Reconciliation since 2000: stalled, fermenting, or taken out the
back and shot?
Dr Mark Byrne*
27 October 2005
(A version of this paper appeared as an op-ed on New
Sunday, 27 May 2000 was one of the most memorable days in recent
Australian history. On a bright Autumn day nearly a quarter of a
million people marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support
of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. A skywriter eked out in
trails of white far above them the word the Prime Minister —
who lived within sight of the bridge, but who declined to walk —had
steadfastly refused to say to Aboriginal people: SORRY. Other large
walks subsequently occurred in the other capital cities, reinforcing
the message of popular support for the reconciliation process.
The day before the march was Corroboree Day at the Sydney Opera
House. After a decade of work involving extensive community consultations,
social research, public education and political negotiations, the
Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) formally presented the
Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation and Roadmap to Reconciliation
to the assembled dignitaries and the nation.
On 4 December 2000 CAR’s last act was to present its final
report to the Prime Minister and the Federal Parliament. Reconciliation:
listed a number of items of “unfinished business” in
the reconciliation agenda that should be addressed by the federal
and state governments and by CAR’s successor body, Reconciliation
Australia (RA). It also included a draft Reconciliation Bill
2001 to establish processes, including triennial Reconciliation
Conventions, “to identify, monitor, negotiate and resolve
unresolved issues for reconciliation”.
The letter to parliament that accompanied the report ended on an
The Council believes that if the documents and strategies outlined
in this report are acted upon, Australia will have a solid claim
to asserting itself as a reconciled nation. We would be getting
close to the Council's vision of:
A united Australia which respects this land of ours; values the
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; and provides justice
and equity for all.
“If” is, of course, the magic word. The mood that prevails
five years later was reflected in the words of anthropologist Dr
Ruth Fink Latukefu when she spoke at a Reconciliation Week service
in a Canberra church:
Today, [five] years later, something seems to be wrong, our
roller coaster is stopping. Aboriginal voices are silent. ATSIC
has been abolished. Regional Councils are to be disbanded. There
is to be no more elected representation. Can someone please explain
what is going on? The journey seems to be over. We are no longer
moving forward, are we just standing still or are we moving backwards?
The aim of this paper is to “explain what is going on”
by examining the major developments in the reconciliation process
since the end of 2000. We need to begin by defining what we mean
by reconciliation in the Australian context. For some it has come
to encapsulate the whole process of overcoming Indigenous disadvantage
and bridging the gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.
For others it is little more than “feel good” exercise
by middle class whites who want to be seen to be doing something
positive without ceding substantial rights to Indigenous people.
For the purposes of this paper, reconciliation is taken to have
three components or dimensions: practical measures to overcome Indigenous
disadvantage; symbolic measures (such as an apology to the Stolen
Generations) to heal the wounds of the past and present; and substantive
measures related to the so-called “rights agenda”, especially
land rights and a formal treaty or agreement to legitimise European
settlement and the rightful place of Indigenous people in contemporary
But it is also worth emphasising that reconciliation is above all
a process that happens between people and cultures. It is
not just about white Australians accepting responsibility for past
mistakes; nor is it only about giving rights or services to Aboriginal
people so that they can improve their lot. It is, rather, about
a historically charged and ongoing process of relationship between
two (or more) traditionally (and perhaps still) very distinct peoples
and cultures. The focus of this paper will therefore be on a range of areas
where Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies interact, rather than
on the impact on Indigenous communities of the new arrangements
for Indigenous affairs; the issue of Indigenous representation post-ATSIC;
or the politics of Indigenous leadership over the past five years.
The reconciliation process over the last five years has, of course,
been strongly influenced by what came before. Summarising the “decade
of reconciliation” from 1991-2000, Monash University’s
Dr Andrew Gunstone concluded that of the three goals CAR set itself,
“the education and document of reconciliation goals had…
limited success whilst the socio-economic goal did not succeed.”
He put this poor scorecard he put down to a number of factors:
… the manner of the establishment of the reconciliation
process; the emphasis on symbolic and practical reconciliation
rather than on substantive reconciliation; the nationalist discourse
of reconciliation; the emphasis within the reconciliation process
on a restricted concept of justice; and the attempts by the reconciliation
process to improve relationships instead of also endeavouring
to accommodate differences.
Is the scorecard any better for the last five years? Progress during
the nineties could be measured by assessing the achievements of
CAR against the goals set by the legislation that created it in
1991. Perhaps the most objective way to measure progress over the
period since 2000 would be by assessing the extent to which the
recommendations in CAR’s final report have been acted upon.
However, it is also important to consider a range of other factors,
including the Federal Government’s focus on practical reconciliation;
the symbolic and substantive agendas; the role of CAR’s successor
organization, Reconciliation Australia (RA); the so-called “people’s
movement for reconciliation”; the involvement of the United
Nations; and other areas of Australian life in which reconciliation
appears to be happening on a more informal basis.
After a hiatus of nearly two years, on September 26 2002 the Federal
Government released its response to CAR’s final report. Of CAR’s six recommendations
(detailed in the Appendix) the government only committed itself
to the first — a national framework for overcoming Indigenous
disadvantage — and noted that it had adopted part of the fourth
by setting up Reconciliation Australia in the interim period. It
rejected the idea of a formal treaty or agreement on the basis that
… such a legally enforceable instrument, as between sovereign
states would be divisive, would undermine the concept of a single
Australian nation, would create legal uncertainty and future disputation
and would not best harness the positive environment that now exists
in relation to reconciliation.
It also declined to enshrine either the Declaration or the
Roadmap in legislation, arguing that
Many of the elements contained in the Roadmap represent core
business for government and are being pursued through the normal
policy processes. However, the Government does not see that legislative
changes will advance this process effectively.
Of course, the government had never committed itself in advance
to accepting and adopting CAR’s recommendations, and its lack
of enthusiasm would have come as no surprise to many, given its
aversion during the 1990s to anything other than practical measures
to reduce Indigenous disadvantage. The most telling indication of
this aversion was the Prime Minister’s action in issuing his
own version of the Declaration on the same day it was released
(11 May 2000), following extensive community consultations and opinion
polling in 1999. As he explained in a press release at the time,
The areas of difference relate to customary law, the general
application of the laws of Australia to all citizens, self determination
and a national apology as distinct from an expression of sorrow
and sincere regret.
In its response to CAR’s final report the government argued
that it had made these changes to the Declaration “so
as to gain the support of the Australian people”; but that,
in spite of the rewording, “there is vastly more common ground
than difference between the Government’s Revised Declaration
and the Council’s Declaration.”
The latter argument may technically be true, but if the differences
were not important, the Prime Minister would not have bothered to
highlight them on the very same day the Declaration was made
public. The government made no subsequent effort to promote even
its own version “to gain the support of the Australian people”,
let alone to enshrine it in legislation. It therefore appears that
it was more interested in emphasising differences than in finding
In other respects the government’s response to CAR’s
final report reinforced its ongoing focus on practical reconciliation.
Expressing its “sincere desire to see Indigenous people not
just treated as equals, but to experience equity in all facets of
Australian life”, it asserted that “Australians are
a practical people and they strongly support practical measures
to redress disadvantage.”
It therefore announced its intention to “tackle the social
and economic difficulties that beset our Indigenous communities”
by a range of measures which have since borne fruit in the “new
arrangements” for Indigenous affairs implemented since 2003. Some of these reforms
have been the subject of intense public debate and scrutiny,
while others are in their infancy.
This is not the place to undertake a detailed evaluation of the
government’s reforms; rather to put them in the wider perspective
of the reconciliation process. In this respect there are three main
criticisms of the government’s practical reconciliation agenda.
