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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 noticed.

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 in reconciliation.

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 of reconciliation?

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 reconciliation.

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 House.

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

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