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Why the Reconciliation Process is Deeply Flawed

by Peter Howson*


The Corroberee 2000 event next week-end includes the presentation of a declaration prepared by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation that would supposedly overcome grievances Aboriginal people have about their treatment. The Prime Minister's proposed alternative declaration has been criticised as destroying the reconciliation process and some feel he should simply have accepted the Council's proposals. However, it could equally be argued that the Council has been both provocative and divisive.


As a former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, my sole concern is the interests of Aborigines and good relations between them and whites. However, the Council has failed to recognise that these have to be based on the realities of what is happening in both communities and how best to further the future interests of both Aborigines and our mutual relationship. Its declaration demonstrates it is completely out of touch.


The first reality we should recognise is that, while for the past thirty years policies have promoted separate development through land rights and preservation of traditional culture, Aborigines themselves have increasingly moved closer to the broader community.  Thus, not only are over 70 percent of Aborigines living in urban communities and professing Christianity: the proportion of indigenous adults married (de facto or de jure) to non-indigenous spouses has also increased to 64 per cent (from 46 per cent in 1986), and the majority of Aborigines are now of mixed descent.


The second reality is that separatist policies have created very serious problems amongst the minority still living traditional communities.  Many reports have revealed the horrific violence in traditional Aboriginal communities and attempts to dismiss this as the normal response of underprivileged communities, or as due to "colonisation ", will not wash. A growing number of studies attribute violence in Aboriginal communities to encouragement of cultural recognition, land rights and self-determination.


 For example, the report by John Reeves QC on Northern Territory land rights concluded that such policies have resulted in "hopelessness, despair, and anti-social behaviour .and contempt and hostility." Again, former ALP Senator Bob Collins' report on Aboriginal education in the Territory revealed that, against the background of encouragement given to Aboriginal languages and the shocking failure to enforce school attendance, some 80 per cent of Aboriginal children are illiterate.


The traditional communities have land but they have effectively become economic and cultural prisons where the residents are almost totally dependent on the dead-end of social welfare. Tragically, within those communities there is at present virtually no civil society as it exists elsewhere. As a matter of urgency, that must be restored by proper policing and proper education.


Against this background, the Prime Minister is surely correct to reject the Council's  proposal to further separatism by recognising "continuing customary laws, beliefs and traditions" and the right to "self determination within the life of the nation". In any event, proposals that could allow separate laws and a separate, racially- based state for Aborigines are clearly out of the question.


 Equally, would the Prime Minister have been right to accede to the Council's demand for an apology for "the injustices of the past" when it has been rejected by most Australians? Why could the Council not have accepted the Prime Minister's previously expressed sincere regret in recognition of the very real need to move away from focussing on past injustices and the encouragement that gives to Aborigines (and others) to look to the past to explain current problems?


Indeed, the increasing awareness of the invalidity of the most renowned claim about past injustices - the alleged forcible removal from their parents of Aboriginal children of mixed blood - suggests that continued pursuit of this agenda is counter-productive to the cause of reconciliation. The conclusion of Sir Ronald Wilson in his Bringing Them Home report that between one tenth and one third of Aboriginal children were "stolen" has lost all credibility in the light of evidence in test cases in NSW and the Northern Territory. Lois O'Donoghue's claim to have been "stolen" must also be questioned now it has become known her father placed her in the AIM mission.


Sir Ronald's claim that the removal of mixed-blood children constituted "genocide" is also revealed as absurd. However, that has doubtless attracted the attention of the United Nations Committee that investigates racial discrimination claims. Indeed, an international journal has already published an article highlighting the resulting potential for Australia to be hounded as The World's Next Pariah. If anyone owes an apology, it is Sir Ronald to the nation for casting an unjustified slur on our reputation.


If Corroberee 2000 is be more than a media show it must recognise that genuine reconciliation will only occur through both Aboriginal and white cultures coming together in the context of modern society, where employment can provide self-respect and where all Australians share the same rights and obligations, and where we look to the future not the past.


*Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972