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Community reconciliation: a case study in Gippsland, Victoria.

Abstract: In the history of the reconciliation movement in Australia over the past 20 years, the involvement of local communities has been a substantial component of the movement. In this paper, I demonstrate the significance of this involvement through exploring a case study in Gippsland, Victoria. I analyse the racist and ignorant attitudes held by many in the wider community in Gippsland concerning Indigenous people. I then explore several examples of the Gippsland community working for reconciliation. I have selected examples to illustrate each of the key components of reconciliation. These key components are outlined in this paper: recognising Indigenous rights; educating the wider community; addressing history; community involvement; and addressing Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage.

Introduction

In 1991 the Australian Parliament unanimously passed legislation that implemented a ten-year process of reconciliation that was facilitated by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR). Since the conclusion of the process, the work of reconciliation has continued, largely through the efforts of Reconciliation Australia and Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation.

During this 20-year history, a number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous political actors and academics have identified several key components that are essential to reconciliation. These components are recognising Indigenous rights, such as cultural rights, native title and self-determination; educating the wider community in Australia on Indigenous issues; addressing the history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships, including genocide and massacres; community involvement, through approaches such as developing local reconciliation groups; and addressing Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage in areas like education, health and housing (Agius et al. 1999; Behrendt 2003; Clark 2000; Djerrkura 1999; Dodson 2000; Foley, G 1999; Gunstone 2009; Pratt et al. 2001; Saulwick and Muller 2000b).

Throughout much of its existence, a key component of the reconciliation movement has been the involvement of local communities (Gunstone 2009). Patrick Dodson, long considered the 'Father of Reconciliation', and the Chairperson of CAR from 1991 to 1998, galvanised this involvement through his 'Call to the nation' speech at the 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention:

Reconciliation and the renewal of the nation can be achieved only through a people's movement which obtains the commitment of Australians in all their diversity to make reconciliation a living reality in their communities, workplaces, institutions, organisations and in all expressions of our common citizenship. (Dodson 1997)

Over the next few years, hundreds of local community reconciliation groups formed in churches, community organisations, local governments, schools and workplaces all over Australia (Gunstone 2009). These groups, comprising thousands of supporters, have engaged in activities such as Study Circles programs, Sorry Books and Reconciliation Walks (Gunstone 2009).

In this paper, I use a case study of the Gippsland region in Victoria to investigate the involvement of local communities in the reconciliation movement. I have chosen this region as there are a range of reconciliation activities being undertaken at the local level that address the key components of reconciliation.

In regards to area, Gippsland is a significant component of Victoria. It ranges from the outer-eastern edges of Melbourne to the far eastern and southern parts of Victoria and comprises almost 20 per cent of the total area of Victoria (ABS 2011a, 2011b, 2011c). In regards to population, while just under 5 per cent of Victorians live in Gippsland, Indigenous people comprise a higher proportion of the total population of Gippsland compared to the overall Victorian population (ABS 2011a, 2011b, 2011c).

As with other areas of Australia, Indigenous people living in Gippsland have experienced appallingly oppressive and racist laws, policies and practices from non-Indigenous people. Indigenous lands were invaded in the 1840s and, over subsequent decades, Indigenous lands, children and wages were stolen, Indigenous people were massacred, and harsh controls were enforced upon Indigenous people (Broome 2005; Elder 2003; Gardner 1983, 1990; Gunstone and Heckenberg 2009).

This paper has two sections. First, I illustrate the significant levels of racism and ignorance towards Indigenous people among people living in Gippsland by discussing the outcomes of social surveys conducted with Gippslanders in 2005 and 2010. I have also written elsewhere on these surveys (Gunstone 2007, 2011). Second, I analyse a number of community reconciliation activities occurring in Gippsland. I have selected these to illustrate the range of activities being undertaken across the key components of reconciliation discussed above, namely recognising Indigenous rights, educating the wider community, addressing history, community involvement and addressing Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage.

