Honourable Natalie Charlsesworth.jpeg

CBCA SA Book Week Dinner 2022 Speech by The Honourable Natalie Charlesworth (Patron of the CBCA SA)

In a telephone call with Kathryn about tonight’s dinner, she said “Keep it short Nat”. And as if to subtly reinforce the point, she has kindly provided me with a running sheet.  At my item it says Nat - brief talk.  I’m told I have five minutes.

Well, that presents me with something of a challenge because I do love being the centre of attention.  It has got me where I am today.  

I am stoked to be the patron of this chapter of the Children’s Book Council of Australia.  It captures three things I love - children, stories, and this country.  If I had more time, I would talk of all three, but as I have five minutes, I will have to confine myself and pose a short simple question about only two of them. 

The question is this; What is the story of Australia? Let’s tackle that question. In the four minutes twenty seconds we have left.  

I have been travelling in the last four weeks, in and out of capital cities.   There is a little window on the plane.  It gives me a glimpse, a bird’s eye view, over the land below.   Let me describe what I see through that little round portal, especially when the plane descends below the clouds.

I see peach toned sand, sage green salt bush, pink lakes.  Sometimes I see oceans that turn from turquoise to cobalt to Paynes grey.  Sometimes I see dry creeks, their tracks and tributaries curling Iike loose brush strokes across the flats.   I see valleys sluiced into granite hills, russet cliffs, milky rivers.  I see, from up there, looking down through that little oval, slithers of struggle, survival and beauty.    

The land is vast, its edges curve and fall away way off in the misty distance.  It is everchanging.  For a single mind it is too much to take in, let alone convey.  Despite my profession, I cannot do it justice.

The thing is, when you ask, what is the story of this place recently named Australia, there is not a single person who can truthfully answer the question.  Because there is not a single person who can experience the whole of it, who can speak for the whole of it, who is entitled to speak for the whole of it.

One part of my work is the conduct of Native Title matters.  That means that as a white Caucasian descendant of the first settlers in this State, I have the undeserved privileged to hear stories told to the Court by Aboriginal people.   Those stories are about land, time and space, all at once.  They explain the features of the land and the inextricable relationship of ancestors to it. They are maps.  They are clocks.  They are rules for living.  And sometimes they are all of those things.

When Aboriginal people ask who can speak for Country, they convey by that question something that I think is critically important.   To say one speaks for Country is not an assertion ownership or dominion over the land in a European way of speaking.  Rather, it conveys an intimacy, a connection that a person has with a particular part of the country.  And it is usually cast in terms of a responsibility.  As I have come to understand it, with my limited European upbringing, speaking for Country and caring for Country are one and the same thing.  You can’t speak for more than you are responsible for, that you are capable of caring for.  If you are telling a story about something other than that, you may not be speaking the truth.

To learn the story of Australia, perhaps it is better that we stop talking for a while, and just listen.  Listen to each other, and especially to stories told from the perspective of First Nations people.

And so, if I ask the question “What is the story of Australia?” the true answer is, it’s not for me (or you) alone to say. All I can do describe what I think I know as if looking through the porthole of a plane, from the tiny perspective of my own lived experience.   Others will look through other windows on other flights over other parts of the land at a different time, and they tell a different story.  

I think is what children’s books do.   They are tiny windows to the world.   They do not purport to know everything or to say everything there is to be said. You can’t say everything in 8 or 16 or 32 pages, and you shouldn’t try.  But you can tell a small part of the truth.  The same applies when you have but five minutes to speak.  And my five minutes is up.