Where do we go from here? - RECONCILIATION

Age 9th December 2000 -

THE NIGHT before they handed over their final report to the people of Australia, several members of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation shared a meal in Canberra and reflected on the highs and lows of their 10-year journey.

The highs were fairly predictable, for they were shared with hundreds of thousands of Australians at reconciliation walks around the country and at the Sydney Olympics. The lows tended to be more personal and intimate, often involving close encounters with dispirited Aboriginal communities or with racists.

Jackie Huggins, a Queensland Aboriginal historian and author who has been a council member for six years, told of a community meeting on native title in Gympie. She had to speak on the topic of finding common ground, but from the moment she was introduced, she could feel the hatred and hear the hissing of three men at the back of the room.

Finally, one of them had heard enough. He shouted that he was sick of hearing complaints from Aborigines who already got too much. As if to strengthen his case, he told how he had fought for his country in World War Two and been taken prisoner by the Japanese.

The moderator told Huggins there was no need to respond, but she did. "Sir, tonight is about finding common ground, so I'll give you my story. My father was a prisoner on the Burma-Thailand railway. He died at the age of 38. He fought for half the wages of the non-indigenous soldiers and he left my mother widowed with four children from six months to eight years of age. So don't tell me what it's like fighting in the war. I live with that pain every day."

She also confessed to wondering why her father went to war when he was not even a citizen of his own country. She was heard in silence, and may have changed the stereotyped attitude of many in the room. But she walked away sensing even more hostility from the man at the back of the room. Perhaps she wondered, too, what she would have said had her father not gone to war.

Huggins' high was a personal one, too. It was a discussion with Torres Strait islanders on the wording of the document that is part of the council's legacy: the Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation. When the group nodded its approval, Huggins said she had a wonderful sense that what would be presented to the people was "the best possible draft".

Ten years ago, when the formal process of reconciliation began, there was an expectation that it would end before January 1, 2001, with an agreed document or documents of reconciliation. One of them might have been called a compact, or maybe even a treaty. What emerged fell short of that lofty aspiration.

When it became clear that the document Huggins and others had toiled so conscientiously to produce would not be supported by John Howard, the title changed from A Declaration For Reconciliation to a Declaration Towards Reconciliation. When it was apparent the Prime Minister would not embrace the four strategies to address disadvantage, deliver economic independence, promote indigenous rights and sustain the reconciliation process, the blueprints became mere roadmaps.

BUT HOWARD's dogged refusal to countenance a formal apology to the stolen generations - indeed, his government's denial that there was a stolen generation - became ultimately one of the biggest assets of the reconciliation cause. Ironically, it is one of the reasons he was able to remark on Thursday that reconciliation is now unstoppable, for his obstinacy was instrumental in mobilising middle-class Australians.

Obviously, there were other important ingredients, such as the leadership of Patrick Dodson and Evelyn Scott and others at the council; the energy of almost 400 local reconciliation groups; the efforts of hundreds of teachers; the initiative of local government and police in fostering improved relations; and the role of performers in communicating a host of complex issues, from the forced removal of children to the scale of dysfunction in Aboriginal communities and its causes.

The result is that while the journey far from over, Howard is right to say Australia is a "better, more united nation" because of the reconciliation process. That was clear at Melbourne's walk last Sunday, as it was at so many others, and at the breakfast handover of the report at Parliament House on Thursday.

Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson told how he recently attended the unveiling of a memorial at Myall Creek in his northern New South Wales electorate, where 30 Aboriginal men, women and children were massacred by white stockmen 162 years ago.

"Five men were eventually hanged for their part in the event, the first time such justice was extracted for the killing of indigenous people," Anderson said. "At the memorial, around 300 people observed as direct descendants of the murderers embraced direct descendants of the murdered. It was a profound moment. I do not believe it would have happened a decade ago, before this journey began."

