Visions in black and white - RECONCILIATION

Age - 9th August 2003
Author: Michael Gordon

John Howard went to Cape York to listen and learn. Can one small step for a PM bring one great leap for reconciliation? Michael Gordon reports.

It was a moment of unexpected empathy. It began with Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson in full flight. He told John Howard of his vision: a nation where young Aborigines enjoy the best of both worlds, holding on to links with their communities as well as fulfilling their potential in the wider world.

The pair were dining with prominent indigenous and corporate leaders in the gardens at Comalco Lodge, in the bauxite-mining town of Weipa in far north Queensland. It was a warm Tuesday night, and visitors were warned against taking a stroll down to the beach where the crocodiles roam.

Pearson was talking about Aboriginal "orbits" and said they were already happening to a limited extent. His nephew, Matty Bowen, was on a sporting orbit, having been picked to play rugby for Queensland. Others were on art orbits, creating at home but showing their work across the country, and even in Paris and New York. The big problem for those who left, explained Pearson - aside from bouts of loneliness - was that the old people in their communities and their families didn't want them to go.

Howard's response startled him. "They don't want them to lose their identity," the Prime Minister interjected.

It seems an unremarkable thing to say. But this was the Prime Minister who is almost universally viewed with suspicion by indigenous Australia demonstrating an intuitive understanding of the emotional ties that Pearson was trying to describe. Politically, it suggested fears that Howard's "practical reconciliation" approach is ultimately about assimilation were not well-founded. As Pearson explained later: "He understood exactly the point I was making."

Pearson was not the only one looking for signs when the Prime Minister came to Cape York. Howard came seeking evidence that Pearson, a lawyer and the the former chairman of the Cape York Land Council, had a strategy for tackling violence, child abuse and dysfunction that was more than just words.

He found it in abundance in the communities of Napranum and Aurukun, where alcohol bans have dramatically reduced episodes of violence and resulted in more children attending school, having had a good night's sleep and a proper breakfast. There has also progress in starting small enterprises through partnerships with companies such as Westpac, the Boston Consulting Group and The Body Shop.

The result: Howard promised to be a partner with the states and indigenous people in a serious, full-frontal assault on the causes of dysfunction and horrendous violence in Aboriginal communities. 0 This was a moment that might one day come to be seen as a watershed on the road to reconciliation. Or, like his pledge to make reconciliation a priority in his second term, it could become another case of raised expectations on which he didn't deliver.

The biggest impression was made by two young Aborigines who addressed a summit of Cape York leaders at a remote campsite, or outstation, less than one hour's four-wheel drive from Aurukun. Tania Major and Bruce Martin have already been on education orbits. Both are examples of the future Pearson desperately wants for his people.

Martin gently reminded those present that they were meeting on the land of brown snake dreaming, land taken without consultation or compensation, and that the Wik people's victory in the High Court had been wound back by the Howard Government.

But while that struggle continued, he focused on the new challenges. "How can we use our culture as a two-way bridge to participation in the wider Australian society and economy, and not just a barrier to our involvement? How can we develop pathways so that we can move with confidence between the wider Australian society and that of our own communities and families here in Cape York, sure of a respected place in both?"

But the biggest challenge Martin outlined was the one Pearson has been hammering for the past five years: "How can we work to change drug and alcohol abuse which is tearing our communities and families apart and preventing us from addressing the underlying disadvantage that we suffer from?"

This theme was picked up by Major, a 22-year-old criminologist who last year became the youngest person elected to Australia's peak indigenous body, ATSIC. Her flight path to prominence is almost identical to that of Noel Pearson, the mentor who sponsored her education.

She gave Howard "a brief picture of the life of young people in our communities", telling her own story of life in Kowanyama, south of Aurukun, where she was the only one in a class of 15 to finish school, let alone complete a degree at university. All the other girls in her class were pregnant at 15, seven of the boys have been incarcerated, two for rape, murder and assault, and four have committed suicide.

"Now if this paints a grim picture of community life for you, it should," she said, looking directly at the Prime Minister.

Later, one middle-aged Aboriginal man came up to Major and confessed there were child molesters in his own family and asked her to visit his community and help expose the problem. It is a big ask, because the battle is so great in Kowanyama, where Major declares herself the first woman to take the fight up to men who rape and molest children.

"I'm sick of children getting molested. I'm sick of children coming to school every day who can't walk properly because they've been jumped on the night before, kids as young as grade two with STDs (sexually transmitted diseases)," she told The Age.

Major's prescription is tough and blunt. "These men should be locked up and not allowed back in these communities." But her broader solution requires more resources and more political will: more and better mental health programs, vastly improved health services, a massive injection of money for education and the kind of alcohol restrictions already imposed at Aurukun.

Major met Pearson when he was going out with one of her aunts and visited Kowanyama when she was 10. By the time she was 13, she wanted to be just like him. He remains her role model. "He's still fighting the battle. He's articulate and he's strong and you can see years of history and culture in this man," she said.