The first is that, as Dr Tim Rowse has pointed out, having put
all its reconciliation eggs in the basket labelled “practical”,
the government risks the perception of failure if the living standards
of Indigenous people are not seen to be improving. According to
Professor Mick Dodson, “good things are happening at the community
level, particularly in relations to issues like domestic violence,
school attendance and substance abuse.” However, national data are not especially encouraging.
The 2005 Productivity Commission report Overcoming Indigenous
Disadvantage: Key Indicators (the second in an ongoing series
commissioned by COAG) found that
…while it is heartening to see improvements in some of
the economic and social indicators, many show little or no movement.
In all areas, the gap between the experience of Indigenous peoples
and other Australians is still wide.
Another criticism of the new arrangements is that, in spite of
government claims that they represent a new era of “bottom-up”
community involvement in making decisions that affect them,
the entire edifice has been constructed from the top down with little
involvement by Indigenous people — other than Noel Pearson,
head of the Cape York Land Council and the Cape York Institute for
Leadership, who has been called a one-man think tank to the Federal
Government. This is part of the broader complaint that the new arrangements
represent a return to the old ideologies of paternalism and assimilationism,
under which it is believed that Indigenous people are either incapable
of managing their own affairs, or should not be treated any differently
to other groups in the Australian community.
Symbolic and substantive reconciliation
The other main criticism of the government’s focus on practical
reconciliation is that it sidelines unresolved symbolic and rights
issues. Asserting that “Australians are a practical people
and they strongly support practical measures to redress disadvantage”
is to implicitly reject the idea that, as former Senator Aden Ridgeway
put it (borrowing an American saying), “We can walk and chew
gum at the same time.”
In other words, it is possible to deal with practical and symbolic
For instance, it has been argued on numerous occasions that that
“Recognition of Indigenous people's prior ownership of the
land is central to their achieving social and economic equity in
The Federal Government has not been completely averse to expressions
of symbolic reconciliation. For instance, it funded the construction
of Reconciliation Place in 2002 in Canberra as an open public area
for reflection on the reconciliation process and the nation’s
shared history. However, Reconciliation Place was initially designed
and constructed without the direct involvement of local or national
Indigenous representatives, and was criticised for whitewashing
the Stolen Generations issue by failing to depict the emotional
trauma often involved in the forced separation of Indigenous families. A compromise was eventually
reached between the government and the Sorry Day Committee, but
the resulting monuments — a series of seven artistic “slivers”
stretched out on a walkway between the High Court and National Library
buildings on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin depicting various
events and expressions of reconciliation — tell no coherent
story and are all but invisible. The former is a deliberate response
to the many voices and perspectives on Indigenous history and reconciliation,
and the latter will be rectified in the near future when three more
slivers are also added. Still, one may be forgiven
for concluding that the conflicted design process and the underwhelming
result are telling reflections of the government’s disinterest
in elevating reconciliation to a central place in the life of the
On the issue of an apology to the Stolen Generations or to Indigenous
people more generally, while sticking to his refusal to issue a
formal apology, at the 2005 National Reconciliation Planning Workshop
Prime Minister Howard proclaimed, “Reconciliation is about
... symbols as well as practical achievement.” But he then reiterated
that “... if all we do is focus on symbols we will have failed
... Recognition of symbols needs to go hand-in-hand with practical
In other respects the Federal Government has manifestly rejected
or ignored important elements of the agendas for symbolic and substantive
reconciliation. For instance, in April 2001 Australian Democrats
Senator Aden Ridgeway introduced the Reconciliation Bill 2001.
Modeled on the draft legislation in CAR’s final report, it
was intended to establish “processes to identify, monitor,
negotiate and resolve unresolved issues for reconciliation.” This was not radical
legislation — it was not, for instance, intended to create
a treaty between Indigenous and other Australians — yet
it “lapsed for want of broader parliamentary support.” Senator Ridgeway tried again in November 2003,
with the same result.
Given the government’s failure to adequately respond to the
recommendations in CAR’s final report, in August 2002 the
Senate initiated an Inquiry into the Progress Towards National
Reconciliation. It received 86 submissions, including submissions
from all states and territories except New South Wales, and conducted public
enquiries in several cities. The Committee's report, Reconciliation:
Off track, was released in October 2003. It was a damning assessment
of the (lack of) progress in the reconciliation process:
This inquiry has clearly established that the Commonwealth Government’s
“practical reconciliation” approach is failing Indigenous
people. Indicators of Indigenous disadvantage are
not improving in many areas. There has
been a very minimal response to the symbolic issues outlined
by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. There is no
legislation to enact a treaty process and no timeframe or process
to resolve “unfinished business”. The Government’s
emphasis on areas of perceived agreement leaves many important
issues off the agenda, to the detriment of Indigenous people.
In short, there is a failure of national leadership on this, one
of the most critical issues in the definition of the nation.
Two years after the release of the Senate committee’s report,
the government has still not issued a formal response to it. Neither
has there been any significant progress on symbolic and rights issues
at the national level in the interim.
Indeed, the abolition in mid-2004 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Commission (ATSIC) represents one huge step backwards for
the substantive reconciliation agenda. It has left Indigenous Australians
without any national elected body to represent them and their interests
— a situation compounded when Aden Ridgeway, the only Indigenous
Federal parliamentarian, lost his Senate seat in the 2004 Federal
In late 2004 the Senate launched an inquiry into the abolition
of ATSIC and the government’s new arrangements for Indigenous
affairs. Its report, released in March 2005, was highly critical.
After ATSIC — Life in the mainstream? portrays the new arrangements as a return to
the old policy of assimilationism, which it described as
…paternalistic and essentially arrogant in its superiority.
It is a view that most Australians would find repugnant. Opponents
of assimilationism, both black and white, do not want to banish
Indigenous people to apartheid-inspired reservations, but recognise
that, in order to take their rightful place in Australian society,
Indigenous people’s needs, their history, their cultures
and their rights must be accorded recognition and respect. The
government’s agenda fails to do this. In so doing it fails
its own Indigenous citizens. For all Australians, that is a matter
The report was all but ignored by the government, although its
committee members produced a minority report in which they argued
The Committee’s Report demonstrates an ideological commitment
to a second rate system that has failed Indigenous Australians
and disappointed all Australians for decades. The report
offers no alternative way forward to reduce the indisputable level
of disadvantage faced by many Indigenous Australians.
The people’s movement
In response to the Howard government’s antipathy towards
native title in the wake of the High Court’s Mabo and
Wik decisions and its refusal to formally apologise to the
“Stolen Generations” following the release of the report
of the “Stolen Children” National Inquiry, in 1997 CAR
Chairperson Pat Dodson called for a “people’s movement
for reconciliation.” The people responded,
and by 2000 there were hundreds of local reconciliation groups around
the country, supported by organisations such as Australians for
Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) and State-based Reconciliation
Councils. The bridge walks around the nation in 2000 were the most
visible expression of the momentum generated by this movement, which
also found expression in the Sea of Hands initiated by ANTaR and
the Sorry Books, both of which gave ordinary Australians the opportunity
to say to the Stolen Generations what the Federal Government had
been unwilling to say.
Two other possible ongoing expressions of the people’s movement
are Reconciliation Week (27 May-3 June), which since 1996 has marked
the anniversary of the Referendum in 1967 “in which more than
90 per cent of Australians voted to remove clauses from the Australian
Constitution which discriminated against Indigenous Australians…
[and which] gave the Commonwealth Government the power to make laws
on behalf of Aboriginal people”; and Sorry Day (26 May),
which marks the release in 1997 of Bringing Them Home, and
which was renamed a National Day of Healing in 2005.
What evidence is there of the popularity of the people’s
movement over the last five years? Since 2000 there has been only
one large-scale opinion poll to test the national mood on reconciliation.