But the council's report underscores the scale of the task ahead, both in changing mainstream attitudes and bridging the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people in education, health, housing and employment. While 81 per cent of Australians told a Newspoll study that reconciliation was important and more than 60 per cent believed the nation should formally acknowledge Aboriginal people as the original owners of the land and that the country was occupied without consent, 62 per cent said there was no need for a national apology and 52per cent did not believe Aborigines were disadvantaged when compared with other groups.

THE COUNCIL made just six recommendations, but they amount to a comprehensive agenda to tackle what Howard calls "practical reconciliation" and resolve issues that were not addressed during colonisation or federation:

The Council of Australian Governments should agree to implement an national assault on disadvantage, setting performance benchmarks and entering partnerships with indigenous peoples and communities. COAG placed reconciliation on its agenda in November, but it remains to be seen whether there is the collective will to follow through, given the failure of a similar commitment made in 1992 to achieve results.

All parliaments and local governments should pass formal motions of support for the Declaration Towards Reconciliation and the Roadmap for Reconciliation and "enshrine their basic principles" in legislation. Howard signalled early that he would not endorse the declaration, which includes an apology for past injustices.

The Federal Parliament should prepare legislation for a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders as the first people of Australia in a new preamble to the constitution and amend the constitution to make it unlawful to adversely discriminate against any people on the grounds of race. Given the failure of his preamble in last year's republic referendum, it is unlikely that Howard will revisit the issue soon.

A general call to all levels of government as well as non-government, business, peak bodies and communities to commit themselves to the cause, including by supporting the new body Reconciliation Australia, which was launched on Thursday with seed funding from the Howard Government of $5.5 million.

Each government and parliament to recognise that Australia was settled without consent or treaty and acknowledge the desirability of treaties and agreements.

The Federal Parliament should enact legislation providing a process "which will unite all Australians by way of an agreement, or treaty, though which unresolved issues of reconciliation can be resolved." This was never going to be acceptable to Howard, who yesterday reaffirmed his view that "you make treaties with other countries; you don't make treaties with each other". He told 3AW: "I don't see a treaty as being appropriate for a united, cohesive nation."

Howard argued that reconciliation could be achieved without a formal apology or a treaty. "I think what has happened over the last year is that people have come to recognise, more than perhaps at the beginning, that there are many paths to reconciliation and rather than have this sort of stereotyped attitude that the only way you can have reconciliation is if you have a formal apology and you have a treaty and you do this and this and this. It's not like that."

There may be many roads to reconciliation, but history and overseas experience support Professor Marcia Langton , a former council member now at Melbourne University, who says: "The lack of consent and absence of agreements or treaties remains a stain on Australian history and the chief obstacle to constructing an honorable place for indigenous Australians in the modern state."

Langton sees the treaties signed in Canada as a possible model for Australia, saying "there is no evidence that there has been any detriment caused either to Canadian sovereignty or to the polity by these arrangements". Peter Jull, who played a key role in negotiations that produced Nunavut (meaning "our land" in the language of the Inuit), the newest, largest and least-populous territory of the Canadian federation last year, agrees. "Happy endings require authentic indigenous participation and authentic political accommodation," he says.

PRECISELY what form an Australian agreement or agreements would take is a matter for discussion, and nobody on the indigenous side is suggesting a national understanding can be reached with haste. Indeed, Evelyn Scott was at pains on Thursday to stress that all was being sought was a conversation.

This is less than the National Aboriginal Conference requested when it called for a treaty in 1979 (when Fred Chaney, now a board member of Reconciliation Australia, welcomed the initiative as minister for Aboriginal affairs), or Bob Hawke invited ahead of the Barunga Festival and bicentenary celebrations in 1988, or Patrick Dodson envisaged when he introduced the idea of a framework agreement in 1999.

But it is too much to ask for from this Prime Minister and it seems unlikely that Kim Beazley will press the issue, at least from opposition. Significantly, Beazley's support for the council's report carried the qualification: "If there is a will for a lasting settlement, including a treaty or treaties, we must find a way." All of which means the leadership task for the next leg of the journey remains with the people.