Attitudes in Gippsland

I commissioned social survey companies in 2005 and 2010 to interview people living in Gippsland regarding their opinions on reconciliation and Indigenous issues. There were 300 people interviewed in 2005 and 250 interviewed in 2010. The methodology for both surveys was very similar. In both, telephone interviews were conducted with the same local government area. The surveys had three sections: the concept of reconciliation, Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage, and a series of statements on reconciliation, concerning areas such as history and Indigenous rights. The questions were almost identical. Slight differences in the questions are discussed below. The same themes were used in both surveys to categorise the responses to the open-ended questions. In both surveys, no meaningful comparison between Indigenous and non-Indigenous respondents could be made given the low numbers of Indigenous respondents, being seven in 2005 and five in 2010. The findings from both surveys clearly illustrate that those areas more supported by respondents included equality, education and, to a more limited extent, Indigenous socioeconomic disadvantage. Areas more opposed by respondents in both surveys included Indigenous rights and racism.

The results from both these surveys are very similar to other research that has been conducted regarding non-Indigenous people's attitudes towards reconciliation and Indigenous issues. Such research includes that commissioned by CAR (CAR 1994; Johnson 1996; Newspoll 2000; Newspoll et al. 2000; Saulwick and Muller 2000a, 2000b; Sweeney and Associates 1996) and by Reconciliation Australia (2009a, 2009b, 2009c).

Concept of reconciliation

The first section looked at the concept of reconciliation and included questions on the awareness, meanings, support and importance of reconciliation.

The respondents had a good awareness of reconciliation, with 87 per cent in 2005 and 85 per cent in 2010 stating they had heard of reconciliation. The question was phrased slightly differently, referring to the 1991-2000 period in 2005 and to the reconciliation process in 2010. The respondents who were aware of reconciliation in 2005 were asked if they thought it had been successful. In 2010 this question was not asked as the survey did not mention a specific reconciliation period. The question was answered by 240 respondents, of whom 57 per cent stated it had not succeeded, 29 per cent argued it had partially succeeded and less than 1 per cent believed it had fully succeeded. Of the 240 responses, just one mentioned Indigenous rights (land rights) and none mentioned institutional racism.

The respondents had very similar opinions regarding the meaning of reconciliation. The surveys enabled multiple responses for this question so that there were 351 responses to this question in the 2005 survey and 294 responses in the 2010 survey. All responses were categorised into eight areas. In both surveys, 80 per cent of responses were categorised in the same four areas, being 'successful integration of Aboriginals/unity', 'equal rights/working together', 'recognition and acceptance of the past/awareness' and 'saying sorry/ apology'. Just 2 per cent and 4 per cent of respondents mentioned Indigenous rights (land rights) in 2005 and 2010 respectively (Table 1).

The respondents also had very similar opinions concerning the level of support for reconciliation. In 2005, 53 per cent of respondents fully supported reconciliation compared to 54 per cent in 2010. In regards to partially supporting reconciliation, 31 per cent of respondents stated this in 2005 and 28 per cent stated this in 2010. Finally, there were 9 per cent of respondents in 2005 and 11 per cent in 2010 who did not support reconciliation, while 7 per cent of respondents in both surveys were unsure of their level of support.

Again, in regards to a question on the importance of reconciliation, there was similarity between the respondents from both surveys. Respondents could answer this question using a five-point scale, ranging from 'very important' to 'not at all important'. In 2005 and 2010 the mean response was 'quite important', with 4.0/5.0 being obtained in 2005 and 3.9/5.0 occurring in 2010. The percentage of respondents who recorded either 'very important' or 'quite important' was 69 in 2005 and 71 in 2010. The one difference in this question between the surveys was the increase from the percentage of respondents who stated 'not at all important' or 'not very important' from 11 per cent in 2005 to 18 per cent in 2010.