It was carried out in preparation for the “deliberative poll”
held in Old Parliament House in Canberra over a weekend in 2001,
and the results were broadly in line with polling done for CAR in
2000. In late 2004 RA conducted an “informal audit of reconciliation
activity being undertaken across Australia” which found that
“The reconciliation movement appears to be alive and well
in major community organisations, businesses and government”, although the methodology used raises doubts about
its objectivity. No audit of local reconciliation
groups has been published to date, although the NSW Reconciliation
Council will report on the results of such an audit of local groups
in NSW at its annual conference in late October 2005.
Despite the absence of hard data, it is generally acknowledged
that the momentum of the people’s movement dissipated after
2000. This was to be expected in light of the disappointments of
that year and the Federal Government’s continuing intransigence
on issues such as an apology to the Stolen Generations. As the Foreword
to Reconciliation: Off Track, says,
There is a sense that momentum is being lost. People are becoming
disheartened and reconciliation is slipping off the national agenda.
While the ‘people’s movement’ is an important
part of reconciliation in Australia… national leadership
is equally important. The people need more support…
It is also likely that some social justice and human rights activists
turned their attention from Indigenous issues to refugees and asylum
seekers in the wake of the Tampa crisis in 2001, and to foreign
issues following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September
Yet there is anecdotal evidence that grassroots interest in reconciliation
is again on the rise. For instance, attendance at local reconciliation
groups appears to have increased, as more people realise they can’t
wait for a change of government for reconciliation to get “back
on track” and feel compelled to express their support for
Indigenous people in the wake of ATSIC’s demise.
This interest has received a further boost with the recent and planned
changes to land ownership laws and other threats to Indigenous rights
since the Howard government gained control of the Senate in July
2005. In spite of the fact that there is no obvious outlet for people’s
angst, more non-Indigenous Australians are wanting at the very least
to support organisations such as ANTaR which are able to advocate
on behalf of Indigenous Australians.
The role of Reconciliation Australia
CAR was established by an Act of Parliament that received unanimous
political support and had a budget that exceeded $80 million over
nearly a decade. In contrast, RA was established in 2001 as “the
non-government, not-for-profit foundation to continue the national
focus for reconciliation.” It was given seed funding
of $5.6 million and tax deductibility status for donations made
to it. However, it has no statutory role and is subject to the vagaries of annual Federal
Budget priorities and corporate funding
and private donations. Many submissions to the 2003 Senate enquiry
therefore expressed doubts about RA’s ability to “accurately
monitor and report on the progress of reconciliation,” for
two reasons: “the absence of any statutory authority to require
reporting by governments” and its limited budget. In its submission to the enquiry RA
itself argued that further progress in reconciliation required
A commitment from the federal government to the reconciliation
process, as outlined by the CAR; ongoing government funding to
Reconciliation Australia to enable it to maintain and extend its
strategic priorities; and greater authority by statute for Reconciliation
Australia and for the reconciliation process generally.
Of these three factors, the federal government has expressed its
support for the reconciliation process, but has only backed it up
with measures to overcome Indigenous disadvantage; no “greater
authority by statute” has emerged to date; but additional
funding of $15 million was provided to RA in the 2004 budget (at
the same time that ATSIC was abolished) for the period to 2008.
In its 2001-2003 Strategic Plan RA identified its mission as follows:
To deliver tangible outcomes for reconciliation by forging innovative
• achieve social and economic equity for Indigenous
• strengthen the people’s movement for reconciliation;
• acknowledge the past and build a framework for a
So far RA has not developed any publicly available mechanisms for
assessing its success in fulfilling this mission. Nor has it played
a strong public advocacy role to date. Perhaps due to past funding constraints, it has
initiated a range of other, less obvious activities involving partnerships
with universities, business and the community.
The most visible outcome of its work to date has been the National
Reconciliation Planning Workshop held in Old Parliament House during
Reconciliation Week in 2005. Attended by nearly 200 Indigenous and
non-Indigenous leaders, it was intended
…to facilitate the exchange of ideas and the fostering
of constructive communication and discussion around important
issues. Following on from the Workshop, an opportunity exists
now to continue exploring common ground between Indigenous and
non-Indigenous leaders to make real progress.
The event received media attention primarily as the result of a
mixup over the timing of Senator Vanstone’s speech. This was
a minor logistical hiccup, but the anger it generated reflected
the feelings of Indigenous leaders towards the government following
the abolition of ATSIC and the imposition of the “new arrangements.”
This atmosphere was not outweighed by the good news stories from
other sectors such as mining and tourism.
According to the RA website, following the workshop
A more detailed workplan for reconciliation over the next two
years will be developed by Reconciliation Australia in partnership
with a range of workshop participants and others. As part of this
process, RA will discuss with its partners and other stakeholders
the most appropriate way to commemorate the 40th anniversary of
the 1967 Referendum, including the possible option of a national
reconciliation convention or regional or state conventions.
However, there do not appear to be any clear mechanisms for involving
Indigenous leaders, State Reconciliation Councils, local reconciliation
groups, other NGOs or the general public in RA’s policy-making,
strategic planning or public advocacy roles.
Democratic and transparent decision-making processes are not required
of foundations, but their absence runs counter to RA’s perceived
role as the national body coordinating the reconciliation process.
It also leaves RA vulnerable to the criticism that it is too close
to the Federal Government and the corporate sector and too distant
from grassroots supporters, who have been better served by ANTaR
and some State Reconciliation Councils.
The United Nations
The period from 1994 to 2004 was the United Nations International
Decade of the World’s Indigenous People,
but at the end of that period, according to Professor Mick Dodson,
“we have gone backwards”.
Australia first attracted the attention of the UN Committee on the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1999 following amendments
it made in 1998 to the 1993 Native Title Act in response
to the High Court’s 1997 Wik decision. In March 1999
the Committee made its first ever criticisms of a Western nation,
producing an angry response from the Federal Government.
In April 2000 the Committee backed up its earlier criticisms with
a report detailing numerous criticisms of Australia’s treatment
of its Indigenous people. Inter alia, it expressed its concern
… about the apparent loss of confidence by the indigenous
community in the process of reconciliation. The Committee recommends
that the State party take appropriate measures to ensure that
the reconciliation process is conducted on the basis of robust
engagement and effective leadership, so as to lead to meaningful
reconciliation, genuinely embraced by both the indigenous population
and the population at large.
After a visit to Australia in April-May 2001 a UN Special Rapporteur reported that “the question of reconciliation
with the Aboriginal peoples remains outstanding, because it affects
the foundations of the Australian State and conflicting cultural
values.” He therefore recommended that “The process
of reconciliation should be given fresh impetus, taking greater
account of the positions of the representatives of the Indigenous
Following the submission of further reports from the Australian
Government in 2004,
the CERD met in March 2005 to assess Australia's performance over
the last five years. The government was represented by UN Ambassador
Mike Smith, who is reported to have “put in the boot”
to the committee, in an apparent attempt to forestall the kind of
criticism the government received in 2000. While the Committee’s
report was more measured than previously, it again raised serious
concerns about Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous people.
It called on the government to work towards meaningful reconciliation
and to properly address the issues of the Stolen Generation. This time around, the report was largely ignored
(at least in public) by the government, and as a result received
little media attention.
With the demise of ATSIC, its man in Geneva, Les Malezer, is no
longer employed to represent the interests of Indigenous Australians
before the UN.
Other roads to reconciliation
Sometimes it appears that the further one moves away from “big
R” reconciliation, the brighter the picture looks. For instance,
within the reconciliation “fold” many local groups are
doing a fantastic job at keeping interest up among grassroots supporters,
a youth network has emerged. Further afield, despite the absence of a comprehensive
treaty or agreement, in post-Mabo Australia there is a growing “culture
of agreement-making” between governments, the private sector
and Indigenous organizations — ranging from Indigenous Land
Use Agreements (ILUAs) to local partnerships
— that are aimed at either reducing Indigenous disadvantage
or improving race relations.
