Aboriginal and European reconciliation is as far away as it ever was because neither side is really talking to the other.
On Friday, the Port Phillip Citizens for Reconciliation ran a "Bringing Them Home" Function in the St Kilda Town Hall as part of NAIDOC week. The St Kilda Town Hall is a massive pile, bespeaking gold field riches on the outside, but an Arthurian Chapel Perilous on the inside.
It is clean, but slightly decrepit with high up arches where a parliament of owls might be expected to stare down, except, sensibly in Melbourne, the arches have been filled with glass to stop the wind gusts. And the glass is etched with phrases, none of which immediately carried any unifying sense, but a heavy burden of care.
When we entered the building late, we were first confronted by a local Cerberus, barking at us that we should make a donation, with the clear implication that if it were not freely given, then it would be exacted.
An a capella choir - Just Add Water - was in full flight. Not really aboriginal in cadence, but a kissing cousin to the sort of African music that Lady Smith Black Mombasa sings. This was music as ideology, hypnotic, but not particularly informative, devoid of invention after the initial phrase, and repeating itself endlessly like some Buddhist chant designed to render the self into unbeing.
At one point a didgeridoo wielded by Tom E Lewis was added, but the African vernacular was still there, as though Gondwana land was still glued together at the bottom of the globe with the Kimberleys and the South African veldt cheek by jowl.
The high point of the evening was an address by Sir Ronald Wilson, "former President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission with primary responsibility for the national enquiry into the separation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander children from their families." His speech was to be augmented by a video.
I had come to this meeting because I was on a promise that if I did I could meet Sir Ronald. As it is not often that one has the opportunity to meet someone famous and good, I was there with a mutual friend. Ronald Wilson is an impish looking man who used to be moderator of the Uniting Church in Western Australia, and who is distinguished by a flap of hair that sits up at the back, a little like Dennis the Menace, giving the impression that a catch has come undone and a whole lot of good ideas might start tumbling from the back of his head if he were to give it a good shake.
He was also in the "Conservative" minority on the High Court on the Mabo judgement, and, even if he were not then, is now an unabashed advocate for Aboriginal Reconciliation. When he spoke, it was not like a High Court judge, but like a Protestant Minister, so that the modest well-worn suit in which he was dressed seemed to be shot through with preaching bands. I do not recall exactly what he said, but it was full of passion and decency.
The video was of another piece altogether. Designed as propaganda it is rescued by the strength of some of its subjects who have been put in positions that they never should have been. Inquiries draw their strength from a perception of impartiality. They are a way of having conclusions accepted that could never survive the adversarial debate of our democratic institutions. The last thing that the video is, is impartial.
During the function I looked around the room. There was a surprising number of single young women, Major Barbara types, with earnest faces. Just in front of us, and to the left, was an older man who nodded or shook his head on cue. There were aboriginal Australians and couples and a Wild Bill Hicock look-alike. I imagine that they were from the Trade Union Movement and the Labor Party Branches, Socialist Workers , Friends of the Earth, Democratic Socialists and Socialist Alternative.
Reconciliation is the sacrament of the political left in Australia, and most of us are not communicating members. Herein lies the problem.
This article was written in mid-1998. It is presented here in that context and as a retrospective.