The final question in this section asked if respondents wanted to make any further comments on reconciliation. This question allowed for multiple responses. There were 188 comments made in 2005 and 177 comments made in 2010. The comments were very similar across the surveys. Both surveys had the following three categories in their top four: 'equality/equal rights for all Australians', 'negative about Aboriginals/ preferential treatment' and 'reconciliation process important/still more to be done'. Indigenous rights were referred to in just two responses in 2005 (both negative regarding sovereignty) and in no responses in 2010. Racism similarly was mentioned just in two responses in 2005 (both negative towards Indigenous people) and in no responses in 2010 (Table 2).

Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage

The second section contained two questions that explored the opinions of respondents towards Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage.

The respondents in 2005 and 2010 had very different opinions to the first question in this section. The question concerned whether Indigenous people, as a group, were disadvantaged in regards to other groups. In 2005, 47 per cent of the respondents argued Indigenous people, as a group, were disadvantaged compared to other groups, 31 per cent stated Indigenous people were not disadvantaged, and 22 per cent believed Indigenous people were neither advantaged or disadvantaged. The 2010 survey illustrated a polarising of attitudes regarding this question. There were 57 per cent of respondents in 2010, an approximate further one-fifth than in 2005, who argued Indigenous people were disadvantaged. There were 35 per cent of respondents in 2010, an approximate increase of one-eighth from 2005, who stated Indigenous people were not disadvantaged. Finally, there was about a two-thirds decrease in respondents, from 22 per cent in 2005 to just 8 per cent in 2010, who believed Indigenous people were neither advantaged nor disadvantaged. Interestingly, the one similar finding in relation to this question was that about one-third of respondents believed Indigenous people, as a group, were not disadvantaged in comparison to other groups (Table 3).

Unlike the first question in this section, the responses to the second question were very similar across both surveys. The second question asked whether respondents believed, in relation to the socio-economic areas of education, employment and health, if Indigenous people were better off, worse off or about the same as other Australians. The responses could be stated using a five-point scale, ranging from 'a lot better off' to 'a lot worse off'. The respondents who viewed Indigenous people as being 'a lot better off' or 'a little better off' totalled 17 per cent in 2005 and 14 per cent in 2010. The respondents who believed Indigenous people were 'a lot worse off' or 'a little worse off' totalled 55 per cent in 2005 and 59 per cent in 2010. Those who argued Indigenous people were around the same totalled 28 per cent in 2005 and 27 per cent in 2010 (Table 4).

The results from the questions in this section across both surveys clearly demonstrate that many respondents were significantly ignorant of the systemic and appalling levels of Indigenous socioeconomic disadvantage. This level of ignorance exists despite the substantial number of reports on this disadvantage that have been produced (ABS 2003; Altman et al. 2009; Altman and Hunter 2003; AMA 2002; Close the Gap 2010; Johnston 1991).

Statements on reconciliation

The third section contained ten statements concerning reconciliation, such as equal rights, Indigenous rights, an apology and history.

Of the ten statements, all but one was identical across both surveys. The one statement that was different was in relation to a government apology. In 2005, this statement asked if the government should apologise to Indigenous people, whereas in 2010, in recognition that the Rudd government had apologised, the statement asked if the government should have apologised. All statements enabled respondents to select their response from a five-point scale, which ranged from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree'. Some statements were positively framed while others were negatively framed to reduce the likelihood of respondents simply answering each statement with the same response.

Apart from the statement on the apology, the respondents provided very similar answers in both surveys. The statements that were agreed with by the most number of respondents were those that concerned equal rights and Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage. These statements were 'as far as possible, all Australians should have equal rights and opportunities' and 'there is a need for Government programs to help reduce disadvantage among Aboriginal people'. The statements that were disagreed with by the most respondents were those that concerned Indigenous rights and history. These statements were 'Aboriginal people should have sovereignty over Australia', 'Australians today are responsible for what happened to Aboriginal people in the past' and 'Aboriginal people should be entitled to special rights, such as reserved seats in Parliament i.e. being guaranteed a certain number of seats in parliament'.