But it may be in areas not directly associated with politics that
the most progress is being made. The arts are a case in point. Aboriginal
art continues to grow in stature internationally while supporting
many artists and their families in outback communities. More accomplished
and inventive short and feature films are being developed and made
by Indigenous filmmakers such as Rachael Perkins and Ivan Sen, while others which deal with race relations in
artful as well as provocative ways (e.g., Australian Rules)
are being made by non-Indigenous Australians. Traditional and modern
dance companies such as Bangarra are an established presence in
major cities and tourist centres.
Another such place is sport, from the iconic role of Cathy Freeman
in the 2000 Olympics to the high visibility and appeal of Aboriginal
footballers in the AFL and NRL. In tourism, the growing nexus between eco- and
Indigenous tourism is creating employment opportunities in remote
communities (especially in central and northern Australia) while
also bridging the cultural chasm between white and black Australia.
There are still important issues to overcome in each of these areas
of Australian life. Nevertheless, these developments
point to a gradual acceptance and appreciation of Indigenous people
and culture among other Australians that is perhaps the most hopeful
sign of reconciliation currently occurring in the nation.
The short answer to the question posed at the outset of this paper
— to “explain what is going on” — was
given early in 2005 by former Governor-General and current RA Patron
Sir William Deane when he said, “In the years since Corroboree
2000, relations between Indigenous Australians… and our nation
seem to me to have significantly deteriorated.”
Coming from someone with Sir William’s impeccable credentials
in improving relations between Indigenous and other Australians,
this is a damning assessment of a period during which reconciliation
has supposedly still been on the national agenda in various ways,
both formally and informally.
The view from 2005 is especially disappointing when one recalls
the hopes and expectations of the formal reconciliation process
in the previous decade. The policies of the Howard government constitute
the most obvious reason for the lack of recent progress. The Prime Minister’s preference for practical
over symbolic reconciliation represents a false dichotomy that not
only belittles the importance of healing processes, but also sidelines
the continuing relevance of substantive reconciliation or the rights
agenda. Add to this the government’s decision not to create
a statutory role for RA, its delay of two years before responding
to CAR’s final report, its abolition of ATSIC, and its imposition
of “new arrangements” for Indigenous affairs without
consultation with the very people these arrangements are supposed
to empower, and there exist more than enough ingredients for failure.
Nevertheless, the government is motivated by popular opinion as
well as ideology, since it would not have been able to push through
its agenda for Indigenous affairs and reconciliation without broad
popular support. The Australian people have shown over the past
decade that they are (or can be, with the “right” leadership)
at best ambivalent about Indigenous issues, and at worst deeply
conservative. Opinion polls have consistently shown that while the
majority of Australians are willing to admit accept that Indigenous
people were mistreated in the past, they are divided as to whether
disadvantage today represents continuing mistreatment or is rather
the fault of Indigenous people themselves. They are certainly not
in favour of apologising for the actions of people long dead, and
do not see themselves as perpetuating racism and exploitation by
their lifestyles and attitudes today. In addition, the Howard
government has done a sterling job of associating an apology to
the Stolen Generations with personal and legal responsibility for
their plight, rather than understanding “sorry” to be
a simple expression of compassion.
Another major influence on the last five years has been the way
the “decade of reconciliation” finished in 2000. Howard may have undermined the process when he
put out his own version of the Declaration on the same day
CAR issued its original, but perhaps CAR’s timetable was always
too ambitious and inflexible to achieve substantial changes. Also, the six major recommendations in CAR’s
final report were far from perfect, with the idea of a treaty/agreement
appearing no less than four times in different guises. And after
nine years of research, consultation and deliberations, CAR’s
Draft Reconciliation Bill (the basis of that introduced into
the Senate in 2001 and 2004 by Aden Ridgeway) was a major compromise.
Featuring a triennial Reconciliation Convention and a dispute resolution
procedure, it was a long way from a treaty which would deal definitively
with “unfinished business” and guarantee Indigenous
Responsibility must also be shared by the Labor Party. Realising,
like the government, that Indigenous issues are not vote-winners
in the current climate, it has neglected or failed in the current
decade to articulate clear policy alternatives to those of the government.
Instead it has engaged, here as in other portfolios, in an egregious
“me-tooism” — most notably when it announced
before the 2004 election that if elected it would abolish ATSIC.
And when it does criticise government policy, such as in the report
of the 2004 Senate inquiry into life after ATSIC, it is often unable
to articulate a clear policy alternative. Long gone are the days when, in 1975, Gough Whitlam poured desert
sand through his hands and into those of Vincent Lingiari to mark
the handing back of the Wave Hill cattle station to the Gurindji
people; when, in 1985, Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen handed
over the title to Uluru National Park, symbolic heart of the nation,
to the traditional owners at a ceremony near the base of the rock;
or when, in 1992, Paul Keating delivered the Redfern speech (written
by Don Watson) that represents the most wholehearted and profound
acknowledgement of past wrongs and present needs ever uttered in
this country. In 2005, how many people even know who the Opposition
Spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs is, let alone what ALP policy
is on, say, Shared Responsibility Agreements?
If we accept that the reconciliation process had a compromised
birth in 1991, tried to “grow up” during the nineties,
failed to leave home in 2000, and has been struggling to find its
identity since then, what hope does the future hold? One possibility
— favoured by the present government — is that
if Indigenous people’s everyday lives improve sufficiently,
the sins of the past will be forgotten and demands for a treaty
and other rights will simply fade away. Another is that sooner or
later more constructive leadership will emerge from Canberra which
will deal with all three aspects of the reconciliation agenda: the
practical, the symbolic and the substantive.
A third possibility is that the very concept of reconciliation will
give way to a new approach which does not carry the same heavy historical
Whatever direction the process takes, one can only hope that the
future — unlike the recent past — will be
a case of two steps forward and only one step back. As Pat Dodson
reminded the 2005 National Reconciliation Workshop, there is no
foundation to the relationship between Indigenous and other Australians.
Many white Australians acknowledge that their existence in this
land lacks an important measure of legitimacy, 
while Indigenous people need recognition of prior ownership in order
to feel part of the body politic. Sooner or later, a formal agreement
which acknowledges past mistakes without apportioning blame will
be needed to create a firm foundation for the future of this nation.
Post-Mabo, a “culture of agreement-making” has
arisen in respect of native title claims, Indigenous Land Use Agreements
and the like. There are also numerous examples of such agreements
with Indigenous peoples in other former British colonies that could
be used as models.
The Howard government has sidestepped the issue by claiming that
that a treaty can only be made between sovereign states, thus raising
the fear among non-Indigenous Australians of a “nation within
the nation.” This is a furphy. It is usually referred to as
a treaty because that is what should have been negotiated between
the nations before British settlement. Call it what you will, it
is the negotiation of a formal and comprehensive basis for shared
custodianship of this land and equal participation in its social
life that is called for. As others have pointed out, the resolution
of this issue is intimately bound up with the push for an Australian
republic. It’s a matter of taking care of the past before
we can step into the future.
CAR RECOMMENDATIONS AND THE GOVERNMENT’S
Recommendation 1: The Council of Australian Governments
(COAG) agree to implement and monitor a national framework whereby
all governments and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
(ATSIC) work to overcome Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples'
disadvantage through setting program performance benchmarks that
are measurable (including timelines), are agreed in partnership
with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities,
and are publicly reported.
Government Response: COAG endorses a framework to advance
reconciliation through partnerships and shared responsibility with
Aboriginal communities with an emphasis on locality and a system
which is outcome based. In conjunction with this, flexibility within
programs is to be integrated with flexible coordination between
government agencies. Commonwealth and state Ministerial Councils
are in the course of developing action plans to include monitoring
strategies and program performance benchmarks to measure progress
of implemented policies. In addition to this response is the trail
of a departmental task force within 10 Indigenous communities to
sustain and motivate a whole-of-government approach to improve and
monitor the ways in which different government agencies interact
with each other and with Indigenous communities. It is the hope
of the Commonwealth Government that this will improve effectiveness
of government agencies responses to Indigenous needs. The commission
of a regular public report by COAG into these changes will allow
for the visibility of progress to the public sector and will allow
Indigenous communities to hold those government agencies accountable
where performance is failing.
