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People's movement for better relationships: as Australia faces a possible poll over race issues, Mike Brown reports on grassroots action to bring together indigenous Australians and the wider community.

`Even in moments of despair,' said Aboriginal lawyer and land rights champion Noel Pearson I last August, `I always find myself being reminded that we must not be gloomy about the Australian people. There are sparks of goodwill, empathy and decency in the hearts of most Australians. But these pearls have been encrusted by frustration and thanklessness, and by the projection of resentment and confusion.'

Barely two months later, `desperation time' had come. Pearson cast the pearls aside and denounced the government elected by those same Australian people as `racist'.

The cause of his anger was the government's determination to push through major amendments to the Native Title Act, passed in 1993 to regulate traditional Aboriginal land claims. The Act was prompted by the High Court's historic `Mabo' decision, which in 1992 recognized traditional indigenous land title in Common Law--overturning the 200-year-old constitutional myth of terra nullius, that Australia was an empty land when the whites arrived.

The government's contentious `10-Point Plan' to make the Act more workable and give more certainty to pastoralists and miners was passed with significant amendments by the Senate in December. But the government refused the Senate's changes and will reintroduce the Bill in 1998--setting the scene for a general election which will inevitably divide the country on race issues more deeply than ever.

Australia is at a crossroads--`a moment of stark nation-defining choice', to use the phrase of politician Cheryl Kernot. She was speaking, alongside Prime Minister John Howard, at the opening of a national Reconciliation Convention attended by 1,800 people last May. She put the choice starkly: `Either we take a real shot at being a harmonious, inclusive and fair society or we become a totally divided one with inherent racial tensions and protracted court actions.'

No sooner had the political leaders left the stage at the opening ceremony than one side of that choice was demonstrated in music and dance. It began gently, with the sound of Indonesian gongs and bamboo xylophones, building through the rhythms of Spanish flamenco and African drums to a crescendo of Irish dancers thundering across the stage. All the artists were Australians, held together by the clap-stick beats of a single Aboriginal woman weaving her dance between them.

For those of us who took part, the Convention was not just a moment of truth but of promise. The media, of course, highlighted the contentious issues surrounding Native Title, and the Prime Minister's refusal to make a formal apology to the `stolen generations' of Aboriginal children removed from their parents in the name of assimilation.

Without a doubt those issues were critical. But they were not, in my view, what the Convention was primarily about.

Running much deeper was the undercurrent of a grassroots movement for `the renewal of the nation through building better relationships between indigenous peoples and the wider community'. This was not just the Convention's stated aim, but its spirit.

The Convention marked the 30th anniversary of the referendum in 1967, in which 92 per cent of the Australian population voted to return full and equal citizenship rights to Aboriginal people. We are still working to fulfil what we voted for, but the Convention gave us a breathtaking glimpse of such a grassroots movement at work--for instance, through the video-clips presenting the 15 finalists among 300 groups nominated to receive reconciliation awards.

The Convention was preceded by 100 regional meetings around Australia, attended by 12,000 people. I was at one of them in a country town, sitting between the town's police inspector and the Ngarrindjeri mother of a teenager he had put in prison for drink driving.

Then, five days after the Convention, our local reconciliation group in suburban Adelaide (one of 300 formed voluntarily in our State) held a reconciliation day on the site of Colebrook Training Home. Here 350 Aboriginal children--many of them taken forcibly from their parents--had been institutionalized. The event was co-hosted by the Colebrook tji tji tjuta (mob of kids), reluctantly agreeing to return to a place that one of them described as `cursed'.

We had planned for 300-400 people. Some 1,500 turned up. The barbecued kangaroo and sausages (provided by our local Council) disappeared in 20 minutes. No one seemed put out. Locals entered into the spirit of reconciliation--talking around the campfires, looking at historical display boards, joining traditional dances, adding to a community artwork. All through the crowd, one could see former Colebrook residents reconnecting with school-mates from 30 years ago.

Many such examples of the reconciliation movement could be described.

But with other, divisive grassroot movements contesting for our national soul, the `nation-defining choice' will not come painlessly. Something in our national--and personal--character is being tested.

The tragedy will be if sensitive issues like Native Title are fought out in a fractious battle between ideological and economic interest groups. Yet it is on the hard anvil of these issues that `reconciliation' must become real, if it is to mean anything.

We `mainstream' Anglo-Celtic Australians don't like bitter, angry voices shouting at us across the racial divides. But how rarely we see the self-righteousness which is the other side of the coin.

Most Aboriginals I know are remarkable in their willingness to forgive. David Matthews, one of two young Aboriginals chosen to speak at the May Convention, said, `Let us not be bitter. Bitterness is an empty thing; a maggot in the mind.'

If that is so, then the rest of us must let go of self-righteous denial. It is a heavy thing; a stone in the heart.
COPYRIGHT 1998 For A Change
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Brown, Mike
Publication:For A Change
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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