The only statement that produced different responses across the two surveys was in relation to the apology. In 2005, 52 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement, 'The Federal Government should NOT have to apologise to Aboriginal people for what has happened in the past', while just 34 per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement. In 2010, following the Rudd government apologising to the Stolen Generations in 2008, only 21 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement, 'The Federal Government should NOT have apologised to Aboriginal people for what has happened in the past', while 64 per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement. This significant increase in support for an apology to Indigenous peoples between the 2005 and 2010 surveys seems likely to have been substantially influenced by the Rudd government's apology and demonstrates the importance of government leadership on public opinion.

Community reconciliation in Gippsland

A number of community reconciliation activities are occurring across Gippsland. In this second section of the paper, I analyse several of these activities. I have selected a range of these activities so that, overall, they illustrate the key components of reconciliation discussed earlier, these being recognising Indigenous rights, educating the wider community, addressing history, community involvement and addressing Indigenous socioeconomic disadvantage.

Recognising Indigenous rights

There are a number of examples of efforts being made in Gippsland to recognise and address Indigenous rights. These efforts are being undertaken by Indigenous people to have their cultural, intellectual and property rights respected and protected. The efforts include campaigns for local governments to incorporate processes of Indigenous decision making and for local and state governments to recognise the need to recognise the importance of Indigenous cultural heritage and to protect Indigenous cultural sites from infrastructure development.

One very important example of recognising Indigenous rights was the campaign by the Gunai/Kurnai people in Gippsland to have their native title recognised. While the native title process is directed by legislation, this campaign has assisted the Gippsland reconciliation movement. The campaign lasted 13 years and involved numerous negotiations, both with the Victorian state government and between the Gunai/Kurnai people themselves. Finally, in 2010, the native title of the Gunai/Kurnai people was recognised by the Federal Court of Australia. This decision to recognise native title is one of only a handful of such decisions made in Victoria. The settlement ranges across a wide area, from Warragul in the west, to the southern coast, along to Orbost in the east, and up to the alps in the north. The area is approximately 13,000 square kilometres. In addition to the recognition of native title, the Gunai/ Kurnai people also signed other agreements, including an Indigenous Land Use Agreement, which recognises native title rights, details employment opportunities, provides government funding, recognises cultural issues and enables co-management. The campaign also resulted in other, less tangible benefits for both the Gunai/ Kurnai people themselves and for the reconciliation movement in Gippsland, such as improving the dialogue between the Gunai/Kurnai people, the wider community, local and state governments, and public service agencies (Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project 2014; National Native Title Tribunal 2012; O'Bryan 2012).

Educating the wider community

There are also a number of examples of efforts in Gippsland to educate the wider non-Indigenous community on Indigenous issues. These include formal educational institutions such as schools, TAFE institutes and universities, as well as several community education groups, like the Indigenous organisation Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place in Bairnsdale.

The Indigenous studies programs at the Gippsland campus of Federation University (previously the Gippsland campus of Monash University) is one key example. (1) The Indigenous studies programs are offered at both undergraduate, honours and postgraduate level. Local Gippsland Indigenous people have been involved with the development and delivery of these programs. Almost all students who undertake these programs are non-Indigenous. The programs are co-ordinated by an Indigenous lecturer with support from Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff. The programs explore a range of areas, including Indigenous cultures, Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories, and contemporary issues, such as constitutional reform, reconciliation and reparative justice. Individual subjects focus on a number of academic disciplines, such as art and design, education, health, history, human rights, law, literature, politics and women's studies. The influence of the Indigenous studies programs is widespread throughout the Gippsland campus. As well as those students who are studying Indigenous studies as a major program, there are many other students from a range of other programs offered at the campus, including business, community and social welfare, counselling, criminal justice, education, environmental sciences, health, history, journalism, politics and public relations. While the curriculum is often challenging for the non-Indigenous students, particularly for the vast majority who are learning about Indigenous studies for the first time, it genuinely engages most of the students and substantially educates both the students and, in turn, the future professions of the students (Gunstone and Heckenberg 2013; Heckenberg 2009, 2012a).

