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Reconciliation -
A New Approach is Needed

By Peter Howson

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 and training.

 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 with
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 policies  of
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 encourages
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 society?

 Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972