Reconciliation: Stalled, fermenting, or taken out the back and
Dr Mark Byrne*
30 November 2005
Op-ed appeared in New
This Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of the end of the 'decade
of reconciliation.' On December 4 2000, the Council for Aboriginal
Reconciliation (CAR) submitted its final report, including the Australian
Declaration Towards Reconciliation and the Reconciliation Bill 2001,
to Federal Parliament.
The symbolic end to the decade had come earlier in 2000, when nearly
a quarter of a million people marched across the Sydney Harbour
Bridge in support of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous
Australians, urging the Prime Minister to say 'Sorry'. More large
walks followed in the other capital cities, demonstrating popular
support for the reconciliation process.
What has happened since? John Howard sentenced the CAR's Declaration
to failure when he issued his own version on the same day. The government
took almost two years to formally respond to the final report, and
then rejected most of the recommendations. When Senator Aden Ridgeway
introduced the Reconciliation Bill in 2001 and 2003 not even the
ALP supported it, let alone the government. CAR's successor body,
Reconciliation Australia, is a non-profit foundation with no statutory
role, no recurrent funding and no formal responsibility for leading
the national reconciliation process.
In the meantime, the government has repeatedly reiterated its commitment
to 'practical reconciliation' by implementing 'new arrangements'
in Indigenous affairs. They include the abolition of ATSIC, the
creation of a government-appointed National Indigenous Council,
the 'mainstreaming' of Indigenous service delivery and the signing
of nearly 100 Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs). Also in train
are reforms to Indigenous land ownership and the Community Development
Employment Program (CDEP).
This is not to say that the government is completely averse to
symbolic expressions of reconciliation. If you walk between the
High Court and the National Library in Canberra, you may come across
seven very stylish 'slivers' commemorating the contributions of
Indigenous Australians to the life of the nation. But Reconciliation
Place was initially designed and constructed without the direct
involvement of any Indigenous representatives, and was criticised
for whitewashing the Stolen Generation issue because of its failure
to depict the emotional trauma of forced separation. Efforts are
apparently afoot to make it more substantial and visible, but in
terms of national symbols it's a token gesture.
While there are still many local reconciliation groups around the
country, and Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR)
continues to campaign hard on issues such as the return of stolen
wages, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the absence of national
leadership, popular support for reconciliation has waned, and most
state reconciliation councils are receiving little support from
their respective governments.
Overall, it's a sorry picture. As former Governor-General and CAR
William Deane said earlier in 2005, 'In the years since Corroboree
2000, relations between Indigenous Australians... and our nation
seem to me to have significantly deteriorated.' Few people outside
the government would disagree.
Responsibility is easily laid at the foot of the Prime Minister,
who has consistently opposed anything other than practical measures
to improve Indigenous disadvantage. On this front, it is early to
assess the impact of the government's new arrangements; though a
Productivity Commission report in mid-2005 concluded that 'In all
areas, the gap between the experience of Indigenous peoples and
other Australians is still wide.' Even if they are ultimately successful
in practical terms, the new arrangements have been imposed by Canberra
in what many Indigenous leaders say is a return to the old days
of assimilation and paternalism.
Nevertheless, the government is motivated by popular opinion as
well as ideology. Opinion polls have consistently shown that while
the majority of Australians are willing to 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. In addition, the Howard government
has done a sterling job of associating an apology to the Stolen
Generation with personal and legal responsibility for their plight,
rather than understanding 'sorry' to be a simple expression of compassion.
Responsibility for the demise of the reconciliation process must
also be shared by the Labor Party. Realising, like the government,
that Indigenous issues are not vote-winners, it has failed to articulate
clear policy alternatives, and has engaged, here as in other portfolios,
in an egregious 'me-tooism' - most notably when it announced before
the 2004 election it would abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Commission (ATSIC). When the ALP 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; or when, in 1992, Paul Keating delivered the Redfern Park
speech that represents the most wholehearted and profound acknowledgement
of past wrongs and immediate needs ever uttered in this country.
In 2005, how many people know who the Opposition Spokesperson for
Aboriginal Affairs is, let alone what ALP policy is on, say, Shared
But the problem goes further back. The 'decade of reconciliation'
was borne out of former Prime Minister Hawke's promise in the early
1980s to negotiate national land rights legislation and a treaty
to deal with 'unfinished business.' It's therefore easy to see reconciliation
as a soft option that avoids giving substantial rights to Indigenous
people. Were it not for the fact that reconciliation has a currency
much larger than recent Australian political history - as part of
the Catholic sacrament of penance, and recently as a central pillar
of the transitional justice processes used by post-conflict societies
such as South Africa and East Timor - we might want to abandon it
Ironically, the further one moves away from 'big R' reconciliation,
the brighter the picture looks. In art, film and television; in
AFL and rugby league; and in mining, tourism, the pastoral industry
and other businesses, Indigenous cultures and people are overcoming
centuries of prejudice and oppression to make their mark.
Still, these advances are no substitute for rights and symbols.
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
Dr Mark Byrne is Project and Advocacy Officer at Uniya Jesuit
Social Justice Centre in Sydney.
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