Simon Birmingham: Thank you so very much Jenny. I thought I’d start with a little of Dorothea Mackellar’s most famous words. I love a sunburnt country and a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges, of droughts, of flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me. The words never tire and the words ever inspire when it comes to Australian’s views of themselves and of our nation. And we continue as a nation, though we have changed in many, many ways to interpret ourselves through the lens and the eyes of Dorothea Mackellar. So it’s right that today we’re gathered here to celebrate her work, but more importantly to build on her legacy, her passion for writing and poetry which we are doing through the fine young voices that you just heard.
I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands, particularly here in the Canberra region, the Ngunnawal people and all of Australia’s Indigenous owners and acknowledge the fact that we’re continuing to learn of their knowledge, learn from their knowledge and to build on their knowledge as a nation and I acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues, the Shadow Minister for the Arts Mark Dreyfus, the Member for Mackellar, Bronwyn Bishop, it’s wonderful to have you here and of course the Local Member for Gunnedah in Mark Coulton. To the patrons of the Dorothea Mackellar Awards, Mark Vaile, Margaret White and Peter Shergold, wonderful to be here with all of you but ladies and gentlemen, most importantly, teachers, parents, boys and girls and students who are gathered here today.
Thank you all so very much for being here and for supporting what is now of course the 32nd year of the Dorothea Mackellar Awards. Dorothea was born in 1885, at Point Piper, home to our now prime minister. The first draft of that famous poem, My Country, was written while she was homesick in England and though many subsequent drafts ensued before it was finally completed and published, it of course was her reflections of the country that she was yearning for and missing, an acknowledgement of somebody whose passion for their country perhaps was ahead of its time at that stage when many Australians still spoke of England as the home country.
But Dorothea, having been born here, recognised Australia as her home and embraced and celebrated that. And of course, her work puts her alongside the many other icons in Australian poetry, Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, names that stand rightly in our nation’s folklore. And we build upon that work and that legacy by having competitions like today, by providing an opportunity for today’s students to be able to celebrate their country, our country we live in today, to better understand and put into their own words what they see in the world around them, to of course, enhance their understanding and appreciation of the English language, to see how it can be used to inspire the imagination and to create emotion through words.
A competition like this one, is not only a great way to get children to be creative, but it is a fabulous way to ensure that discussion is enhanced in a school environment and in the home environment. The opportunity for parents to be engaged with their children through their participation- and we heard that from some of the stories just before, of children with passion for writing, whose poetry that they’ve done in another way, has been picked up by their parents and they’ve encouraged them to enter and to participate.
Parental engagement is one of my great passions as the Minister for Education. We know that from the very earliest ages, it is of course parents and the home environment that have the greatest single influence on a child’s learning abilities and learning outcomes. Reading to children for just 15 minutes a day from their earliest days will create a situation where they’ll have had 400-500 hours of reading before they start school. And with that comes the vocabulary and the knowledge that enables them to start school in a successful place, and to enjoy the school environment. It’s that enjoyment that of course then inspires them to go further. These awards are yet another great way to extend that opportunity for parents to engage more, for teachers to explain the joys of poetry, and to encourage that engagement.
Our Government is delighted to support the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society through this competition, because we want Australian students to have the opportunity to enjoy the joy of poetry and writing, and to benefit from the richness that such participation provides. I’m sure you’d all appreciate that poetry enables teachers to better teach their students how to write, with reading, and to understand any text.
I understand that experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if a child knows around eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re around four years of age, they’ll usually be amongst the best of their readers by the time they’re eight. That’s perhaps not surprising, because as the father of children aged three and five, I know that capacity of small children to memorise a text, to recite it back to you, it’s quite incredible. But of course in doing so, again they’re building so many of their cognitive capabilities that will equip them for later in life.
This is a popular competition as you’ve heard, 10,000 poems were submitted last year by 655 Australian schools. Apparently home states like mine need to lift our game a little bit to get our numbers up and I’ll have to do my best to make sure that occurs.
But of course they’re just statistics; the beauty in the poetry is that it gives the writer the freedom of expression which we’ve heard today. It allows them to express intense emotion or visuals through those words. It can depict love, hate, joy, pain, sadness, humour, or any number of things. In our contributions today from Jehannah with her poem Breathe, Charlie with his work Imagination, and Kiersten with her work Poppies, we have heard very clearly the ability of our youngest Australians to pick up on the most complicated of themes and emotions and translate them into words.
Overnight we had a little task in my office of how we could perhaps best encapsulate the Dorothea Mackellar Awards in verse. It’s nowhere near up to the standards we’ve had this morning. And I’m sure my media advisor standing up the back is wondering should he really go ahead with this.
But because I’m a good sport I will.
Entries can now be submitted, for work well acquitted,
If you can strike the write chords, in the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards,
Students can enter, even if only an experimenter,
There is $50,000 to reward our budding scholars.
Waiting is this year’s theme, and it should encourage you to dream,
We had 10,000 submissions in 2015, more this year we aim to glean,
The winners will be declared in Literacy and Numeracy Week,
And the fanfare will be far from meek,
There’s a trophy and cash prizes, and likely a few other surprises.
It’s my delight to declare the 2016 awards open, and wish everybody every success, and I look forward to reading some of this year’s wonderful entries, and hopefully to being back with you all again next year. Thank you very much.