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So Near and Yet So Far

By Graham Young - posted Tuesday, 15 June 1999


If the nation cannot reach agreement over the draft Declaration for Reconciliation Australia will have to ask whether national reconciliation was the right model in the first place.

Reconciliation has to be based on acknowledgement of fault on one side, and forgiveness on the other. Logically the acknowledgement of fault has to come before the forgiveness. If one of the Prime Minister’s reservations is that he will not make what is commonly called an apology, then his election night pledge to make reconciliation a high priority was merely an empty promise, and there is no point trying to go any further.

Furthermore that refusal would be yet another injury to indigenous Australia. If they, who have lost just about everything, are prepared to forgive, the least we can do is acknowledge our fault and accept that forgiveness. After all, the rest of us still get to keep the money and the box. We’re not giving much away.

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That is not to say that the document needs to be accepted in its entirety. Some of its phrases are obscure, but the bones are there – and they should be non-negotiable. They include acknowledgement of separate identity; of prior ownership, custodianship and dispossession; and a resolve to work to end injustice in the future.

Other parts raise questions. If we "respect and recognise continuing customary laws…," does that mean that we should accept them as part of the law of the country? I do not think that many non-Indigenous Australians would see a ceremonial spearing in punishment for a killing as an acceptable part of Australian law. Nor is it likely to be acceptable under any number of International Conventions to which the nation is party.

Another area that demands clarification calls for the People of Australia to "respect the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to determine their own destinies." ATSIC is a form of self-determination. Is that what we are talking about? Or are we talking about some sort of separate state or government? Or just the right of any individual or group to make up its own mind free from interference?

On the Canadian model, perhaps some advanced form of self-government is possible, but don’t expect reconciliation this millennium on that basis, because it wouldn’t be politically popular here.

This is perhaps the nub of the problem. Reconciliation is a step further than treaties or agreements. It requires an engagement beyond legal assent. It also requires near unanimity on all sides for it to be successful as a Government Project.

For that reason the best chance of achieving it has to be when you have a non-Labor Government in power, because a non-Labor government in Opposition would find the siren song of dissent on this issue almost irresistible.

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Another question is the ability of the Council of Reconciliation to sell and negotiate this document? If the Nine MSN online poll is any guide, Chairperson Evelyn Scott took a false step with the suggestion that the document should be recited by school children. The poll is running 90% against.

The direction of that result, if not it’s magnitude, was predictable. From all the money that will be spent by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, has anything been set aside to hire someone with a sensitive political nose, and to pay for some focus groups?

We also have yet to see much indigenous reaction. Are there indigenous people equally as inflexible as the Prime Minister appears to be, and will there be a united front? Recently Noel Pearson was viciously pilloried by Pat O’Shane for his thoughts on aboriginal welfare dependence. An outbreak of personal animosity in this arena between any indigenous leaders would really seal the fate of National Reconciliation.

The more I look at the question of reconciliation, the more difficult it appears at a government level. Some things may be negotiable, but if I were indigenous Australia, I don’t think I would give it too much longer. I’d be looking at my options.

Amongst them would be the possibility of an act of reconciliation based not on the government, but on individuals. If a fitting document can be drafted, and this one is very close, have the populace ratify it, without the Government. It could be done with mass signings and public meetings.

Alternatively, another more legalistic model might be needed as a prelude to reconciliation sometime next century. Perhaps the turn of the Millennium is just too soon. Maybe a generation needs to turnover before official reconciliation is practicable.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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