The future of reconciliation

Hope & possibility
Mick Dodson

The flyer for this evening's event speaks about the launch of Quentin Beresford's book 'forcing us to reflect on why the battle for reconciliation was lost.' I often hear or read of people saying that reconciliation is dead. I must say I find it deeply irritating and a shameful cop out.

Just because reconciliation doesn't appear on the front page of the newspaper like it did a decade ago; just because a term that should be easily understood can be so misunderstood - this does not mean that reconciliation has been lost.

I believe in reconciliation and what it can deliver for Australia. And I am here today to speak to you about hope and possibility. This is particularly important in the lead up to next year's 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the most successful referendum in our nation's history.

Too many messages in the media give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (and the community generally) a false and damaging impression that all Indigenous people are failures. Believing this false impression, and the one that says reconciliation is dead, plays into the hands of those who do not care; who do not wish the best for our people and our nation.

The particular work I do with Reconciliation Australia focuses on Indigenous success, and I've said a number of times now that it's changed my view of the world. What Indigenous people are achieving and how they do what they do has come to inform everything I stand for. Success must now be our guiding light as it must be for all Australians who want to see it replicated across the country.

There are very few examples of success that don't involve partnerships between Indigenous people and the rest of the community - corporates, government agencies, community organisations etc. And I can tell you this because I've seen how these partnerships are operating across the Australian community and how they represent the future for reconciliation.

The 1967 Referendum didn't achieve the great promise of equality that was the vision of the campaigners. But the anniversary is an ideal time to reflect on how, working hand-in-hand as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, we are able to move our nation forward.

After all, the referendum process may have finished in the parliament and with a vice-regal signature on the paper that changed the Constitution. But the real work was done in kitchens, camps and community halls. There are so many stories of conversations that took place in all our cities and towns. This didn't start like any other movement for constitutional change, just because a government wanted it to. Quite the opposite. It started because enough of the Australian people wanted it.

But the referendum was a means, not an end in itself. There is still a way for us to go to realise our citizenship rights and aspirations. Telling the stories of the referendum is one way to give meaning to our citizenship - and to galvanise Australians today.

Reconciliation will be achieved in an everyday way, in the everyday places of our cities and towns. Like the referendum, it doesn't begin and end in the corridors of power - the referendum stories tell us that's not where justice flourishes.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't hold our leaders accountable for what is their responsibility. In May last year, and again in July of this year, the Prime Minister said, and I quote, that the government 'will meet the Indigenous people of this country more than half way if necessary because at the end of the day we need together to achieve (reconciliation).' Next year's anniversary is another opportunity for the Prime Minister to tell us what more than half way looks like; to encourage us to take responsibility for extending the pockets of success by demonstrating his trust, and his respect in us and what we do.

I know from my international work and from what we are learning in Australia about good Indigenous governance that confidence gives Indigenous peoples remarkable strength to overcome disadvantage. And I see how confidence grows when people and their cultures are treated with respect.

In education, for example, what is the common element of every successful model where Indigenous kids are finishing school and dreaming of a brighter future for themselves? What are we seeing at Kalkaringi and Thursday Island and Gumala Mirnuwarni? We're seeing intense community involvement; local decision making; locally controlled resources; and respectful support by non-Indigenous parts of the community.

If we want this kind of reconciliation success story replicated, we need to understand that there are no systematised, centralised solutions. No silver bullets. Nor simplistic chick fixes. And when we recognise the ingredients of success in education, and provide the national framework for it to grow and flourish, we expose ourselves to a much broader plan for success; because when you improve education you improve life choices. When you improve housing you improve health, you improve employment you improve wellbeing, and so on.

The strategies I'm talking about don't need to be invented. They're covered in countless reports and studies from within our own country, including the Roadmap for Reconciliation. There are also countless others from around the world that we must not ignore. We have all the evidence we need to show us how best to get the results we're looking for. What we need is a path through all the historic, attitudinal, political layers that obstruct the passage from knowledge to outcome.

This level of commitment comes at a price, but let's stop pretending that there's ever been an investment in Indigenous Australia sufficient to make the kind of progress we are talking about today. And it's time we started telling the Australian people about the economics around not investing in this national effort because, if we don't do it now, the cost will skyrocket out of our reach.

This is the future of reconciliation and it has to involve all Australians in closing the unacceptable 17 year gap in life expectancy. So let us now be prepared to focus ourselves on this task, and to be measured and accountable on the success of our efforts.

Reconciliation Australia is commemorating next year's anniversary with an ambitious campaign to sign up organisations to Reconciliation Action Plans which turn good intentions into action. The overarching objective of the program is closing life expectancy gap through all the many and varied ways required. If Australians, side by side, could achieve such a resounding result in 1967, imagine what we can achieve now, with all that we have learnt through failure and increasingly through success.

In 2006, we know what reconciliation looks like in many different contexts. We have the ingredients to replicate it because we've seen it in action in local councils, schools and workplaces, industry groups and community organisations. We know that it involves respect and honesty and partnership. The Reconciliation Action Plan program was launched in July and there are now scores of plans being developed around the country. They are an inspiring demonstration of the maturing of the reconciliation process over the last ten years. Organisations across different sectors understand now the mix of changes in practices and relationships necessary to get better outcomes and they are prepared to make these changes.

Other countries have made significant inroads in closing the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens, and we will too when all sectors are prepared to take consistent, long term, properly resourced action, like the organisations who are literally queuing up to develop measurable, action oriented plans.

Australians today can make the referendum result of 40 years ago so much more meaningful if we draw on lessons we've learned about the ingredients of success in reconciliation. A critical mass of Reconciliation Action Plans will make it impossible for others to say they don't know what reconciliation means or how to get involved.

This is our intention and I urge all of you here today to get the information off the Reconciliation Australia website and take it back to your colleagues and your communities, and make sure that all of them are a part of the future of reconciliation: not just a commentator, not just a critic. But as an active participant.


Mick Dodson is currently Professor and Director of the ANU's National Centre for Indigenous Studies. This is the text of his address to the Evatt Sunset Seminar "Rob Riley & the future of reconciliation", convened at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts on 23 November 2006.


Also on the Evatt site: