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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 Matilda, 30/11/05)

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.[1] 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[2] and Roadmap to Reconciliation[3] 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: Australia’s challenge[4] 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”.[5]

The letter to parliament that accompanied the report ended on an optimistic note:

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?[6]

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.[7]

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 Australian society.

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.[8] 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.”[9] 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.[10]

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.

CAR’s recommendations

After a hiatus of nearly two years, on September 26 2002 the Federal Government released its response to CAR’s final report.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.”[15] 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 common ground.

Practical reconciliation

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.”[16] 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.[17] Some of these reforms have been the subject of intense public debate and scrutiny,[18] while others are in their infancy.[19] 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.”[20] 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.[21]

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,[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

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.”[25] In other words, it is possible to deal with practical and symbolic issues simultaneously.[26] 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 Australia.”[27]

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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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 nation.

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.”[31] 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 action.”[32]

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.”[33] 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.”[34] Senator Ridgeway tried again in November 2003, with the same result.[35]

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,[36] 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.[37]

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.[38] 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 Election.

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?[39] 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 for shame.[40]

The report was all but ignored by the government, although its committee members produced a minority report in which they argued that

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.[41]

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.”[42] 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.[43]

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”;[44] 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.[45]

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.[46] 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”,[47] although the methodology used raises doubts about its objectivity.[48] 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…[49]

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 11, 2001.

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.[50] 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.[51]

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.”[52] It was given seed funding of $5.6 million and tax deductibility status for donations made to it. However, it has no statutory role[53] and is subject to the vagaries of annual Federal Budget priorities and corporate funding[54] 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”[55] 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.[56]

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.[57]

In its 2001-2003 Strategic Plan RA identified its mission as follows:

To deliver tangible outcomes for reconciliation by forging innovative partnerships to:
•  achieve social and economic equity for Indigenous Australians;
•  strengthen the people’s movement for reconciliation; and
•  acknowledge the past and build a framework for a shared future.[58]

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.[59] Perhaps due to past funding constraints, it has initiated a range of other, less obvious activities involving partnerships with universities, business and the community.[60] 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.[61]

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.[62]

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.[63]

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.[64] 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.[65]

The United Nations

The period from 1994 to 2004 was the United Nations International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People,[66] but at the end of that period, according to Professor Mick Dodson, “we have gone backwards”.[67] 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.[68]

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.[69]

After a visit to Australia in April-May 2001 a UN Special Rapporteur[70] 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 peoples”.[71]

Following the submission of further reports from the Australian Government in 2004,[72] 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”[73] 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.[74] It called on the government to work towards meaningful reconciliation and to properly address the issues of the Stolen Generation.[75] This time around, the report was largely ignored (at least in public) by the government, and as a result received little media attention.[76]

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, [77] and a youth network has emerged.[78] 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)[79] to local partnerships[80] — 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,[81] 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.[82] 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.[83] There are still important issues to overcome in each of these areas of Australian life.[84] 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.”[85] 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.[86] 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.[87] 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.[88] 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.[89] 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 rights.

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.[90] 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?

The future

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.[91] 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 baggage.[92]

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, [93] 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.[94]

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.





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; and
  • 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.

Government Response:

  • 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; and
  • 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.

Selected references*

* For other references and weblinks please go to the relevant endnote(s).

1. Publications

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 Reports 2000-2004

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

2. Websites

Australian Insititute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

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                                       

Productivity Commission                                                              

Reconciliation Australia                                                 

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre                                                  


[1] 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.

[2] See www.austlii.edu.au (accessed 15 September 2005).

[3] See beta.austlii.edu.au (accessed 15 September 2005).

[4] See www.austlii.edu.au (accessed 15 September 2005).

[5] 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.

 (www.austlii.edu.au, accessed 18 July 2005).

[6] 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, 7.

[7] 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 Mr.
Barnamby Wunungmurra)

Likewise, Aboriginal activist Isabel Coe argued that

…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 10 2005]).

[8] 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).

[9] 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).

[10] Gunstone, 4.

[11] 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).

[12] Ibid., 23.

[13] 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).

[14] John Howard, “Reconciliation Documents”, press release, May 11 2000 (www.pm.gov.au, accessed September 15 2005).

[15] Executive Summary of the Commonwealth Government Response to the Final Report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, September 2002, 6.

[16] Ibid., 1.