Addressing history

There are many examples where the historical relationships between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in Gippsland are being discovered, challenged and debated. This includes debates about the roles, impacts and legacies of early European 'explorers' such as Angus McMillan and discovering the appalling history of stolen wages practices at Lake Tyers reserve.

One interesting example involves reconciliation between a family in Gippsland and a family in Arnhem Land. In 1933 Albert McColl, a policeman in the Northern Territory, was allegedly killed by a Yolqu man, Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda. Dhakiyarr was arrested, tried and convicted. After being acquitted in 1934 following an appeal, Dhakiyarr disappeared, with speculation that he had met with foul play (McColl 2012). In 2003, some 70 years later, Albert's nephew, Alan, and his wife, Joan, were invited, with other McColl relatives, to a reconciliation healing ceremony in Darwin. This ceremony was initiated by the Yolqu in an effort to reconcile the Yolqu people and the McColl family.

Until this time, Joan and Alan McColl, who were dairy farmers in Gippsland, had had, like most other non-Indigenous people in the wider Gippsland community, almost no involvement with Indigenous peoples, cultures and histories. However, since 2003 the McColls and the Yohju have attempted to address the historical relationship that has occurred between their families. The McColls and the Yolqu have participated in an emotional and moving reconciliation ceremony, and have continued to be involved in each other's lives for the past decade. They have visited each other's communities many times, exchanged gifts, worked together on projects and events (such as renovating houses in Arnhem Land and hosting community barbeques in Gippsland to develop, educate and reconcile their respective communities), have become members of each other's families, and have publicised their amazing story of community reconciliation (Egan 1996; McColl 2012; National Archives of Australia 2011; National Lilm and Sound Archive of Australia 2004).

Community involvement

There are a wide number of examples of Gippsland community organisations working to promote and develop reconciliation in Gippsland. These include encouraging people and organisations to become involved in activities marking key events, such as NAIDOC Week and Reconciliation Week.

An important example of community involvement is the work of the local community reconciliation groups in Gippsland. Until recently, there were three local reconciliation groups. These were spread across Gippsland, with the groups being based in southern Gippsland (Inverloch), central Gippsland (Bairnsdale) and eastern Gippsland (Mallacoota). Indigenous and non-Indigenous people were involved with these groups. Unfortunately, the group based in Bairnsdale recently disbanded due to a declining membership and the involvement of other groups, like Indigenous organisations and churches, becoming more involved with reconciliation.

I conducted several interviews with these groups in 2010 to research their activities (Gunstone and McGinn 2012). The groups had a number of broad aims, including developing understanding and support in the community regarding Indigenous issues and reconciliation, addressing Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage and promoting the importance of symbolic reconciliation. The groups conducted a wide variety of activities in attempting to address their aims. These activities included promoting NAIDOC Week, organising concerts, holding public forums, arranging for guest speakers to visit schools, working with local government on education and on displaying the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, and working with state and local governments on socio-economic issues (ANTaR Victoria 2014; Gunstone and McGinn 2012; Reconciliation Victoria 2014). As discussed above, there are significant levels of racism and ignorance towards Indigenous people among non-Indigenous people living in Gippsland. The local community reconciliation groups, despite their geographical isolation from each other and from their umbrella state reconciliation organisations, undertake inspirational and demanding work in an effort to address these levels of racism and ignorance.

Addressing Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage

There are many examples of efforts being conducted in Gippsland to address Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage in areas such as community welfare, education, employment, health and housing. In this section, I look briefly at examples in business, community welfare and education. These examples also illustrate how working to reduce Indigenous socio-economic disadvantage can assist in improving Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships.

The first example is in the area of business. Over recent years, a number of Indigenous-owned and operated businesses have developed and succeeded across a range of industries in Gippsland. This is especially the case in industries such as cultural enterprises, hospitality and tourism ventures. This significant amount of entrepreneurial activity can improve a range of socio-economic indicators for Indigenous people, particularly in the area of employment (Business Victoria 2014; Foley, D 2012).

