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The Bennelong Society is dedicated to acting for Indigenous interests

By John Herron - posted Friday, 6 July 2001

A short while ago I was watching the Parkinson Show on ABC TV. One of the guests was Goldie Hawn. In the interview she said:

"The Internet is a fabulous place – there is room for everyone."

This room includes a space for the Bennelong Society web page.


The need for a space developed because many observers are troubled by the fact that for some years a line of thought has developed in Aboriginal affairs in Australia which is regarded as sacrosanct and any dissent with accepted wisdom is regarded as heresy.

This was brought home to me five years ago when I became Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. I freely confessed I knew little about these matters but I was instantly labelled as racist and paternalistic. I had hardly opened my mouth.

Racism was certainly not on my agenda – I had volunteered to work as a doctor for Care Australia in Rwanda – but the accusation of paternalism troubled me until I read that my fourteen predecessors had been labelled paternalistic by the industry that developed around the activists of the past as a result of the imposed paternalism of previous policies.

When I was appointed I decided to find out the facts first hand and over the five-year period visited more than 300 communities and organizations in urban, regional and remote areas – many on a number of occasions.

I discovered two worlds. On the one hand was the world of media land and academia and on the other the harsh reality of community life – poor educational standards, high unemployment, alcohol abuse, unimaginable family violence and little hope of improvement.

The recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study should be accepted as the final evidence that the policies of the last 34 years have failed. The symbolism of land rights and reconciliation while important to the intelligentsia of the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra axis has little relevance to the daily grind in communities such as Port Keats, Finke and Yuendemu.


There is some commonality throughout Australia but paradoxes abound. The picture is far more complex than many imagine.

The greatest number of Aboriginal people in a city live in Sydney – yet they represent but 9 in 1000 of the population. Canberra has the same ratio and Melbourne has but 3 in 1000 of the population but these three cities generate the most debate in the media.

On the other hand, it is interesting to note that in the capital cities 90% of Aboriginal people under 45 years of age are living with non-aboriginal people – surely practical reconciliation in action.

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This is an edited version of a speech to launch the Bennelong Society at Parliament House on May 15, which was reproduced in The Courier Mail on Wednesday, 16 May 2001.

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About the Author

Dr John Herron is the Chairman of the Australian National Council on Drugs. He was formerly a Liberal Senator for Queensland and the Ambassador to Ireland.

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