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Herald Sun 20 February 2001

Separate development won’t help outback Aborigines — and cries of racism won’t help reconciliation, argues Peter Howson.

Aboriginal spokesman Geoff Clark claims racism is one of the terrible defects weakening Australia, denying Aborigines their rights and suppressing their cultures.

Mr Clark, chairman of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, has argued for a treaty that includes recognition of customary law and the right to self-determination. He has now organised an international conference on indigenous people and racism, which begins today at Sydney University.

But use of taxpayers’ funds by ATSIC and sponsor RMIT University to run the conference must be questioned.

Making outrageous racist accusations that antagonize one side, and display intolerance, is not the way to achieve reconciliation. Particularly as the Federal Government already has a Racial Discrimination Act that penalises racist acts. Mr Clark should start from the position that all citizens act responsibly unless otherwise established in court.

His out-burst raises the question of whether those portrayed as Aboriginal leaders can legitimately claim to represent the diverse interests and views amongst people claiming Aboriginal lineage. The majority of Aborigines do not even vote in ATSIC elections and significant differences between full-blood and part Aborigines, not to mention within those groups, are ignored by leaders.

Those leaders certainly overlook that the Aboriginal community now essentially comprises two nations, one largely separate (and mostly including traditional Aborigines) and the other part of the broader community. It is largely irrelevant to appeal to the over 70 per cent of Aborigines living in urban communities and professing Christianity with policies advocating additional land rights and the recognition of customary law.

Importantly, policies that encourage separate cultural development are against the interests of most Aborigines in traditional communities. While those Aborigines have retained some links with their traditional cultures, they are no longer hunter-gathers but, as Noel Pearson has identified, largely dependent on welfare.

This encouragement of separate Aboriginal communities on their own land, dating from the 1970s, has been a failed experiment. Without an effective labour market in most areas, the dispiritedness that comes with reliance on handouts is hardly surprising.

The deteriorating living conditions for most Aborigines staying in such communities have recently been highlighted by former missionary, Richard Trudgen. His book on the land-rich Yolngu tribe suggests that if nothing changes, these great warriors of Arnhem Land will just lie down and die.

Separatist policies must be changed by providing residents with enhanced incentives and opportunities to adapt to 21st Century Australian life. That would be consistent with Federal Parliament’s August 1999 reconciliation motion reaffirming the central importance of practical measures to overcome disadvantage and expressing deep and sincere regret for injustices suffered under past policies.

Now $5 million will be spent on establishing in Canberra an integrated national symbol recognizing indigenous people and Australia’s desire to share a harmonious future. These various actions surely constitute an appropriate culmination of the reconciliation process that commenced in 1991.

The important thing is not to debate treaties but to focus on how to change the outdated policies of the 1970s to 1990s that are antipathetic to long run Aboriginal interests. And to recognize that accusations of racism do not constitute a basis for changing the reconciliation that has effectively been achieved. Rather, it appears as attempted political self-promotion.

Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971-72.