The second example is in the area of community welfare. In 2008 several Indigenous organisations organised a public stand against family violence. The Gippsland CommUNITY Walk against Family Violence campaign organised walks in several towns in Gippsland to advocate against family violence. This initiative was strongly supported by the wider community. The walks involved Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the police and welfare agencies and clearly demonstrated the strong community opposition to family violence (Crinall and Laming 2012; Laming et al. 2011).

The third example is in the area of education. For several years, the Koori Footprints to Higher Education program has been running at the Gippsland campus of Federation/Monash University and aims to increase the number of Indigenous people studying at the campus. It encourages Indigenous people to enrol and strongly supports them throughout their university studies. This program has substantially increased the number of Indigenous students undertaking both undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the campus (Heckenberg 2012b; Zizys 2010).

Conclusion

I have examined in this paper the involvement of local communities in the reconciliation movement by looking at a case study of Gippsland, Victoria. I first illustrated the substantial degree of racism and ignorance towards Indigenous people and issues among the wider non-Indigenous Gippsland community by detailing findings from two social surveys I commissioned in 2005 and 2010. The findings showed that the respondents, who were almost all non-Indigenous, were far more supportive of issues such as equality and education than of issues such as Indigenous rights and racism. Second, I analysed a number of examples of community reconciliation activities in Gippsland. These examples have substantially contributed to the overall Gippsland reconciliation movement. I discussed these examples in a framework of several key components of reconciliation identified earlier in the paper. These components are Indigenous rights, educating the wider community, addressing history, community involvement and addressing Indigenous socioeconomic disadvantage. The activities clearly show that important efforts are being made in Gippsland to address the levels of racism and ignorance that were identified by the surveys.

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Andrew Gunstone

University of South Australia

NOTE

(1.) Several Australian universities have Reconciliation Plans (RAPs) that can assist in reconciling universities and Indigenous peoples (see Reconciliation Australia 2014). Federation University does not have a RAP, although its predecessor institutions, the University of Ballarat and Monash, Gippsland, had RAPs. Monash, Gippsland, obtained a RAP as part of Monash University in July 2013.

Associate Professor Andrew Gunstone is Associate Head, Research, at the David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of South Australia. His research interests include the politics of reconciliation and the political relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. He is the Foundation Editor of the Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues.

<Andrew.Gunstone@unisa.edu.au>
Table 1: Meaning of reconciliation

Response                         Number 2005   Number 2010

Successful integration of            90            85
Aboriginals/unity

Equal rights/working together        72            65

Recognition and acceptance           63            57
of the past/awareness

Saying sorry/apology                 57            30

Acknowledge Aboriginal               22            16
culture/cultural differences

Compensation/recompense              14             7
for Aboriginals

Negative towards Aboriginals/         9             4
preferendal treatment

Land rights                           6             8

Other                                15             6

Can't say/refused                     3            16

Table 2: Further comments on reconciliation

Response                         Number 2005   Number 2010

Equality/equal rights for all        30            35
Australians

Reconciliation process               29            15
important/still more to be
done

Negative about                       28            31
Aboriginals/preferential
treatment

Aboriginal issues/social             21            13
problems/different needs for
each community or location

Need a better understanding of       14            13
each other/connectedness

Improved/further education and       11            13
training needed for Indigenous
community

Government to be more                10             9
pro-active/making a token
effort

Financial assistance/too many        10            19
handouts/need to be
accountable or selective

History/it's in the past              7             9

Need to say 'sorry'/stolen            7             2
generation

Negative comments about saying        6             1
sorry'

Don't support                         5             5
it/reconciliation not
necessary

Other                                10            21

Can't say/refused                    --             1

Table 3: Aboriginal disadvantage

                       2005%   2010 %

Disadvantaged           47       57
Neither                 22       8
Not disadvantaged       31       35

Table 4: Socio-economic disadvantage
                        2005 %    2010 %

Lot worse off            34         40
Little worse off         21         19
About the same           28         27
Little better off         7          7
Lot better off           10          7
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Author:Gunstone, Andrew
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2014
Words:5793
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