A Nation Dispossessed
The Age 31st May 2005

Australia will not achieve national maturity without a just settlement with Aboriginal people, writes Pat Dodson.

We as an indigenous nation have searched our horizon for the national leadership and the national courage that will provide all Australians with a resolution of that Unfinished Business that remains as a barrier between our peoples - a barrier that is constructed on the utter failure of the Government to demonstrate the courage, the will and the intent to achieve real justice and subsequent reconciliation for this nation.

It is a self-imposed barrier that renders this young nation incapable of recognising the patent absurdity of the denial that our indigenous people were the first Australians - a sovereign nation - with a unique law and culture that has served our society for tens of thousands of years and which, despite two centuries of cultural genocide, has survived and will continue to survive and flourish.

It is a barrier and a wall of dishonesty that blinds our nation to the true understanding of the flawed relationship that has existed between our peoples since the arrival of the first convict fleet in 1788. It is a wall of dishonesty that has condemned us to hide from subsequent generations the truth of our shared history and to offer them instead the historical sophism of benign paternalism and enlightenment. This deceit is the source of a spiritual malaise that afflicts this nation and will continue to be a source of crippling national ambiguity, until such time that we confront the reality of our relationship as two sovereign peoples inhabiting one land.

As we move forward to the national convention in 2007, it is not acceptable that the constitutional, cultural, political, economic and social status of the indigenous people of this country have not been seriously addressed and resolved. It is not acceptable for indigenous people to have to tell their children that, despite the wealth and resources available in this shared land, their lives will be shorter than their non-Aboriginal friends, their health and education will be that of a Third World country. It is not acceptable that this act of political exclusion guarantees that Aboriginal people will remain at the bottom rung of every possible social indicator into the future.

If the much-touted national dream (the fair go) for all Australian children to share equally in the national bounty is ever to come to fruition, then the choices we make from today will determine the outcomes of that dream. It will be a crime and a national shame if prejudice, fear and political opportunism and casuistry prevent us from going forward into the 21st century as a nation that has faced the truth of its past and healed the wounds created from our national denial.

For two centuries, the relationship between our peoples has not been based on one of equality. In 1788, we Aboriginal people were a sovereign people who governed this land with a complex societal structure of law, language and culture. We recognised our internal boundaries between nation, tribe and language groups and we engaged in commercial trading arrangements with people from the islands to our north. These are undeniable features of a sovereign state.

All these realities were ignored by the colonisers and subsequently by the architects of the Federation. As a result, what began as the blind exclusion of us as a people by colonial governments turned into an administrative incarceration by an interlocking system of native protectors, police, welfare officers and an army of bureaucrats charged with ensuring that we as the first Australians did not intrude on the march to greatness by this young nation - a nation that had been built on our Aboriginal estate, our blood and our labour.

Before 1788 we were a sovereign people. The British came with their legal lie of terra nullius and took possession of our lands without our agreement or consent, although specifically instructed to the contrary by the imperial government. This did not stop the colonisers from dispossessing us and subjugating us to their rules and to their version of history. They set up regimes and institutions that would condemn us to disadvantage and dependency on their largesse and cold charity.

It is not possible to sustain true reconciliation without justice - without recognising and righting the wrongs of the past.

There must be negotiation of a just outcome for Aboriginal people that will allow us as Australians to stand before the world and announce that we have resolved and reconciled the differences of our past.

As Australians, we have journeyed for a decade and a half on this road. We have joined study circles to better understand one another. We have signed the Sea of Hands in an attempt to demonstrate our recognition of the injustices that have been perpetrated on Aboriginal people in our name. We have marched over bridges across this vast nation to demonstrate to our leaders our desire for leadership towards justice and reconciliation.

We offered engagement at every level only to be ushered to the corner and told to wait in the queue of rejected petitioners. We were told to continue to dream, but were given no encouragement of any outcome that would give our children the hope of something better for the future. Michael Long showed humility and leadership for us all in walking from Melbourne to Canberra only to be part of a photo opportunity and then to be politely ushered out the door of the Parliament.

We have had the royal commission on Aboriginal deaths in custody, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Bringing Them Home report, the High Court Mabo decision and other rulings. All have highlighted the failures of the past and should have been the inspiration for achieving something. Instead, the reports were ignored, the authors denigrated.

The achievement of national settlement is an issue so critical to the future of this country that it can no longer be entrusted exclusively to governments. Aboriginal community, political and social organisations must lift their performances and constructively re-engage at every level in our society. We must engage with industry and governments to guarantee a place for Aboriginal people at the economic table and an equal share in the prosperity that the nation enjoys.

The governments of today have unilaterally decided that we are to be mainstreamed and assimilated into a society that elevates the individual above traditions and values forged over more than 50,000 years around community and belonging in extended family relations centred on kinship rules and responsibilities. The shared responsibility agreement ideology should go beyond just service delivery and better public sector outcomes.

We as Aboriginal peoples survived for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the colonisers. We have survived the past 200 years despite the dispossession and mendicant status to which we have been reduced. Aboriginal people will continue to occupy that place deep within the national psyche that prevents this nation attaining true maturity, that reminds governments of their failure to engage with us on just terms in the past, and that continues to demand a just settlement between our sovereign peoples.

Pat Dodson is chairman of the Lingiari Foundation and former chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. This is part of his speech to the National Convention Worskhop in Canberra yesterday.