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Reconciliation - The Need for a New Vision

by Peter Howson
The Canberra Times, May 2000.




The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation seeks an apology for "the injustices of the past" despite its rejection by the great majority of Australians (rumoured around 80 per cent on the latest poll) and the Prime Minister, who has already expressed sincere regret about them. Mr Howard has also correctly rejected the Declaration's proposal to recognise "continuing customary laws, beliefs and traditions", and the right of Aborigines to "self determination within the life of the nation".


As a former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, my sole and sincere concern is the interests of Aborigines and good relations between them and whites, but the Council is completely out of touch with real Aboriginal interests. An entirely new approach to reconciliation is required.


The essential need is to reverse both the separatist policies and the rhetoric of alleged past injustices and, instead, promote closer Aboriginal involvement in the wider community. The movement out of traditional communities is already well under way but it needs furthering. At the same time, within those communities civil society as it exists elsewhere must be restored by proper policing and proper education.


That does not mean Aborigines abandoning links with their traditional cultures, anymore than migrants to Australia from countries with different cultures completely abandon theirs for our predominantly Anglo-Saxon one. Nor does it mean that white Australians will stop absorbing some of Aboriginal culture. History suggests that all cultures absorb from each other. But that is best achieved by letting the process take its natural course, not by artificially protecting one culture or another.


Supporters of the separatist-past injustices approaches to reconciliation are overlooking hard facts that show their many failures and inconsistencies. For example, new evidence from recent court cases shows that most Aboriginal children of mixed blood were removed by their parents for educational reasons. Where the Government effected removals, they were almost all with parental consent. The NSW test case comprehensively rejected the claim of someone described by Sir Ronald Wilson as a typical stolen child. Thus, claims in his report, Bringing Them Home, that between one tenth and one third of Aboriginal children were "stolen" have lost all credibility, as has Lois O'Donoghue's claim to have been "stolen" 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, although that has doubtless attracted the attention of the United Nations Committee that investigates racial discrimination claims. Already, an international journal has published an article highlighting the potential for Australia to become The World's Next Pariah. If anyone owes an apology, it is Sir Ronald to the nation for unnecessarily increasing our guilt complex and casting an unjustified slur on our reputation.


Perhaps the worst feature of the focus on the apology issue, however, is that it diverts attention from serious real problems and encourages Aborigines to look to the past for their explanation. This is also true of those continuing to pursue the separatist-preservationist approach.

Thus, Professor Morphy claims (C Times 8/5) that moving Aborigines away from their land "is neither an acceptable nor a practical solution and would eventually have a negative impact on the cultural and environmental heritage of all Australians." But Aborigines have increasingly been determining their own solutions that are quite different to the Professor's. Thus, not only are over 70 percent of Aborigines living in urban communities and professing Christianity: nearly two-thirds of indigenous adults are also married (de facto or de jure) to non-indigenous spouses and the majority of Aborigines are of mixed descent.


Equally, many reports have now revealed the horrific violence in traditional Aboriginal communities, which cannot be dismissed simply by asserting this happens in other underprivileged communities. Contrary to the alternative "colonisation effects" explanation, a growing number of studies attribute violence in Aboriginal communities to policies of cultural recognition, land rights and self-determination.


For example, the report by John Reeves QC on Northern Territory land rights concluded that these 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 mostly become economic and cultural prisons where the residents are almost totally dependent on the dead-end of social welfare.


The real issues are not what happened in the past, the preservation of old customs or some special recognition of Aboriginal rights. 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 have the same rights and obligations.


Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972


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