The Australian Financial Review
Monday 29 May 2000
The presentation of the Declaration Towards Reconciliation at Corroberee
2000 was meant as the culmination of the 10 year reconciliation attempt by the
Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Those who unfairly blame its failure on
intransigence by the Prime Minister, who released his own version entitled Towards
a Common Destiny, have clearly not examined carefully the vital differences
between the two documents.
Whereas the Prime Minister's version is restrained and on behalf of all
Australians, the Council's is seriously divisive and unacceptable to most.
Indeed, the Council's own research into reconciliation has revealed it is even
out of line with the views of many full blood Aborigines.
The Council, along with ATSIC, has also let Australia down by failing to
counter such false portrayals of treatment of Aborigines as engendered by Sir
Ronald Wilson's outrageous genocide accusation in Bringing Them Home and
delinquent outbursts by Charles
Perkins. Overseas media are starting unjustifiably to categorise Australia as a
pariah, and a real danger exists that bodies such as the UN may follow suit.
There are three serious problems with the Council's approach.
First, it demands an apology for "the injustices of the past".
Yet, while few Australians do not accept that some injustices occurred, most
reject the concept of an apology. Despite this, almost all media commentators
persist in attacking the Prime Minister for his realistic explanation that one
generation cannot assume responsibility for the sins of previous ones. They
also refuse to acknowledge his previously expressed sincere regret for those
injustices or to explain why that is not acceptable.
The Council's real aims, however, were reflected in two other totally
unacceptable proposals - one demanding recognition of "continuing
customary laws, beliefs and traditions" and the other the right to
"self determination within the life of the nation". In essence,
traditional Aboriginal practices would be given special recognition in
Australian law and some form of separate government would be allowed. Now, some
Aboriginal leaders have even upped the ante by demanding such provisions be
incorporated in a Treaty!
Anything more calculated to cause division is difficult to imagine. Why
have proposals that would allow separate laws for Aborigines, and a separate,
racially-based state within Australia, not been widely condemned?
The Prime Minister is to be applauded for rejecting such obnoxious notions.
The emphasis in his response on the decreasing importance of traditional
lifestyles to Aborigines was also
highly important. Thus, less than 3 per cent of indigenous families live in
improvised dwellings and one in three now own their own homes; about one third
are completing secondary school and 45,000 are undertaking vocational education
With the proportion of indigenous adults married (de facto or de jure) to
non-indigenous spouses increasing from 46 per cent in 1986 to 64 per cent
today; with the majority of Aborigines now of mixed descent; and with
over 70 per cent living in urban communities and professing Christianity,
the promotion of separate laws and
states is surely completely out of touch with reality.
None of this means that these Aborigines have or should cut all links
their traditional cultures, any more than those migrants from non-Anglo-Saxon
countries have cut their's. But it does mean they are increasingly
participating more actively in the wider community.
For the remaining minority, we now know that the separatist
the past thirty years have been disastrous. They have caused much of the
"hopelessness, despair, and anti-social behaviour ..and contempt and
hostility" identified in the report by John Reeves QC on Northern
Territory land rights.
Many other reports have revealed the horrific violence, particularly in traditional
Aboriginal communities, and a growing number of studies attribute much of such
violence to separatist policies of land
rights and self-determination. A psychology of victimhood has also been created
that is having adverse effects on relations between whites and aborigines.
Why has the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission failed to
investigate these serious breaches of human rights? Is it afraid of discovering
the real causes?
An entirely new approach to reconciliation is required, one that
those still in traditional communities to become more closely involved in
the wider community. If, as some Aboriginal leaders claim, the Prime Minister
is splitting hairs, why cannot they
make the perceived marginal change needed to reconcile both Aboriginal and
white cultures in the context of modern
Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972