Today, March 21 is Harmony Day. It coincides with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It encourages governments and individuals to promote harmony and racial tolerance in society. One intention of Harmony Day (pdf file 29KB) is to “enable organisations and individuals to tell their communities what they are doing to promote community harmony”.
In terms of addressing the issue of racial discrimination, we Australians don’t have far to turn. We have debated it for years and used all kinds of rhetoric and symbolism to feel “at one” with the original inhabitants of our country. We can look at certain salient issues such as petrol sniffing, Mulan’s trachoma-eyed children, the 20-year gap between the average Indigenous life span and the national average, and the enormously high occurrence of diabetes among adults in Aboriginal communities. As we know or can guess, this is just the start of the long litany of Indigenous issues that stick out more than Uluru in the Simpson Desert. We have a problem in our own backyard and it will certainly be around well and truly after all our efforts surrounding Harmony Day.
The conclusion is that we need more human measures to achieve reconciliation.
We need to see that it is not just the role of government to achieve harmony. This is an issue for every Australian - Indigenous and otherwise, politician and plebe.
Over the years, I have been lucky to spend time on volunteer projects in Aboriginal communities with groups of university students. I remember driving past the perimeter of a dry camp not far from Alice Springs and finding a sea of VB cans on the fence-line - our introduction to one of several attempts at solving the alcohol problems in these communities. The local policeman (of Indigenous background himself) took us out at night in the back of the paddy wagon, and as we stared out at the laughing faces through the steel grill of the vehicle, I remember thinking it was the most watered-down happiness I’d ever witnessed. How could our efforts in that town achieve anything?
At the end of our stay, my sentiments were unchanged, although we had grasped better the complexity of the problem. Having experienced government dollars falling from the sky, and those dollars drying up like the engines of the rusty machinery they financed, our gesture seemed just as futile. But the lesson had been learnt. We had started to understand the problem, and that put us miles ahead of the average Australian.
Back during Corroboree 2000, we had the People’s Walk for Reconciliation. I found it all too symbolic, but realised that symbolism goes a long way in changing attitudes and can be a big step towards an effective solution. On that occasion, William Deane, the then governor-general and arguably the nation’s most outspoken public figure on Indigenous issues, said, “Our search for national reconciliation is not a matter of charity or generosity. It is a matter of basic justice and national decency.” I’d be prepared to take William to task on that one.
Like Peter Garret, who spoke about “sincere acts of real reconciliation” in his maiden speech to Parliament, Deane could see many beds still burning. The phrase from Garret’s song comes from the burning of Aboriginal homes infiltrated by bauxite at Mapoon in 1963. Four years later, the path of reconciliation through justice would begin with the nation’s most strongly affirmed referendum, which saw 90 per cent of voters granting Indigenous peoples equal rights under the constitution. It is the path of justice Deane himself helped pave as a member of the High Court in the Mabo decision in 1992.
Everyone agrees that justice, while taking time, is an essential path to follow. But in the meantime, there is much to be achieved through the charity and generosity of the type that Deane downplayed. Don’t get me wrong - Deane is no stranger to acts of charity, but I ask why we don’t applaud and encourage the generous efforts of individual Australians while the scales of justice struggle to balance above them. It might take us past our comfort zone, but extending the hand of charity gives a lot more comfort to others than the cold face of justice.
A similar sight to the littered boundary line welcomed me once into Balgo, an isolated community in Western Australia, and a very uncomfortable 850 kilometres from Alice Springs. However, the atmosphere in that small town of 450 people breathed hope like I hadn’t felt before. We had arrived in a town that dealt with four suicides and petrol-sniffing issues in the previous months. But what is most peculiar about Balgo is that in this environment there are promising signs of reconciliation. There is a group of very dedicated nurses, an amazingly committed parish priest and a group of impressive volunteers.
The Indigenous members of the community follow their own traditional customs, a bit of a rarity among communities with European influence. While preserving these special customs, efforts are being made slowly on both sides to enjoy the benefits of Western civilisation. A simple example is the Catholic community, who attend Mass and prayers, using their own language and cultural alterations to the liturgy. The parish priest has learnt Guguja, the local dialect, which has helped make their faith more meaningful to them.
Balgo could also be called the home of Aboriginal art in Australia, with experts flying in for exhibitions of the famous works of locals. The artists sell their paintings and support their families, taking advantage of a rare and beautiful skill.