Past lessons

Opinion Article

1997 May, 24

Reconciliation between black and white Australians can become a reality in this generation if four key issues can be settled.

Next week in Melbourne, the National Reconciliation Conference will hark back to 1967 when Australians overwhelmingly agreed to amend the Constitution to count Aborigines as citizens and give them legal rights.

For good reason, 1967 is seen as the date of Aboriginal citizenship.

But there is another key date in the history of the struggle for Aboriginal citizenship and rights: Australia Day 1938. While white Australians prepared to celebrate 150 years of white occupation of this continent, Australia's original peoples laboured under the terrible yoke of Terra Nullius, White Australia and the genocidal conclusion that they were a dying race.

William Cooper, the great Yorta Yorta leader from the banks of the Murray, conceived the idea of declaring Australia Day 1938 a day of mourning. With Jack Patten and Jack Ferguson, William Cooper formed the core group of activists on the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights, the founding fathers of the modern Aboriginal political struggle.

At the Australian Hall, the committee published its manifesto, which is a fascinating document still. Its relevance and appeal was as fresh when the referendum question was put to Australia in 1967, as it is today.

The manifesto set out a context which applies just as poignantly to Australia in the Mabo and Wik era: ``You are the New Australians but we are the Old Australians. We have in our arteries the blood of the Original Australians, who have lived in this land for many thousands of years. You came here only recently and you took our land away from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation. By your cruelty and callousness towards the Aborigines you stand condemned in the eyes of the civilised world.''

The manifesto spoke plainly: ``These are hard words but we ask you to face the truth of our accusation.''

The manifesto appealed for a fair go, not charity for victims: ``We do not ask for your charity; we do not ask you to study us as scientific freaks. Above all, we do not ask for your `protection'. No thanks! We have had 150 years of that! We ask only for justice, decency and fair play. Is this too much to ask?''

The manifesto sought a new deal: ``After 150 years, we ask you to review the situation and give us a fair deal a new deal for Aborigines. The cards have been stacked against us and we now ask you to play the game like decent Australians. Remember, we do not ask for charity, we ask for justice.''

Five days later, Ferguson and Patten presented the prime minister of the time with a 10-point programme for Aboriginal equality. Its central theme was for the Commonwealth to take charge of Aboriginal affairs and responsibility for Aboriginal health, education, working and social conditions. It urged the government to buy land for Aborigines.

There was no reply for 30 years, when the 1967 referendum finally conferred legislative responsibilities on the Commonwealth in relation to Aborigines.

There has been significant progress since 1967. In order to assess just how far the country has advanced in addressing the hard challenges set out in the 1938 manifesto, let me set out four of the issues that I believe are central to reconciliation.

But first let me express my firm belief that the longstanding and fundamental grievances that lie between the original and newer Australians can be settled. And we can settle these issues soon if we have the desire and the will.

Despite the prevailing Hansonesque depression and the real doubts that have arisen in relation to Prime Minister John Howard's commitment and capacity to lead the country to reconciliation 2001 is not entirely a forlorn aim.

The overwhelming impression from observing post-colonial conflicts across the world is that the problems are so intractable that they can never be settled. I believe that we can comprehensively settle these questions in the present generation.

I do not subscribe to the idea that the Aboriginal struggle for rights will be perpetual. I believe that the incrementalist approach to advancing the cause of indigenous justice, where successive generations of black activists have built upon the achievements of those who have struggle before them, is now approaching its end.

The struggle of the heroes of 1938 Day of Mourning, 1967 referendum and the 1972 Tent Embassy has yielded the opportunity and the momentum for us to put paid to our fundamental conflicts and to unite for the future.

The 1992 Mabo breakthrough was decisive. It brought the destination within reach. All the ingredients necessary to reconcile are within our grasp and I am bold enough to say there is no need for Australians to be arguing about these matters 30 years hence.

This may sound like a rash and unreasonable hope but there is not enough time, resources and pleasure in struggle for Australians to prolong conflicts that are eminently resolvable. I am interested in whether and how we can comprehensively settle these questions.

The first issue for reconciliation concerns how Australians will come to terms with our colonial history and its legacy. The difficult moral and policy questions raised by the report on the stolen generations underscore the fact that the past never really leaves us.

In the past 30 years, our understanding of Australian history has undergone revolutionary change. There has been a historiographical explosion and the story of ``The Other Side of the Frontier'' is now well established in historical writing.

What is needed is the teaching of this history to follow the writing. It is needed because the community remains overwhelmingly ignorant of this history and is ill-equipped to deal with it.

Former prime minister Paul Keating's Redfern Park speech in December 1992 is without doubt the watershed moment in relation to the question of our history. Read it. It is not about guilt, it is about truth and opening our hearts.

The sooner we rise above the stunted and immature refusal to deal with the truth of the past, acknowledge its legacy in the present and to understand that acceptance does not require guilt, the better off we will be as a country. To glibly dismiss the progress we have made by talking in catchphrases such as ``the black armband of history'' and ``politically correct history'' is simply destructive.

For Aborigines, there is also the challenge of dealing with the past. We can never forget it but must rise above its demoralising legacy.

The second issue for reconciliation centres on the need to settle the question of indigenous rights to land and resources and to realise the cultural and economic empowerment that is related to these rights.

There has to be absolute fidelity to the High Court's Mabo and Wik decisions as a fundamental pre-requisite to reconciliation. Fairness and the compromise of Mabo and Wik are principles that transcend whatever hold on power a particular government might claim.

At stake are questions of enormous importance to Aborigines and the country that go to the heart of our history and future.

We have the ingredients available for us to now settle the question on indigenous land rights. Land rights must not be a perpetual complaint.

We have to aim to settle it once and for all. Mabo and Wik have prescribed the principles. If we are intelligent and fair we can settle the question and we can do it in a way that avoids harm to our economic interests and capitalises on our opportunities.

The third issue for reconciliation concerns the need to define and give indigenous peoples the right to self-determination and to constitutionally guarantee this as we move towards a republic.

Aborigines' right to self-determination is sourced in their distinctive place as original Australians whose laws and customs are now recognised in Australian law.

The problem is that while the concept of self-determination was expressed as policy by the Whitlam government in the 1970s, we have not defined what Aborigines are entitled to do in their own communities and on their own lands. The right to self-determination that we settle on must have constitutional guarantee.

The fourth issue for reconciliation concerns the pressing need for indigenous Australians to be empowered to overcome egregious social disadvantage and marginalisation.

It is overcoming disadvantage that will be the biggest challenge to our commitment to reconciliation because we will only be able to make commitments that can yield progress in the long term. A deficit reduction strategy on Aboriginal life expectancy in comparison with the Australian average will have to be a generational strategy.

We will therefore need sustained commitments and long-term guarantees of resources not just for health but for the criminal justice system and to alleviate poverty.

We will not overcome disadvantage overnight. There are many health problems that can be readily overcome quickly and efficiently if we get organised and just do it. The late Fred Hollows showed this with his eye programme. Many other problems will not be fixed within political cycles but we can reconcile around commitments to address these disadvantages in the longer term. It is essential that we do so for reconciliation to have meaning.

Past lessons