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Reconciliation - The Long March

By James Ensor - posted Tuesday, 16 May 2000

Even though he didn’t explain why we were making the long detour to a remote sandy riverbed on the edge of the Tanami Desert, the tone of Jupurrurla’s voice made clear it was important business.

Hours later Jupurrurla directed us to pull up in the searing midday heat. We spent the next few hours sitting in the dry riverbed under the welcome shade of a patch of River Red Gums as Jupurrurla recounted an earlier time he spent under these very trees.

The year was 1929 and a younger Jupurrurla and his family had fled here in fear, seeking refuge from a posse of rampaging white stockmen from nearby stations. The river had offered no refuge. Pointing above us to the River Red Gums, Jupurrurla described how the stockmen had tied his father to one of these very trees and shot him in front of his young eyes. As he hid nearby he watched as his father’s body was later piled with others and torched in an attempt to conceal evidence of the massacre. Jupurrurla is part of another ‘stolen generation’ we are yet to come to terms with.


Recounting this story as we sat in the dry riverbed was Jupurrurla’s approach to reconciliation. He wasn’t bitter or angry and didn’t personally blame me for the massacre he saw with his then younger eyes. But Jupurrurla was determined that I should understand and truthfully acknowledge his history if we were going to work together for the future.

With Australia’s formal Reconciliation process now rapidly running off the rails, perhaps Prime Minister Howard could learn a thing or two about reconciliation from the likes of Jupurrurla.

Jupurrurla’s first lesson for the Prime Minister would be about truth. The Prime Minister’s talk of Aboriginal ‘custodianship’ of Australia in the failed preamble to the Constitution belied the truth of prior Aboriginal ownership of Australia as acknowledged in the Mabo and Wik cases. His politically expedient statement of ‘sincere regret’ to victims of the stolen generation - on the basis that such practices were a thing of the distant past not connected to the present generation - was a profound insult to many indigenous Australians who rightly demand a formal apology.

Jupurrurla’s second lesson for the Prime Minister would be about the importance of rights to indigenous Australians - rights to land, rights to self determination and rights not to suffer racial discrimination. Reconciliation cannot be achieved without addressing the root cause of much of the injustice faced by indigenous Australians - a lack of basic rights.

The state of indigenous rights in Australia has now descended into a truly international shambles. With the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination damning the Howard Government’s amendments to the Native Title Act and its failure to overturn mandatory sentencing laws, the only real winner must be the airlines ferrying the now regular procession of lame duck Ministers called to Geneva to defend indefensible Government policies before the United Nations.

It is painfully clear that Reconciliation will not be achieved by the Centenary of Federation in 2001, as was hoped for when the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was formed in 1991. It is equally clear that the single greatest barrier to the achievement of Reconciliation by the Centenary of Federation has been the current Government’s failure to understand and truthfully acknowledge our shared history and to address a range of recent indigenous rights issues which are rooted in this shared past.


In what must be a bitter pill to swallow, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has acknowledged that reconciliation cannot be achieved in the current Australian political environment where so many indigenous rights issues remain unresolved. Due to disband on January 1 2001, one of the final acts of the Council will be to present its Document for Reconciliation to the Prime Minister at a major ceremony in Sydney on 27th May 2000.

In acknowledging that Reconciliation will not be achieved before the Centenary of Federation, the Document for Reconciliation will seek Government endorsement of a series of National Strategies to Advance Reconciliation beyond 2001, including a strategy to promote the recognition of indigenous rights which calls for the Australian Government to enter a framework agreement with indigenous Australians to resolve the many currently unresolved indigenous rights’ issues.

The Council deserves our support for acknowledging that Reconciliation will not be achieved with so many fundamental indigenous rights issues unresolved. Lets hope the Prime Minister finally gets the message.

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About the Author

James Ensor is Director of Public Policy at Oxfam Australia.

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