Aborigines clash over PM's words - National - theage.com.au

Aborigines clash over PM's words

By Misha Schubert
Age Political Correspondent

June 6, 2005

A row has erupted among indigenous leaders over whether John Howard has given any real ground on reconciliation.

Cape York Policy Institute director Noel Pearson yesterday hailed as a "tectonic" shift the Prime Minister's recognition that symbolic gestures of healing were needed as well as practical steps to lift indigenous living standards.

But former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chairwoman Lowitja O'Donoghue said Mr Howard's speech was mostly "weasel words" as she warned Mr Pearson that he did not speak for all indigenous Australians.

"Noel is not our new messiah," she told The Age. "What we heard last week was a lot of the same ideas but in different language. The only thing we can really hold onto is the pledge to meet us 'more than halfway'."

The exchange follows several tense meetings of indigenous leaders during National Reconciliation Week.

A rift appears to be growing between new leaders such as Mr Pearson and Labor's incoming national president Warren Mundine, and an older generation led by Dr O'Donoghue, Patrick and Mick Dodson and Marcia Langton.

Sources told The Age that Mr Pearson was critical of fellow leaders when they met in Canberra, telling some they "weren't up to it". In Coffs Harbour on Thursday, academic Marcia Langton and ATSIC regional chief executive Terry O'Shane slammed Mr Mundine's views on land ownership.

Mr Mundine said yesterday he saw "a little bit of a shift" - but no earthquake - in Mr Howard's nod to the need for symbolic gestures of healing.

"You need apologies. You can't have peace without both sides shaking hands and saying sorry. It's nonsense to think you can," he said.

"But I don't think that's what he was signing up to."

Mr Howard told a national reconciliation conference last week that reconciliation was about rights as well as responsibilities - a reversal of emphasis from his past language.

"It is about symbols, as well as practical achievement," he said. "I think part of the problem with some earlier approaches to reconciliation was that it left too many people, particularly in white Australia, off the hook."

Mr Howard also assured his audience that the Government was not seeking to wind back or undermine native title or land rights.

"I say in the name of the Government that we will reach out, we will meet the indigenous people of this country more than halfway if necessary," he said.

While Mr Howard received a warm response, a mix-up over a timetable led some delegates to turn their backs in protest on Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone.

Mr Pearson said most indigenous leaders failed to grasp the importance of the speech, which was the finest he had given.