Recommendation 2: All parliaments and local governments
pass formal motions of support for the Australian Declaration
Towards Reconciliation and the Roadmap for Reconciliation,
enshrine their basic principles in appropriate legislation, and
determine how their key recommendations can best be implemented
in their jurisdictions.
Government Response: The government does not see the benefit
of legislative changes and states that many of the five elements
in the Roadmap for Reconciliation are already being perused
in normal policy processes. It reaffirms its support for reconciliation
expressed in its Motion of Reconciliation passed by both
Houses of Federal Parliament on 26TH August 1999. The
government has revised the Declaration in parts so as to
gain the support from Australian people. Within this revision the
Government wishes to emphasis that there is much common ground between
the Council’s declaration and the Government’s revision.
Recommendation 3: The Commonwealth Parliament to prepare
legislation for a referendum which seeks to:
- recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the
first peoples of Australia in a new preamble to the Constitution;
- remove section 25 of the Constitution and introduce a new section
making it unlawful to adversely discriminate against any people
on the grounds of race.
- The Government does not support this recommendation for one
reason – Australians were asked at the referendum in 1998
to support such a preamble, but on that occasion chose not to
despite bipartisan political support for it.
- The Government is generally supportive of the proposal to remove
s25 of the Constitution and given adequate support it would be
disposed to put the matter to referendum. However the request
for a new addition to the Constitution that focuses on the illegality
of discrimination on the bases of race is not seen as a necessity
by the Government for it believes that the Racial Discrimination
Act already meets this requirement.
Recommendation 4: Recognising that the formal reconciliation
process over the last decade has achieved much and has helped bring
Australians together, all levels of government, non-government,
business, peak bodies, communities and individuals commit themselves
to continuing the process and sustaining it by:
- affirming the Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation
and actioning the Roadmap for Reconciliation;
- providing resources for reconciliation activities and involving
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their work;
- undertaking educational and public-awareness activities to
help improve understanding and relations between Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community; and
- supporting Reconciliation Australia, the foundation which has
been established to maintain a national leadership focus for reconciliation,
report on progress, provide information and raise funds to promote
and support reconciliation.
Government Response: Recommendation 4 has been embraced
in large part by the commonwealth Government, although its approach
differs in some respects. The Commonwealth acted on this the Council’s
recommendation by providing $5.6 million towards the establishment
of Reconciliation Australia, and has also provided tax deductibility
status to the organisation. It has also secured further financial
support from a number of Commonwealth departments and agencies for
important national reconciliation activities. The Government acknowledges
that Reconciliation has made numerous positive contributions to
reconciliation policy and debate. Also the creation of Reconciliation
Place in 2002 in Canberra provides an open public area for reflection
on the reconciliation process and the nation’s shared history.
The Government recognizes the importance, on certain occasions,
to publicly acknowledgment the special place of the life and history
of the Aboriginal people such as Citizenship ceremonies.
Recommendation 5: Each government and parliament:
- recognise that this land and its waters were settled as colonies
without treaty or consent and that to advance reconciliation it
would be most desirable if there were agreements or treaties;
- negotiate a process through which this might be achieved that
protects the political, legal, cultural and economic position
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Government Response: The Government affirms its recognition
that this land and its waters were settled as colonies without a
treaty or consent, in their revision of the Reconciliation Council’s
Declaration of Reconciliation. However, the
Government recognises there are widely divergent views in the community
on issues such as making a treaty with indigenous people, and is
concerned of the risk that the community will be divided by placing
undue emphasis on such sensitive issues. People are concerned
about the implications if it were to be legally binding (and thereby
a basis for future litigation rather than closure). For these reasons
the Government does not see it as desirable to forward agreements
of the question of a treaty.
Recommendation 6: That the Commonwealth Parliament enact
legislation (for which the Council has provided a draft in this
report) to put in place a process which will unite all Australians
by way of an agreement, or treaty, through which unresolved issues
of reconciliation can be resolved.
Government Response: The Government does not support further
debate over the question of a treaty due to the conflict that it
will unduly raise in Australian society. The Government holds that
legal frameworks aren’t necessarily the answer to social issues.
The suggestion of separation between Indigenous and other Australians
is also a cause of concern. For these reasons, the Government will
not give its support to those recommendations of the Council that
seek to further prolong debate on the issue of treaty.
* For other references and weblinks please go to the relevant
Behrendt, L. Nothing mutual about denying Aborigines a voice. Sydney
Morning Herald, December 8, 2004
Brennan, S., Behrendt, L., Strelien, L. and Williams, G. Treaty,
Sydney, The Federation Press, 2005
Brennan, S., Bosnjak, V. and Williams, G. "Rights-based reconciliation
needs renewed action from Canberra", Alternative Law Journal
28 (3) June 2003, 122-126
Byrne, M. “Roads to Reconciliation”, Uniya JRS Occasional
Paper No. 9, September 2005
Cooper, D. Escaping from the shadowland : campaigning for indigenous
justice in Australia. Indigenous Law Bulletin 6 (10) March
/ April 2005, 15-17
Dodson, P. and Pearson, N. “The dangers of mutual obligation”,
The Age, December 15, 2004
Gunstone, A. The formal Australian reconciliation process: 1991-2000:
Paper prepared for the National Reconciliation Planning Workshop,
Old Parliament House, Canberra, 30-31 May 2005
Huggins, J. "Democracy, governance and service delivery: beyond
ATSIC", Impact, Summer 2005, 5-6
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Social Justice
Issues Deliberation Australia, Australia Deliberates: Reconciliation
— Where From Here?: Final Report, September 25 2001
McCausland, R. Shared Responsibility
Agreeements: practical reconciliation or paternalistic rhetoric?
Indigenous Law Bulletin, July 2005, vol 6, n 12
Newspoll, Quantitative Research into issues Relating to a Document
of Reconciliation: Summary of Findings, March 2000
Productivity Commission, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage:
Key Indicators 2005
Sanders, W. Journey without end: Reconciliation between Australia’s
Indigenous and settler peoples. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy
Research No. 237/2002
Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee, Reconciliation:
Off Track, 2003
Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee, After
ATSIC — Life in the mainstream? 2004
Irving Saulwick and Associates, Research into Issues Related
to a Document of Reconciliation: A Report prepared for the Council
for Aboriginal Reconciliation, February 2000
Australian Insititute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Australian legal Information Institute: Indigenous Law Resources
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation
Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership
Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy and Research, ANU
Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Archive
Council of Australian Governments
Gilbert + Tobin Centre for Public Law, UNSW
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Indigenous Law Centre, UNSW
Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, UTS
Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination
United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre
While the terms “Indigenous and non-Indigenous” may
be less emotionally loaded, to avoid repetition this paper also
contrasts “Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal”, “black
and white” and “blackfellas and whitefellas”.
The author apologises for any offence this may cause those anxious
to avoid stereotyping and dualistic thinking.
From the long title to the Bill (see www.austlii.edu.au,
accessed 15 September 2005). The Roadmap specifies strategies
for Overcoming Disadvantage, Achieving Economic Independence,
Sustaining the Reconciliation Process and Recognising Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Rights.
accessed 18 July 2005).
