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Reconciliation: Stalled, fermenting, or taken out the back and shot?

Dr Mark Byrne*

30 November 2005

Op-ed appeared in New Matilda, 30/11/05

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 chair Sir
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 Responsibility Agreements?

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 altogether.

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 future.

Dr Mark Byrne is Project and Advocacy Officer at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney.

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