The assessment is shared by business figures such as Mike Winer, who has worked with Pearson for a decade on building economic capacity. "Finding and pushing through solutions is what his life seems to be about. He's hugely dedicated and takes a lot of stabs in the back."

Pearson watched Martin and Major make their speeches with a quiet satisfaction and admiration, probably seeing a reflection of himself as a younger man: full of enthusiasm and determination to make a difference. He is just 38 now, having spent almost two decades in the struggle.

But he also had mixed emotions, feeling the sense of obligation that pulls at young Aborigines with talent. "A lot of these young people struggle with that tension: how do they have the luxury that everybody else has of pursuing their own passions versus the urgent need to contribute to the cause of their people?" he asked.

He considers he has no option but to press on with his campaign - "I'd be letting too many people down if I treated this as an option" - but he expresses the hope that he is laying the foundation for other generations to have the "luxury" of simply following their dreams.

Pearson once wrote that he found life at university miserable, lonely and anonymous. The first two adjectives are apt for much of the time since, but he has hardly been anonymous.

His "bracing words" (his description) on passive welfare and the need for indigenous people to take responsibility have made him enemies on Cape York, where some complain that curbing their right to drink is as discriminatory as the racism that made life difficult for Aborigines in earlier decades.

Moreover, his scathing criticisms of those on the political left and his approval of Howard's zero tolerance on substance abuse have offended many on the Labor side of politics. After all, wasn't he the man who called the Howard Government "racist scum" (over its response to the High Court's Wik decision)?

But Pearson's views on the corrosive impact of passive welfare and alcohol abuse are consistent. As the prominent indigenous academic Marcia Langton points out, they were shaped by his experience in his own community, Hopevale, and articulated in a paper he co-wrote in 1987.

The truth is also that Labor has nothing to complain about. As Don Watson, speech writer for former prime minister Paul Keating, put it: "The only people Noel owes any loyalty to are his own people. He has no reason to show loyalty to the party which, after 1996, didn't want to know about him." Asked about his political allegiance, Pearson said: "I'm a Keatingite, you know", reflecting their close association after the High Court's 1992 Mabo decision. "If that means Labor, then that would be my leaning. But I'm not sure that it means that today."

Pearson once entertained the idea of seeking preselection as a Labor candidate, only to be counselled by Keating to wait. Although he again expressed interest in running for Labor during the Wik debate, he is now not tempted by a political career. "It's always going to be hard for indigenous people in mainstream politics until we settle some fundamental things," he said.

But he makes no apology for seeking a partnership with Howard. "I want to repudiate the idea that we're simply saying the things the conservatives want to hear, that we're involved in some sort of tactical exercise in making the right-sounding noises," Pearson said over breakfast at the summit, the morning after the Howard visit.

"I make the right noises about substance abuse, which resonate with John Howard, not because I know that's what Howard wants to hear. It's because it's the right policy. Howard is, in fact, right about his approach on substance abuse. Forget about everything else." The same, he said, goes for Howard's views on families and individual responsibility.

This doesn't mean Pearson has given up on the black rights agenda, which includes support for a formal apology (once passive welfare and substance abuse are attacked "head-on") and a treaty. "The fight for recognition of our unique place and a settlement of an understanding with the rest of Australia about our place in this country, it won't expire."

It's just that he sees his agenda as more urgent. "Rights is easy," he said. "We can all agree on the rights stuff. In relation to the hard questions, that's where there's a fairly big divergence."

Howard won't change his opposition to an apology or a treaty, but he is serious about removing barriers to indigenous Australians realising their potential, what he calls "practical reconciliation".

On the plane trip from Darwin to Weipa, the Prime Minister told The Age: "I want Aboriginal people to enjoy the full benefits of our society. I don't know what you call that. I just call it giving them a fair go or equal treatment.

"Now, at the moment, they get special benefits in some areas because they clearly are disadvantaged. Once people lose the disadvantage, then there's obviously an argument that they shouldn't have any special benefits because they're not disadvantaged."

And what of special rights that go to cultural identity? "I don't have those in my gun sights. I'm not in hot pursuit of those things.

"I do have a view that we are one country and that carries with it the obligation on the rest of the community to help lift up the Aborigines so they can share the benefits of being part of one country. Maintaining the culture and identity is fine, but not to the extent that you are really into a treaty-type situation. This is where I depart from a lot of indigenous leaders on the rights agenda."

It is where he departs from Pearson, too. But both see the immediate task as more urgent, and more likely to improve the lives of indigenous people.

When the summit wrapped up on Thursday, Pearson appealed to those who had lasted the distance to seize the opportunity of Howard's visit and commitment. "I think this is about as engaged as you'll get John Howard on something. It's really going to be up to us to capitalise on that," he said.

Michael Gordon is The Age national editor.