Today’s surprise resignation of Dr Kelvin Kong, Indigenous Affairs co-chair of the Australia 2020 Summit has opened the door for Kevin Rudd to appoint a second woman to the Summit steering committee. According to a Prime Ministerial media release today Kong has withdrawn his participation in the Summit due to “family health concerns” and he will be replaced by Jackie Huggins. Huggins is a former co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and a recipient of the Australia Medal (AM) in 2001.
52 year old North Queenslander Huggins has the right credentials for the role. She is deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland and is an Indigenous person from the Bidjara group on her mother’s side and the Birri-Gubba Juru peoples on her father’s. But perhaps more importantly for the government which was attacked for its handling of the appointments to the 2020 Summit leadership team, Huggins is a woman. Rudd came under intense fire last month for only choosing one woman (Cate Blanchett) on the ten person panel to guide debate at the ideas summit.
Huggins was expected to attend the Summit anyway as one of 200 Queensland participants. A fortnight ago, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh announced that those 200, including Huggins, would be invited to a preliminary state forum on 13 April to prepare for the national debate a week later. Huggins was expected to be a leader at this forum as it discussed the future of Indigenous Australia as one of its key items.
Huggins has a lifetime of involvement in the Aboriginal cause. In May last year she wrote a major article for The Australian to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Aboriginal vote referendum. Then just 11 years old, she helped her mother campaign by making toffees and lamingtons for fund-raising drives and stood on corners handing out badges. This early activism shaped her life. Her father was a prisoner-of-war on the Burma-Thailand Railway who died at the age of 38 so her mother raised Huggins and her sister from when Jackie was just two years old. They moved to Brisbane where Jackie received the rare accolade of being an Aboriginal school captain. She graduated from the University of Queensland with an Arts degree majoring in Anthropology and History and an Honours degree in History and Women's Studies.
In 1994 she wrote the enduring bestseller “Auntie Rita” with her mother Rita. Now in its third print, Auntie Rita tells the story of Rita Huggins as she relates her memories to her daughter. The now famous Jackie became involved with reconciliation issues. In the last ten years Huggins has become one of the major movers in the reconciliation movement. In the 1990s she was co-commissioner on the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Children from their Families.
However, last year she resigned her commission as Co-Chairwoman of Reconciliation Australia after 14 years of campaigning. She told Aden Ridgeway on ABC’s Message Stick that some health complications after turning fifty made her think of taking time for herself. “That really prompted me to want to look at things that I do and, I think, do pretty well,” she said. “The things that are important to me are still important to me that will stay with me for ever.”
But Huggins will now be firmly back in the public eye. The summit will be held in Parliament House on 19 and 20 April and the parlous state of Aboriginals in 21st century Australia will be one of the biggest topics of discussion in the wake of the Rudd apology for the Stolen Generation and the implementation of the Northern Territory Intervention. It is a task Huggins will tackle with relish.
In 2002 she said “Australia's Indigenous peoples seek a secure future free of discrimination and to participate equitably in Australian society with the same rights that everyone enjoys. They want to be able to control their own destines as Australia citizens and to have restored to them the right to self-determination within Australia's economic, social, political and legal structures, a right denied them by colonisation”. Those issues remain relevant eight years later, and Huggins believes reconciliation is the way to solve them. “At its core, reconciliation is a liberation movement,” she told the Australian, last year. “Something that gives leaders an opportunity to lead and to take people along, as every good leader should.”