[17] 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 leadership;
  • 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, and governance;
  • 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; and
  • 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 Council.
  • 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 employees.
  • 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),[17] 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.

On the new arrangements, see www.oipc.gov.au (October 11 2005).

[18] 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).

[19] 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).

[20] Craig Jones, "Professor Mick Dodson : interview..", Indigenous Law Bulletin 6 (7) November 2004, 15, 27 October 2005).

[21] 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).

[22] 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 level” (www.oipc.gov.au, October 15 2005).

[23] 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).

[24] 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).

[25] 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).

[26] 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]).

[27] 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.

[28] See www.nationalcapital.gov.au, 27 October 2005.

[29] 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).

[30] Andrew Smith, National Capital Authority, pers. comm., 27 October 2005.

[31] 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).

[32]Ibid., 2.

[33] See Senator Ridgeway speaks on the Reconciliation Bill 2001: Second Reading (www.democrats.org.au, 28 September 2005).

[34] 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).

[35] See “Senator Aden Ridgeway speaks to the Reconciliation Bill 2001 [2002]: Second Reading”, Parliament House Canberra - Indigenous Affairs - 27 November 2003 (www.democrats.org.au, October 6 2005).

[36] Reconciliation: Off track, 130.

[37] 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 20 recommendations.

[38] 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).

[39] See After ATSIC — Life in the mainstream? (n. 18 above). For the Minority report by Government Members, see www.aph.gov.au (11 October 2005).

[40] Ibid., xvii.

[41] For the Minority report by Government Members, see www.aph.gov.a (11 October 2005).

[42] 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).

[43] 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).

[44] www.reconciliation.org.au (6 October 2005).

[45] The author is not aware of any research into the changing level of public interest in these events.

[46] 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 2005).

[47] Reconciliation Australia, Reconciliation Report 2004, 15 (www.reconciliationaustralia.org, 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.

[48] 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 Australians (www.reconciliationaustralia.org, 13, 15 October 2005).

[49] Senator the Hon Nick Bolkus, Foreword, Reconciliation: Off Track, v-vi.

[50] 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.

[51] Dr David Cooper, National Director, ANTaR, pers. comm.

[53] 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).

[54] For instance, BHP Billiton sponsors the annual Indigenous Governance Awards.

[55] Reconciliation: Off Track, 19.

[56] Reconciliation: Off Track, 22.

[57] 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 Affairs www.atsia.gov.au, 5 October 2005).

[58] 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 commitment (www.reconciliationaustralia.org, 17 August 2005).

[59] 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 2004 (www.smh.com.au, 17 August 2005). See also “Reconciliation Australia sees new opportunity”, didjshop.com.au, 17 August 2005.

[60] 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.

[62] 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 2005).

[63] 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.

 (www.reconciliationaustralia.org, 6 October 2005).

[64] 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.

[65] 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.).

[66] 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).

[67] Jones, op. cit., 14.

[68] 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”,

Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March 2005).

[69] Concluding Observations by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Australia.  19/04/2000. CERD/C/304/Add.101 (www.unhchr.ch, 5 October 2005).

[70] “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).

[71] 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).

[72] 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]).

[73] Marr, op. cit.

[74] 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 and income.

[75] With respect to the reconciliation process, the report states as follows:

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).

[76] 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".

[77] See, e.g., the website of the Aboriginal Support Group - Manly Warringah Pittwater (www.asgmwp.net, 26 October 2005).

[78] See www.reconciliaction.org.au (25 October 2005).

[79] On ILUAs, see, e.g., Brennan, S. et al., op. cit., 111.

[80] To give but one example of these kinds of agreements, in October 2005

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 Council.
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 (www.abc.net.au, 26 October 2005).

[81] On Indigenous filmmaking, see www.afc.gov.au (26 October 2005).

[82] 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]).

[83] On Indigenous Tourism Australia, see www.tourism.australia.com (26 October 2005).

[84] 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.

[85] 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 Australia (http://webdiary.smh.com.au, 26 October 2005).

[86] 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).

[87] 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, 5-6.

[88] See Cooper, op. cit., 15.

[89] 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).

[90] 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).

[91] 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 (www.alphalink.com.au, 11 October 2005).

[92] 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.

[93] See, e.g., the discussion by Will Sanders, op. cit.,, 18-22, discussing a 1998 paper by Richard Mulgan.

[94] 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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