Two nations, one conference – A personal reflection
Dr Mark Byrne
3 June 2005
Mark Byrne, Uniya’s Project and Advocacy Officer, was
an invited participant to this week’s National Reconciliation
Planning Workshop (30-31 May 2005). Mark shares his reflections
on the event.
This week Canberra’s Old Parliament House hosted the National
Reconciliation Planning Workshop. It was arguably the most important
meeting of Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders since the 1997
Australian Reconciliation Convention, when many Indigenous attendees
famously turned their backs on Prime Minister John Howard. No-one
did that to Mr Howard this week.
Given the recent abolition of ATSIC and the imposition of a new
regime of service delivery to Aboriginal communities, this may be
seen as progress. Indeed, while repeating his mantra of “practical
reconciliation” at the expense of “symbolic” gestures
such as a formal apology to the Stolen Generations and a treaty
or agreement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,
the Prime Minister seemed genuinely sincere about redressing the
past wrongs done to Aboriginal people, and offered to “meet
the Indigenous people of this country more than halfway if necessary”
to unite the country.
In this reflection I’d like to focus on “the vibe of
the thing”, as the novice barrister in The Castle famously
put it, rather than give detailed reporting of the various addresses.
There were many words of encouragement from speakers at the conference
(it wasn’t really a workshop) aimed at resurrecting the reconciliation
process. But there was also a lot of anger — most of it from
Indigenous people and directed at the government. (Dr Peter Shergold,
Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, also
received criticism for his role as the alleged architect of the
demise of ATSIC and the brave new world of Shared Responsibility
Agreements or SRAs as they are known.)
As the PM spoke, Redfern Aboriginal pastor Ray Minniecon called
on him to apologise to the Stolen Generations. Lowitja O’Donoghue
expressed her anger first at Noel Pearson for constituting a one-man
Indigenous think-tank to the Federal Government, and then to Senator
Vanstone for bumping the inspiring WA Governor John Sanderson off
his allotted place in the program so she could get to a party room
meeting to quell the backbench revolt about the treatment of asylum
seekers in detention centres. Two people turned their backs as Senator
Vanstone spoke, but she later professed on television not to have
To me, it seemed as though there were two conferences. While whitefellas
were focused more on advancing the reconciliation process in areas
as diverse as racism and race relations and business and governance,
Indigenous attendees were still reeling from the disbanding of ATSIC.
They expressed their anger at no longer having a national voice,
and also for not being consulted at a national level about the SRAs.
Some Indigenous speakers expressed their hope that Reconciliation
Australia (RA) would fulfil something of the role that ATSIC used
to play. RA speakers, however, insisted that RA’s role was
one of facilitating the reconciliation process rather than being
a peak body for Indigenous people.
Indigenous participants also expressed frustration at the whitefellas
present for Indigenous people yet again being expected to carry
the primary responsibility for the reconciliation process, and implored
non-Indigenous people to become more proactive in converting what
Marcia Langton referred to as the “Kath and Kims” who
have had little or no contact with Indigenous people or interest
Personally I found it disturbing that problems of race relations
in Australia were at times simplistically reduced to the phenomenon
of racism by non-Indigenous Australians towards their Indigenous
brothers and sisters. We can all succumb to racist thoughts and
acts, because, at heart, all of us have a greater or lesser suspicion
of outsiders — the “other.” While there is still
much casual racism in Australian society, it isn’t helpful
to assume that anyone who isn’t pro-reconciliation is a racist.
Jack Thompson quoted a statistic that only 7.2% of Australians have
ever met an Indigenous person. Should we blame the other 93% if
they aren’t passionate advocates for reconciliation?
The conference suggested three solutions to this problem: anti-racism
education projects; finding ways to expose more whitefellas to Indigenous
people and communities; and publicising more Indigenous success
stories. But what if non-Indigenous Australians — wrapped
up, if we believe Hugh Mackay, in their own family lives —
don’t want to learn more about Indigenous people
and cultures? Or worse, if exposure to some of the uglier aspects
of contemporary Indigenous life turns them against the very idea
The widely reported mix-up around the timing of Senator Vanstone’s
address was not the Senator’s fault. But it was her fault
that she allocated a mere twenty minutes to this important event.
