We should reject this approach

Elizabeth Evatt

I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered. It is a privilege to be invited to give this address on the topic of reconciliation, and in doing so to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Constitutional referendum (May 27th 1967). We also remember the 1997 report Bringing them Home, and yesterday's 15th anniversary of the Mabo decision.

A week ago it was reported that Emily Kngwarreye's magnificent painting "Earth Creation" had been bought at auction for more than $1 million dollars to be put on display in Alice Springs. In another part of Alice Springs, on the same day, the Aboriginal Tangentyere Council, representing the town camps, was involved in an angry stand off with the Commonwealth government, about control of its housing.

What do these events tell us?

On the one hand, that Aboriginal art is highly respected and admired, in Australia and around the world, as presenting a unique cultural vision of immense significance to this country. To Emily "her culture was her life."

On the other hand, the first peoples of Australia (guardians of their unique traditional culture), are struggling to adapt to modern society, with many living lives of disadvantage in overcrowded and sub-standard housing, with poor education, poor health, low life expectancy and high levels of unemployment.

Some Aboriginal communities are being brought down by alcohol and drug abuse, by endemic violence, sexual abuse, high rates of murder and suicide. Their rates of imprisonment are as high as ever and there are increasing rates of indigenous women in prison. Children in these communities do not have the life chances they should have, in one of the richest countries of the world.

We are shamed by this.

"This is not what the voters of 1967 envisaged."

This is not what the voters of 1967 envisaged. If the reconciliation process was meant to address these problems, it seems to have stalled. Why?

I believe it is because current approaches do not get to the heart of the problem. The Prime Minister recently asserted the nation's need "to recapture the spirit of the 1967 referendum in a contemporary practical fashion." This means something he calls "practical reconciliation", fixing up health, housing, education, employment, etc.

No one can disagree with the need to put these things right. It would certainly be a good move to improve living conditions and to encourage economic independence of communities, where that can be done. Some good things are being done. But it is not enough.

And something is missing. I am not speaking about criticisms of particular programs, about the lack of participation of indigenous people in their design, or about the resistance and disagreement in some communities about their implementation. My concern is that current policies recognise no distinct role or status for Aboriginal people in our political, social and economic life.

The issues are addressed on assimilationist lines. Only the other day, I heard the Prime Minister say that the best way for indigenous people to gain access to the bounty and good fortune of Australia was for them to be absorbed into the mainstream. The government's response to the Reconciliation report in 2002, took a similar approach in rejecting "action which would entrench additional, special or different rights for one part of the community."

Carried to its end, this essentially assimilationist approach would mean the eventual disappearance of Aboriginal tradition and culture - their knowledge and spiritual connections to this land built up over tens of thousands of years.

Surely it cannot be the goal of reconciliation, to merge one group into the other.

We should say no to this approach. It leaves unanswered the role of Aboriginal people in the Australian polity, as the first people of Australia with a unique and valuable culture. It takes no account of their right to autonomy and self-determination.

Leaving these issues out of consideration is, in my view, a real impediment to the efforts to "fix problems".

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