Ruth Fink Latukefu, Finding and Losing the Aboriginal Voice: A
journey of cultural survival. Reconciliation Service, Canberra
City Uniting Church, 29 May 2005, reprinted in Elimatta,
Aboriginal Support Group Manly Warringah Pittwater, Winter 2005,
The following example of a sceptical attitude to reconciliation
is quoted at the top of the Foreword to the report of the Senate
Legal and Constitutional References Committee inquiry, Reconciliation:
Off Track (www.aph.gov.au,
28 September 2005):
What is reconciliation to us? Nothing
much has changed in Gove where I live. I
don’t understand your law. It always
changes. The only thing that stays the same
for the white man is that he never listens
to our law, and our kids keep getting
locked up with that mandatory sentencing.
I don’t understand your reconciliation. (Northern Territory
Aboriginal Justice Advocacy Committee Submission 10, citing
Likewise, Aboriginal activist Isabel Coe
…the current fervour for massed
displays of reconciliation (such as the recent much publicised
walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge) [amounted to] middle
class platitudes designed to assuage collective guilt. "All
that was, was a feel-good exercise for white Australia - now
they can all go back to their armchairs, their TV's and their
mortgages," she says. (Clive Smith, “Flame
of Freedom burns in Victoria Park”, Reportage,
August 23, 2000 [www.eniar.org/news/reportage.html, October
An analogy might be an arranged marriage, though some might see
the relationship to be more analogous to an abduction — or
worse. It is also worth remembering that the concept of reconciliation
is not unique to Australia, and that there may be lessons from
the transitional justice processes undertaken in other post-conflict
nations for the Indigenous reconciliation process in Australia
(see Mark Byrne, “Roads to Reconciliation”, Uniya
JRS Occasional Paper No. 9, September 2005 (www.uniya.org,
15 October 2005).
Andrew Gunstone, The formal Australian reconciliation process:
1991-2000. Paper prepared for the National Reconciliation Planning
Workshop, Old Parliament House, Canberra, 30-31 May 2005, 5 (www.reconciliation.org.au,
accessed July 10 2005).
Commonwealth Government Response to the Council For Aboriginal
Reconciliation Final Report – Reconciliation: Australia’s
Challenge, September 2002 (www.atsia.gov.au
(accessed September 15 2005).
It also argued that it had expressed “its support for reconciliation…
through its Motion of Reconciliation passed by both Houses
of Federal Parliament on 26 August 1999” (ibid, 6).
John Howard, “Reconciliation Documents”, press release,
May 11 2000 (www.pm.gov.au,
accessed September 15 2005).
Executive Summary of the Commonwealth Government Response to the
Final Report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, September
The government report refers to the following initiatives:
- taking a whole-of-government approach by
involving all relevant portfolio Ministers and the states and
territories, working within the reconciliation framework set down
by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) with the Commonwealth’s
- increasing the focus on individuals and
their families as the foundation of functional communities;
- encouraging and supporting self-reliance
and independence from welfare;
strengthening leadership, capacity,
addressing the debilitating effects
of substance abuse and domestic violence;
increasing opportunities for local and
regional decision making by Indigenous people, and improving
programme coordination and flexibility to respond to local needs;
improving access to mainstream programmes
and services, so that Indigenous-specific resources can be better
targeted to areas of greatest need, particularly to areas where
mainstream services do not reach (ibid).
The most important outcomes with regard to
administration and service delivery have been the following:
Ten Council of Australian Governments
(COAG) trials around the nation to deliver services to Indigenous
communities on a whole-of-government basis.
The abolition in 2004 of ATSIC and the
creation of an appointed advisory body, the Indigenous Advisory
The mainstreaming of service delivery
under the auspices of the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination
(OIPC), the Inter-Departmental Committee on Indigenous Affairs,
and the regional Indigenous Consultative Committees (ICCs) based
on the former ATSIC regions and staffed mainly by former ATSIC
- The signing, since mid-2004, of over 90
Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) (de facto contracts which
provide services and facilities in exchange for performance guarantees
in areas such as child health and school attendance) between Aboriginal
communities and the OIPC via the ICCs.
Regional Partnership Agreements: in theory
“a mechanism for guiding a coherent government intervention
strategy across a region, eliminating overlaps or gaps, and
promoting coordination to meet identified priorities for the
region” (from the OIPC website (www.oipc.gov.au,
September 28 205), but in practice requiring “the
existence of legitimate representative bodies with which the
Government can negotiate”, which may be why “ the
regional agreements have been given a lower priority by the
Government” (from Ch 5.38, After ATSIC - Life in the
mainstream?). At the time of writing, only one RPA had been
signed (for the Ngaanyatjarra lands in Western Australia).
Reform of the Community Development Employment
Scheme (CDEP) ostensibly to increase the chances of participants
finding subsequent employment.
Changes to the system of community land
ownership to allow for 99 year leases — akin to private
ownership — of individual dwellings.
For instance, the abolition of ATSIC and the “new arrangements”
were the subject of a Senate inquiry in the second half of 2004
(to be discussed below; see "After ATSIC — Life
in the mainstream?” www.aph.gov.au,
October 6, 2005).
Serious concerns have already been raised about shared Responsibility
Agreements (SRAs), both as an extension of the government’s
mutual obligation ideology (which extends the idea of a social
contract between the government and the people to a quid pro quo
approach to welfare entitlements) from welfare to Indigenous communities,
and in respect of their monitoring, evaluation and review. See
Ruth McCausland, “Petrol bowsers for washing kids’
faces: a ‘new conversation’ in Indigenous policy”,
paper delivered at the Australian Social Policy Conference 2005.
For her other relevant publications, see www.jumbunna.uts.edu.au
(11 October 2005).
Craig Jones, "Professor Mick Dodson : interview..",
Indigenous Law Bulletin 6 (7) November 2004, 15, 27 October
Gary Banks, Chairman of the inter-governmental Steering Committee
responsible for the Report, quoted in the press release issued
with the release of the report on July 12 2005 (www.pc.gov.au,
28 September 2005). More specifically, the Productivity Commission
report found that between 1994 and 2002 there were improvements
in education, employment and home ownership; the situation had
deteriorated in respect of child protection, domestic violence
and imprisonment; and there had been little or no change in relation
to the other “headline indicators” studied: life expectancy,
disability, suicide, assault and homicide (see www.pc.gov.au,
September 28 2005). See also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2003,
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, e.g., 54 (www.hreoc.gov.au,
25 October 2005).
However, according to the website of the Office for Indigenous
Policy Coordination, “The Indigenous affairs arrangements
combine a bottom-up and a top-down approach. Leadership, strategy
and accountability are provided at the top of the structure, and
these same qualities are emphasised at the regional and local
October 15 2005).
This is the author’s summary of the criticism made in particular
by Lowitja O’Donohue during the question and answer session
following Pearson’s talk at the Workshop. To the extent
that Pearson is the only Indigenous leader on the government payroll
(see Stephanie Peatling and Louise Dodson, “Pearson gets
welfare job in shake-up”, Sydney Morning Herald,
February 23, 2005 (www.smh.com.au,
October 18 2005), and that his slogan of “Our right to take
responsibility” fits well with the ideology of mutual responsibility,
this may be a fair criticism. However, other Indigenous leaders
including “father of reconciliation” Pat Dodson have
acknowledged the need for radical change to reduce welfare dependency
and improve health outcomes and are seeking to work with Pearson
(see, e.g., Pat Dodson and Noel Pearson, “The dangers of
mutual obligation”, The Age, 15 December 2004).
For a critique of the “new assimilationism”, see,
e.g., After ATSIC - Life in the mainstream? (n. 18 above),
xvii; and Aden Ridgeway, "Whitewash on Indigenous Affairs.",
Impact Magazine, Winter 2005, 7-8, 27 October 2005).
Senator Ridgeway elaborated elsewhere:
Recognising the importance of “symbolic”
things, such as an apology to the stolen generations, land rights
and self-determination, were never espoused as a solution separate
to making practical improvements such as increased school retention
rates and improved health. In fact, it has long been acknowledged
that improved “practical” outcomes will only come
about through holistic approaches which focus on an acknowledgement
of Australia’s history of dispossession, and recognition
of the basic human right of all people to self-determination.
(Australian Human Rights and International
Law: At the Crossroads. Speech To Sydney University Law School,
6 October 2003).
Thus, when the government’s response to CAR’s final
report was issued, Ridgeway, then the only Indigenous member of
Federal Parliament, expressed his disappointment that “reconciliation
appears to be no longer treated by the Commonwealth as an issue
of national importance” (www.democrats.org.au,
17 August 2005). Likewise, the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Dr Bill Jonas, argued that
“the government's response demonstrates a distinct lack
of commitment and direction to making reconciliation a reality
into the future” (“'Government approach to reconciliation
lacks direction and accountability' states Social Justice Commissioner”,
Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Media
Release, 27 September 2002 [www.hreoc.gov.au,
20 October 1005]).
Sandra J Eades, “Reconciliation, social equity and Indigenous
health: A call for symbolic and material change. Editorial,
Medical Journal of Australia 2000; 172: 468-469.
See the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner’s
Social Justice Report 2001, Chapter 6: Reconciliation –
National progress one year on: 6.3 Reconciliation Australia and
Reconciliation Place (www.hreoc.gov.au;
www.antar.org.au - issues
– Reconciliation – Reconciliation Place; and www.nationalcapital.gov.au
(10 October 2005).
Andrew Smith, National Capital Authority, pers. comm., 27 October
Transcript of the Prime Minister the Hon John Howard MP, Address
at the National Reconciliation Planning Workshop, Old Parliament
House, Canberra, May 30 2005, 2 (www.reconciliation.org.au,
28 September 2005).
See Senator Ridgeway speaks on the Reconciliation Bill 2001: Second
28 September 2005).
Will Sanders, Journey without end: Reconciliation between Australia’s
Indigenous and settler peoples. Centre for Aboriginal Economic
Policy Research No. 237/2002, 28 September 2005).
See “Senator Aden Ridgeway speaks to the Reconciliation
Bill 2001 : Second Reading”, Parliament House Canberra
- Indigenous Affairs - 27 November 2003 (www.democrats.org.au,
October 6 2005).
Reconciliation: Off track, 130.
 Senate Legal and Constitutional References
Committee. Reconciliation: Off track. October 2003, v (www.aph.gov.au,
28 September 2005). The two government senators on the Committee
issued a dissenting report, in which they reiterated the government’s
focus on practical reconciliation while holding up Reconciliation
Place in Canberra as an example of its support for the resolution
of symbolic issues. They supported only some the report’s
However, conferences and an ARC Linkage grant have kept the treaty
issue, at least, alive among legal and other activists (see, e.g.,
Sean Brennan, Larissa Behrendt, Lisa Strelien and George Williams,
Treaty, Sydney, The Federation Press, 2005). One other
potentially positive step is that “the rights of indigenous
peoples” are specifically guaranteed in the Human Rights
Bill 2006 (written by Professor Spencer Zifcak and others
and sponsored by New Matilda), which is intended to be
debated in Federal Parliament as a Private Members Bill late in
2006. Section 38 of the proposed bill recognises the rights of
Indigenous peoples “to live in freedom, peace and security
and to full guarantees against genocide or any other acts of violence…
to maintain and develop their distinct identities and characteristics…
[and] to practice and revitalise their spiritual and cultural
traditions, customs and ceremonies” (see www.newmatilda.com.au,
15 October 2005).
See After ATSIC — Life in the mainstream? (n.
18 above). For the Minority report by Government Members, see
(11 October 2005).
For the Minority report by Government Members, see www.aph.gov.a
(11 October 2005).
See, e.g., Pat Dodson, Chairperson, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation,
Address to the National Press Club, November 28 1997 (www.austlii.edu.au,
19 October 2005).
As well as supporting local groups and conducting public advocacy,
ANTaR has since instituted new campaigns, such as for the return
of “stolen wages”, and has spawned a youth reconciliation
network, Reconciliaction (see www.reconciliaction.org.au).
The author is not aware of any research into the changing level
of public interest in these events.
The deliberative poll was preceded by a randomised survey of the
general population, complemented by a series of regional consultations
with Indigenous people. Nearly 400 of those who had taken part
in these surveys came to Canberra for discussions among themselves
and with Indigenous and other politicians and experts, with the
intention of seeing whether opinions would change with more information
and opportunity for discussion. See Issues Deliberation Australia,
Australia Deliberates: Reconciliation — Where From Here?:
Final Report, September 25 2001. For a summary of the results,
see “Australians Deliberate Reconciliation With Clark Center
Help”. Yacker Newsletter No. 23, Spring 2001,
The Edward A. Clark Center For Australian Studies, The University
Of Texas At Austin). For a critique of this process, see Ron Brunton,
“Subtle Bias to Polling Groups”, Courier Mail,
Saturday, March 03, 2001 (www.ipa.org.au, 6 October
Reconciliation Australia, Reconciliation Report 2004, 15
17 August 2005). The RA website also lists examples of “reconciliation
in action”, though they are often out of date and far fewer
than one would expect if the “people’s movement”
was actually popular.
As the summary of the audit in RA’s 2000 Report states,
The audit was intended as an informal
snapshot of the current trends in reconciliation. This summary
should be viewed with this intention in mind.
The organisations selected for the audit
were those that, due to their objectives, were thought to have
an interest in, or be involved with, issues of concern to Indigenous
13, 15 October 2005).
Senator the Hon Nick Bolkus, Foreword, Reconciliation: Off
Sylvie Ellsmore, Executive Officer, NSW Reconciliation Council,
pers. comm. The NSW Reconciliation Council is in the process of
conducting an audit of its 55 member local reconciliation groups,
the results of which will be presented to the state conference
in late October 2005. The statement about rising interest over
the last two years is partly derived from Ms Ellsmore’s
reading of early results from that survey.
Dr David Cooper, National Director, ANTaR, pers. comm.
At the time it was announced, RA’s non-government status
was criticised by Aden Ridgeway: "The government is the one
responsible for showing leadership, it's the one that's got to
provide the backup and the resources and it's also got to give
the legislative guarantees," he said (www.eniar.org, August 17 2005).
For instance, BHP Billiton sponsors the annual Indigenous Governance
Reconciliation: Off Track, 19.
Reconciliation: Off Track, 22.
This funding was intended to
…provide an enhanced national focus
on reconciliation. It will promote and support community activities
designed to foster and advance the reconciliation process, including
the production of school kits and community education materials.
It will further develop the Friends For Reconciliation network,
liaise with State peak reconciliation bodies for the development
and coordination of community events aimed at fostering reconciliation,
and engage with governments, non-government organisations, and
the corporate sector to advance the cause of reconciliation
at the community level. (Fact Sheet, Budget 2004, Indigenous
5 October 2005).
On its website RA expresses its objectives as follows:
We identify and promote examples of reconciliation
in action so that others can share the good ideas and add their
support. And we independently monitor Australia’s progress
towards reconciliation so that government, business and the
community can take responsibility to back up words with real
17 August 2005).
However, its co-chairs, Jackie Huggins, Fred Chaney (past) and
Mark Liebler (present), have from time to time issued media releases.
