It’s interesting how often people on all sides of the Indigenous affairs debate speak of “true reconciliation” as though some of us have signed up to versions of the movement which are somehow less than authentic than others. As though there might be one, particular end vision we can grasp onto which represents a state of being where everything will be right between us.
When Prime Minister John Howard was re-elected in October 1998, he pledged to commit himself “very genuinely to the cause of true reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Australia by the centenary of Federation”.
In December of 2000, when public support for reconciliation had arguably reached a peak in profile, the Prime Minister gave a public lecture in which he made the point:
If true reconciliation is manifest by a sense of pride and unity shared by all Australians – Indigenous and others – the Olympic Games proved beyond doubt that Australians have travelled a great distance towards this goal. There can be nothing more crucial than preserving and nurturing this mood of public support if we are to complete the journey towards reconciliation.
Some people have asserted that true reconciliation will only achieved when the date of Australia’s national day has been changed to be more inclusive of all citizens. Some have suggested it is dependent on us discarding the Union Jack as our national flag.
Perhaps, say others, we will only have true reconciliation when Indigenous Australians enjoy an equal status with non-Indigenous Australians in terms of employment, income, health and education.
Perhaps we will know we’re nearing the end of our journey when we have a Governor-General who is Indigenous or, better still, a Prime Minister.
Of course, it was former Governor-General Sir William Deane, a patron of Reconciliation Australia, who in 1996 attempted through his inaugural Vincent Lingiari Lecture to chart the course of our journey towards true reconciliation.
And the lecture still represents, I would argue, one of the most valuable roadmaps we have to work with in this area, incorporating practical and symbolic measures, and the demonstration of singular leadership in negotiating a lasting agreement for the benefit of all Australians.
Fine words and positions are worth nothing if they aren’t backed up with action but at the same time we must accept that great wrongs of history are not easily made right. And that a concept like reconciliation will always be open to interpretation.
There is little doubt that the current government in Canberra would like to make an impact in Indigenous affairs, though its vision of a reconciled Australia would be very different to that of many of us here this evening. And there are strong indications that Ministers across a number of Commonwealth portfolios are becoming more open to looking at creative solutions to persistent problems.
But the bottom line for this Prime Minister and his government has always been the compartmentalising of reconciliation and Indigenous affairs into so-called practical and symbolic measures, the latter having been rejected as unacceptable to mainstream Australia.
This is an edited version of a speech to the Mensa Annual Gathering in Brisbane on 15 November.
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