What use to Indigenous people is a Minister with two other portfolios?
In contrast, Opposition Leader Kim Beazley committed the ALP to
establishing a separate department — and to a formal apology
to the Stolen Generations.
It is ironic that a government which has unilaterally shut down
the only national representative body of Indigenous people has simultaneously
been championing SRAs as a victory for Indigenous empowerment, a
way of freeing communities from the shackles of bureaucracy. While
individual SRAs may be proposed by local communities, the idea of
SRAs themselves came from the government. As more than one speaker
pointed out from the floor, there is a fundamental power imbalance
when local communities have to negotiate one-on-one with the federal
bureaucracy. There are other problems with this brave new world
of SRAs. Do they replace or supplant existing service delivery?
Who decides who represents the local community in signing the agreement?
What accountability and review mechanisms are in place? Even if
they are a good idea in principle, in the view of many Indigenous
speakers, their imposition represents a return to a paternalistic
regime for Indigenous affairs.
It seemed to me that many of the issues up for discussion were
the same ones that have been around for thirty years of more. This
was obviously a source of enormous frustration and anger for two
generations of Aboriginal leaders. Pat Dodson suggested that meetings
such as this had to be held because there is no foundation or benchmark
— such as a treaty or agreement — for real and lasting
The conference had three aims: to clarify the issues, build relationships,
and establish a path forward, in particular to the proposed 2007
Reconciliation Convention — the fortieth anniversary of the
1967 referendum that gave Aborigines the vote. The need to air the
issues on people's minds meant that there was little time to plan
for the future, but Reconciliation Australia (which did a good job
in getting the main players together and creating an environment
conducive to dialogue) intends to plan for the 2007 congress in
cooperation with conference attendees.
From my perspective the conference gave three clear messages. First,
there must be a new representative body for Indigenous people. That
is the responsibility of Indigenous people themselves to work for,
although it would receive the full support of organisations like
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation and RA.
Second, the government’s distinction between practical and
symbolic reconciliation is disingenuous. It is a way out of committing
to Indigenous rights, but Indigenous speakers made it clear that
they need both. Without the protection of land and other rights,
and formal acknowledgement of their status as our First People,
the Government’s focus on practical outcomes in health, housing
and employment is unlikely to produce lasting results.
And thirdly, there was clear support for a treaty or agreement
between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This has been
a recurrent theme in Australian political life for at least thirty
years. While there has been little tangible progress to date, the
large number of lesser agreements made in recent years has created
the legal, if not political, climate for such agreements. The need
for such a treaty to legitimise European occupation as well as to
protect the rights of Indigenous people was brought up by several
Indigenous speakers as perhaps the biggest agenda item of “unfinished
business” between Indigenous and other Australians.
Before the conference started on Monday morning, I walked across
the road from Old Parliament House to visit the Aboriginal Tent
Embassy, founded in 1972 and now said to be the world’s longest
running protest site. Standing by the roaring fire that warmed the
icy Canberra morning air, I was surprised to learn from one of the
residents that they had not been invited to the conference. When
I asked a conference organiser about this, he said there had been
some early discussions, but that the Embassy spokesperson had rejected
the legitimacy of the conference. I was therefore pleasantly surprised
to see that three seats had been reserved for Tent Embassy representatives
on the second day. I’m not sure that they took their seats,
but to me it seemed like a good sign. There have been ongoing debates
about the continuing relevance and legitimacy of the Tent Embassy,
but they certainly represent one voice among others — and
reconciliation begins at home, even when home is Old Parliament
Dr Mark Byrne is Project and Advocacy Officer at Uniya Jesuit
Social Justice Centre in Sydney.
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