Death of Symbolic Reconciliation

The Australian
26 November 2004

by Peter Howson

Michael Long's march to Canberra should be in support of more practical ways of helping indigenous Australians, argues Peter Howson

Former champion Essendon footballer, Michael Long, is not the first to walk for change. Of course, his aim differs fundamentally from that of Mao Zedong, whose famous long march in 1934-35 to escape from Chiang Kai-shek's army cost an estimated 90,000 lives out of the 100,000 who marched. But is Long's walk to Canberra doing more than pursuing the same futile symbolic objectives of treaties and apologies as those who walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000?

One can readily sympathise with the concern Long has expressed at the higher death rate and third world conditions among Aborigines, and his plea to work through the problems together. He is right to say: "it's not just an indigenous problem -it's a government problem".

Indeed, as a Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the early 1970s I acknowledge that governments at that time wrongly adopted policies designed to keep Aborigines separate from the rest of the community. Those policies were based on the then widely held view amongst so-called experts that Aboriginal culture and life needed to be preserved in the interest of Aborigines.

But, with over 30 years' experience, we now know such policies have produced the kind of disastrous results about which Long are rightly concerned.

It is important, though, to understand where the main problem exists. For the 100,000 or so Aborigines who continue to live separately in remote communities, the story remains one of unrelieved tragedy and horror.

By contrast, the remaining 300,000 or so who have rejected separatism by joining mainstream Australia in the cities and provincial towns have significantly improved their living standards and achieved employment rates not substantially lower than those for the non-indigenous.

Long is an outstanding example of what integration can do - and there are numerous other such success stories in the football world. But the Prime Minister is already well aware of the benefits of integration and the problems in remote communities. Long would be better advised to undertake different long walks.

The first long walk should be to those of his Aboriginal colleagues who have described as racist the Government's policy of abandoning the totally dysfunctional ATSIC and of requiring Aborigines in remote communities to work for the dole. Their stubborn refusal to support Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs Minister Vanstone's decision to abandon sit-down money is a bar to progress.

The second long walk should be to parents in remote communities to persuade them of the vital importance of attendance at school for the future employment prospects of their children. Of course, governments also need to establish education institutions outside the remote communities to help provide the education that up to 70 per cent of remote community children are missing.

To overcome the very serious problems faced in such communities further major changes are required in government policies. But these are also problems that far too few indigenous leaders are supporting. Long could help there.

Peter Howson, a Minister for Aboriginal Affairs from 1971 to 1972, is Vice-President of the Bennelong Society.