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The hearts and minds of reconciliation

By Philip Ruddock - posted Saturday, 15 June 2002

In Reconciliation Week it is timely to reflect on the issue of reconciliation – what does reconciliation mean to ordinary Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, what progress are we achieving on making reconciliation a reality, and how can we continue on our journey together?

For me, reconciliation has always been about hearts and minds and bringing people together. If we look back to Corroboree 2000, it was clear that Australians of all different backgrounds stood side by side wanting reconciliation to move ahead. It was a watershed, a time of growing understanding, respect and appreciation of Indigenous Australians and their culture. There was a mood never before felt in the shared history of this country.

There was an encouraging amount of good-will and a great deal was achieved.


Many lives have been affected. Those who walked across the bridges were in so many ways able to grow.

But despite that sense of warmth and goodwill that emanated from Corroboree 2000 and which, I believe, continues to grow around the country today, there is no quick-fix, no universal overnight delivery. The idea that there can be – almost as a wish – a "reconciliation day" on which everyone is reconciled is naïve.

There are a host of individuals with different attitudes and approaches to reconciliation. Reconciliation is about allowing people to move at their own pace. Our approach is to bring people together in a spirit of better understanding and shared experience.

Reconciliation is also about addressing grievances – particularly those that arise from what happened in the past. We can’t deny what happened and we have expressed our very considerable regret for that. It is something that may have involved our forefathers, or our forefathers’ forefathers or even members of this generation for which we feel remorse.

There is clearly still a lot to be done. There is much that we will need to do together. It is important in looking ahead to what can be achieved, to reflect upon the past, not to bemoan what might or might not have been done, but to learn from it.

There was dispossession and people were marginalised. It is a question of how you deal with this and move on as an inclusive society. For example, we can’t expect Indigenous leaders to say everything’s ok now, we’re reconciled. There are no fine words that can be said about reconciliation while there are Indigenous children who go hungry, children who do not get the same level of education as the rest of the Australian community or where standards of health, housing and employment opportunities continue to be less than those that we will accept for non-Indigenous Australians.


I think we will have reconciliation when we have been able to address these problems. I don’t expect it to happen overnight and I don’t want to propose a particular timeframe. But it will happen.

The historic referendum in 1967 which gave the Commonwealth government powers to override discriminatory state legislation and to enact special laws and programmes for Indigenous people heralded great hope for the future. And yet it has been a traumatic time for Indigenous people, impatient to be heard and believed, eager to be respected, legitimately insistent on not being ignored.

At the recent ATSIC national policy conference, I made some suggestions about moving Indigenous policy towards families and individuals. This drew criticism from some who believed that I was recommending assimilation. Such views are entirely misplaced. I am not about separation. I have also recently said that perhaps Australia’s greatest treasure is the Indigenous peoples and their cultures. I believe that Indigenous people should be able to aspire to opportunities that are available to other Australians and to celebrate their special heritage.

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About the Author

Philip Ruddock was attorney-general and minister for immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs in the Howard government, and is the Liberal member for Berowra.

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Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
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