For instance, in 2000 they criticised a government attempt to
tackle family violence in Indigenous communities. www.hreoc.gov.au,
17 August 2005.
In 2004 they commented favourably on the
ALP’s plans to abolish ATSIC, describing them as suggesting
"a welcome bipartisanship" on whole-of-government approaches
to indigenous services. Mark Metherell, “Mixed reception
for abolition plan”, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March
17 August 2005). See also “Reconciliation Australia sees
new opportunity”, didjshop.com.au, 17 August
These activities include sponsoring an Indigenous Governance Conference
in 2002; supporting the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law’s
treaty research; promoting the Indigenous Governance Awards and
researching models of good Indigenous governance; forming a partnership
with the Federal Department of Family and Community Services and
the Australian Bankers’ Association to “provide appropriate
banking and financial services to remote communities”; supporting
the objective of the National Aboriginal Sports Corporation of
Australia (NASCA) “to use sport in encouraging kids in some
of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities to have healthy
lifestyles and succeed at school’; and producing community
education kits and activities (quotes from RA press releases).
While these all appear to be worthwhile projects, it is often
difficult to know what constitutes support by, or partnerships
with, RA (money? in-kind? in principle?) and their outcomes.
For the author’s reflections on the event, see Mark Byrne,
"Two nations, one conference – A personal reflection",
3 June 2005 (www.uniya.org, 6 October
Reconciliation Australia, Proceedings Report of the National Reconciliation
Planning Workshop, 30-31 May 2005, 1. According to RA staff the
workplan will be published early in 2006. At the time of writing
it is unclear what future direction RA intends to take, although
its plans include the production of a “reconciliation barometer”
similar to that which tracks the national mood as well as indicators
of race-related disadvantage in South Africa. It appears unlikely
that there will be a Reconciliation Convention in 2007.
6 October 2005).
An example at the time of writing is the informal process in which
RA is engaged to determine whether or not there will be a National
Reconciliation Convention in 2007.
CAR, by contrast, set up the State Reconciliation Councils with
the co-operation of the state governments, but these bodies have
mostly struggled to get recurrent funding since 2000. There were
plans for a national federation of state councils in 2001 but
they never eventuated (Sylvie Ellsmore, Executive Officer, NSW
Reconciliation Council, pers. comm.).
For a review of the Decade in Australia, see Garth Nettheim, "Looking
back : visions or rear visions..", Indigenous Law Bulletin
6 (7) November 2004 : 21-23, 27 October 2005).
Jones, op. cit., 14.
Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, declared: "We won't cop
it any longer. We are a democratically elected government in one
of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on
Earth. And if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic
politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody
nose" (David Marr , “Geneva versus Canberra”,
Morning Herald, 28 March 2005).
Concluding Observations by the Committee on the Elimination of
Racial Discrimination: Australia. 19/04/2000. CERD/C/304/Add.101
5 October 2005).
“UN Report on racism should be taken seriously.” Human
Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission - Media Release, 27 March
2002 (www.eniar.org, 5 October 2005).
Report by Mr. Maurice Glèlè-Ahanhanzo, Special Rappoteur on contemporary
forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related
intolerance, submitted pursuant to
Human Rights resolution 2001/Addendum: Mission
to Australia, 2-3 (www.unhchr.ch,
5 October 2005).
In its Combined 13th and 14th reports to the CERD in 2004, the
Commonwealth Government referred to various reconciliation initiatives
including financial support for RA, funding of Reconciliation
Place, the “Living in Harmony” project, and
State government reconciliation activities (United Nations Committee
on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Combined Thirteenth
and Fourteenth Periodic Report of the Government of Australia
under Article 9 of the International Convention on the Elimination
of all Forms of Racial Discrimination , 17-18 [www.dfat.gov.au,
5 October 2005]).
These concerns related to the abolishment of ATSIC; the practical
barriers Indigenous peoples face in succeeding in claims for native
title; the continuing over-representation of Indigenous peoples
in prisons; and the extreme inequities between Indigenous peoples
and others in the areas of employment, housing, health education
With respect to the reconciliation process, the report states
The Committee, while acknowledging the
efforts undertaken by the State party to achieve reconciliation,
and having taken note of the 1999 Motion of Reconciliation,
is concerned about reports that the State party has rejected
most of the recommendations adopted by the Council for Aboriginal
Reconciliation in 2000.
The Committee encourages the State party
to increase its efforts with a view to ensuring that a meaningful
reconciliation is achieved and accepted by the indigenous peoples
and the population at large. It reiterates its recommendation
that the State party consider the need to address appropriately
the harm inflicted by the forced removal of indigenous children.
“Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination
of Racial Discrimination: Australia, 11 March 2005” (www.ohchr.org,
5 October 2005).
According to David Marr, op. cit., “After some prodding,
the offices of Downer and Ruddock told the Herald that
the committee's findings were being carefully considered. The
Attorney-General's spokeswoman said Ruddock welcomed the committee's
"new constructive dialogue" and placed "particular
importance in the fact that the committee has not found Australia
in breach" of its obligations. The committee's concerns would
"not be rejected without careful assessment".
See, e.g., the website of the Aboriginal Support Group - Manly
Warringah Pittwater (www.asgmwp.net,
26 October 2005).
On ILUAs, see, e.g., Brennan, S. et al., op. cit., 111.
To give but one example of these kinds of agreements, in October
Willoughby City Council became one of
the first local government authorities in Sydney to sign a principles
of cooperation agreement with the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land
The agreement establishes formal communication,
consultation and negotiation processes between Metro and Willoughby
City Council. It also opens the way for possible future cross
cultural training and joint community development initiatives
26 October 2005).
This is a profile that former AFL footballer Michael Long was
able to use to advantage when he walked from Melbourne to Canberra
in November 2004 to draw attention to the tragedy facing Indigenous
families and communities (see, e.g., “Latham to join Long
walk”, The Age, 2 December 2004 [www.theage.com.au,
26 October 2005]).
These include the preference of advertisers for African-American
rather than Indigenous Australian models; problems of ownership
and copyright; the need for protocols for white filmmakers and
art dealers doing business with Indigenous people and communities;
and entrenched or casual racism in some sporting codes.
Sir William Deane, Australia's multiculturalism: time for assessment
and renewal, 2005 Vice-Chancellor's oration delivered by former
Governor General Sir William Deane at the University of Western
26 October 2005).
See, e.g., David Cooper, "Escaping from the shadowland :
campaigning for indigenous justice in Australia", Indigenous
Law Bulletin 6 (10) March-April 2005, 15, 27 October 05).
See, e.g., Newspoll, Quantitative Research into issues Relating
to a Document of Reconciliation: Summary of Findings, March
2000, 7-8; and Irving Saulwick and Associates, Research into
Issues Related to a Document of Reconciliation: A Report prepared
for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, February 2000,
See Cooper, op. cit., 15.
As the ANU’s Will Sanders has written in his assessment
of the 1990s, “the goal of effecting reconciliation by the
centenary of Australian federation was unrealistic and unachievable”
(Will Sanders, Journey without end: Reconciliation between Australia’s
Indigenous and settler peoples. Centre for Aboriginal Economic
Policy Research No. 237/2002, 18).
As the government senators correctly stated in their minority
report, “The [Senate] report offers no alternative way forward
to reduce the indisputable level of disadvantage faced by many
Indigenous Australians” (6 October 2005).
As Mick Dodson said at Corroborree 2000,
Let us not get hung up on one man's incapacity
to bring himself to utter a simple human response to the suffering
of others. Our task of national reconciliation is too important
to be derailed by pettiness and denial. We can do much to prepare
the groundwork for our future coexistence while we wait for
a Prime Minister who will proudly lead us in the right direction
11 October 2005).
Against this, though, is the growing currency of this term worldwide
in relation to post-conflict societies, such as the recent Truth
and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
See, e.g., the discussion by Will Sanders, op. cit.,, 18-22, discussing
a 1998 paper by Richard Mulgan.
For a brief introduction to the treaty debate, see Larissa Behrendt,
"The link between rights and a Treaty 'practical reconciliation'..",
Balayi : Culture, Law And Colonialism (4) 2002 : 21-27
(27 October 2005).
Dr Mark Byrne is Project and Advocacy Officer at Uniya Jesuit
Social Justice Centre in Sydney.
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