“Reconciliation = Justice”
Much of the dialogue regarding self-determination, sovereignty, land rights and treaty has been drowned out amidst endless political rhetoric and multimillion dollar public relations campaigns promoting ‘reconciliation’. So where did ‘reconciliation’ originate from? According to Gumbaynggirr historian Dr Gary Foley, “Reconciliation is an idea that entered the Australian debate, not as a spontaneous desire on the part of either White or Black Australia”.
“It came into the debate in the lead up to the 1988 threats by Aboriginal activists to disrupt the Bicentennial,” says Foley. “The Hawke Labor government plucked this idea out of thin air in order to distract Aboriginal political activists. It was a diversionary tactic. Robert Tickner [Minister for Aboriginal Affairs at the time] threw the word ‘reconciliation’ into the ring in an attempt to divert Aboriginal activists’ attention from demonstrating against the Bicentennial. Therefore, the whole idea of reconciliation has no credibility. Reconciliation is not justice. People shouldn’t waste their time even thinking about it. Let’s focus on justice rather than airy fairy nonsensical ideas such as reconciliation. Basically it means to re-con-a-silly-nation. It’s a con job. People should forget it.”
The Australian Government established the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991. Since then, the Commonwealth has poured millions of dollars into the nationwide Reconciliation campaign. February 2013 saw the Federal Government pump another $14.4 million into Reconciliation Australia over four years. In July 2012, Labor provided an additional $10 million to Reconciliation Australia over two years to promote the campaign for Constitutional recognition. Monica Morgan (Yorta Yorta) says the campaign downplayed calls for the true aspirations of First Nations peoples along the lines of “some sort of agreement with White Australia”.
“There needs to be justice done for Aboriginal people, and I don’t believe Australian Governments have been fair dinkum about this at all,” says Ms Morgan, a veteran First Nations’ rights advocate. “We had the apology from the Labor Government, but no follow through, no compensation and no investigation into many of the horrendous stories [RE the Stolen Generations]. The talk of treaty was thrown out the door when ATSIC was abolished. Reconciliation must start with the process of developing treaty, by government moving to make a formal recognition of our sovereignty. This can be done, it’s not like it hasn’t happened in other countries. If there is to be any real reconciliation, we shouldn’t be worrying about the vestiges of a Constitution which was drafted by White men in closeted places, hanging onto power, land and resources.”
The Australian Government’s push for so called ‘reconciliation’ has been labelled conservative and tokenistic, failing to address the grievances and demands of First Nations peoples. Kooma activist and former ATSIC regional councillor Wayne Wharton claims the process is not being dealt with seriously.
“Reconciliation is a two way process,” he says. “It’s a good thing if you’ve just kicked the s#@t out of somebody and you’re winning, but it’s not a good thing for the person who has lost. Reconciliation can be a good process if you do in it a just way and a manner that is respectful to both the loser and the winner of a particular conflict. If ‘reconciliation’ is done with the dominant society basically directing the subdued party, it won’t achieve anything. What is happening in this country is not reconciliation in its true sense. If the Australian government was to approach true reconciliation, then this country’s economic table would be turned on its head. True reconciliation would start off with some sort of legally binding agreement, not some rubbishy set of Constitutional amendments. It must begin with a form of treaty that would be negotiated with each First Nation, right from the Northern Territory to Tasmania. Each one of those nations would be able to come to an agreement with local, state and federal government with regards to how to deal with their rights and how they would coexist in the future. Terms of coexistence for the future would include a proportion of the GDP, compensation along with land, resource and water management.”
On the 28th of May 2000, more than 300,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of ‘reconciliation’. What happened to all those people and all that good will? Are feel good gestures and good will enough? The ultimate question is whether genuine ‘reconciliation’ can take place without truth and justice. Pakana lawyer Michael Mansell says the reconciliation façade put across by consecutive Australian governments is far removed from what a meaningful and effective settlement would involve.
“Reconciliation from the Australian Government’s point of view means that Australians can get on with building their nation and controlling everything including the lives of Aboriginal people,” says Mansell, secretary of the Aboriginal Provisional Government. “Another version of reconciliation could be resolving the historical and fundamental issues between the two groups [First Nations & settler society]. The settlement would probably be in the form of a treaty and recognizing our right to self-determination. This would create a mutual respect based on the needs and rights of peoples who have been denied their rights for more than two hundred years. Reconciliation is not just a matter of people getting on better. It’s a matter of dealing with the fundamental issues which caused the dispute in the first place.”
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard committed the Coalition to cause of achieving “true reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of Australia by the centenary of federation”. However, it is clear that the path to meaningful coexistence between First Nations and the settler society will not be appeased by empty and agenda driven political promises. There also seems to be an element of hypocrisy in the stance of both mainstream political parties when it comes to talking about ‘reconciliation’. This is especially evident in the fact that both Labor the Coalition have supported the introduction and extension of the internationally condemned NT Intervention and various other paternalistic and oppressive policies. Editor of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council’s Tracker Magazine Amy McQuire questions whether the supposed movement towards ‘reconciliation’ has a clear end goal.
“It originally started with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation being established by Paul Keating in 1991, and it was only given a ten year shelf life. When the Council actually handed down its recommendations, the Howard government pretty much rejected all of them. These recommendations included things like a Treaty and changing our national symbols to make them more inclusive of Aboriginal people. A Treaty is the first thing that has to happen. We must educate Australia about the fact that this isn’t a radical concept. Reconciliation is just a rhetorical and empty word, it means nothing to me. I think it makes White Australians feel good about themselves and totally overshadows what we should be fighting for. When we think about the fact that there’s been more than two centuries of White Australia invading, colonizing, dispossessing and basically disadvantaging Aboriginal people, it’s amazing that they could every consider that all this could be fixed just with the click of a finger. A lot of the workload falls back onto the shoulders of Aboriginal people, which it shouldn’t. If it does fall back on Aboriginal shoulders, it should be Aboriginal people driving the actual agenda of it. They’ve tried to Reconciliation it into something that appeals to corporations and big government, and that’s not really going to help Aboriginal people in the end. I think the whole reconciliation gambit feeds into White agendas. The Reconciliation Action Plans are just really fluffy and they don’t actually help people on the ground. Australia still has to come to terms with its past. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon because of the overpowering sense of White guilt, they just really don’t want to talk about it.”
Reconciliation is defined as the “renewing of a friendly relationship between disputing people or groups”. This implies that there must have been a “friendly relationship” to begin with. Was there ever a time when relations were “friendly” between First Nations peoples and the British colonial powers? Massacres, paternalistic government policies and cultural genocide are deeply embedded in Britain’s blatantly hostile approach to First Nations. The British Empire claimed the continent under the premise of terra nullius – land belonging to no one. Thus, since the advent of colonization, we as First Nations peoples were deemed to be subhuman by the invaders. Unlike Aotearoa (New Zealand) and much of Turtle Island (North America), treaties with First Nations peoples were never signed here. Australia remains the only Commonwealth nation without having formed such agreements. There remains nothing in place to provide the foundations for meaningful coexistence between First Nations and the settler society.