Bob Hawke, Kerry Stokes and Rupert Murdoch.


Indigenous affairs have been the central topic only twice. This includes Marcia Langton’s 2012 lectures, The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom and the 1993 series entitled Voices of the Land delivered by Getano Lui, Dr Ian Anderson, Jeannie Bell, Mandawuy Yunupingu, Dot West and Noel Pearson.


We eagerly await the response from political decision makers and other Indigenous leaders later in the year. I sincerely hope that silence will deafen no longer.


Mark J Smith is the grandson of Father Percy Smith (1903-82) who was the first resident Anglican priest based in Alice Springs from 1933 and with his wife Isabel founded St Francis’ House, a home for Aboriginal children. Mark holds an honours degree in history and politics from the University of Adelaide.



  1. Ms Perkins, you said: “People have accused us of trying to create some kind of apartheid system … it’s the polar opposite of that.
    “What we’re talking about is bringing the country together by recognising the history of the Indigenous people.”
    With respect, let me tell you that, as a long time resident of Alice Springs, you are wrong because in the time of your father institutions for “Aborigines only” were non existent.
    Can Aborigines go to hospital? Yes, good, but I live very close to a health clinic but was refused services because of my ethnicity.
    As a tour guide I am often asked why there are hostels, schools etc for Aborigines only.
    If this is not apartheid what is it?
    Please explain but do not tell me that they do, what they want, because it’s their money.
    “Bringing the country together” will only happen when we will have the same rights and the same choices.
    By all means have Aboriginal institutions but open them to anyone who wishes their services.

  2. It’s interesting to note Rachel Perkins’s Boyer Lecture series will occur in the same year of the passing of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who in turn gave the Boyer Lectures 40 years ago (1979) when he was still the president of the ACTU.
    Amongst several topics covered by the theme The Resolution of Conflict, Hawke advocated for the abolition of states and territories in Australia, describing them as a “dangerous anachronism” that “is hurting Australians every day of every week”.
    He also pointed out that Australia is “the most over-governed country in the world”.
    That view certainly wasn’t shared in the Northern Territory at the time, one year after gaining “responsible self-government” under the leadership of Chief Minister Paul Everingham.
    Yet one decade ago, on the occasion of Territory Day in 2009, Paul Everingham himself “came out” declaring the states and territories should be abolished.
    The call for a First Nations voice in (Federal) Parliament comes at a time when surely there is cause to consider the whole structure of governance and administration in Australia.
    There must surely be a better way than the current model.

  3. If anyone wants to know more about a different way of governing Australia then they should read Mark Smith’s political satire called REVO, which says among other things that we should abolish the states.

  4. Happy and looking forward to Rachel’s perspective in her Boyer Lecture. It may open the way to big and better things.
    I may recommend to Evelyn Roullet to refresh her understanding of “access and equity,” not to be confused with equality in access.
    Nothing to do with apartheid which was segregation “by law” on the basis of race.
    Aboriginal kids can go to any public or private school in Australia and, in addition, they can access special schools for their culturally sensitive curriculum.
    Any non-Aboriginal kid may enrol at Yipirinya School if they wish, as much as any non Catholic kid may attend OLSH for the kind of education and values they may receive there.
    And there is no Australian law prohibiting an Aboriginal person to enter into marriage with any other person since 1967 (with the addition of the same sex marriage amendment).
    So much clarification and qualification is needed about the Uluru statement and the place of our first nations in our multicultural society.

  5. Dear Maya, you are preaching to a converted. But here we are playing with definitions and that is why I asked the question: if this is not apartheid, what is it?
    Which is the best word to explain why I cannot book into an Aboriginal clinic? You speak of schools. Have you tried to enrol a child?
    All I asked is the right to go to a medical institution in my neighbourhood: Illness does not discriminate.
    Equality of Access is the concept that all persons should have equal rights of access to anything they desire. This is stated on my citizenship certificate.

  6. Evelyne Roullet: The fact you’ve lived to a ripe old age suggests you’ve never had a problem getting health care.
    Maybe ask Rachel Perkins what her Dad did in the 60s to ensure “Equity of Access” when Aboriginal people couldn’t swim in pools in NSW.
    That was racism based.
    Having clinics for Aboriginal people is providing “Equity of Access” for Aboriginal people.
    At 76, you have surpassed the life expectancy of the Aboriginal male (71). Congratulations. By the way, what benefits do you get as an older citizen that I’m not entitled to as a younger person?
    Whenever anyone comments on Aboriginal society, there’s always a whiff of hypocrisy.

  7. @ Davo: I worked hard paying taxes for 30 years+ to get the benefits that you will get in turn.
    Life expectancy: Living conditions play a large role in life expectancy but [1] women live longer, [2] ethnicity affects life expectancy: [3} looking after oneself is overall important.
    “Whenever anyone comments on Aboriginal society, there’s always a whiff of hypocrisy”. Think before talking (writing) do you know me to judge?


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