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Reconciliation: what does it mean? This is the question that Gary Johns, former Federal Minister, and Ron Brunton, cultural anthropologist, set out to answer in a backgrounder booklet released by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in November 1999. Disguising itself as a critical analysis of the draft document released by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) in May last year, the authors bring nothing more than smoke and mirrors to bear on an issue greatly in need of clarification. Their facile argument is that reconciliation is a `game' which their writing has `attempted to stop'. If only it were that easy. If only we could accept the flawed assumptions that such a depiction is based on -- that indigenous people are pawns, that political interests know and play by the rules, and that people's basic rights are goods to be won in a zero-sum game. The only `game' this booklet provides any evidence of is that of misrepresenting political realities.

Reconciliation means many things to these gentlemen. It means letting Aborigines lead the same lives as other Australians with the same fights and duties of Australian citizenship. It means getting Indigenous people to accept the `fact' of colonisation. It means denial of these peoples' right to unique status. It means denigrating the Indigenous portrait of Australian history. It means refusing to accept that Aborigines are a `people' at all, as a context in which to claim `special' fights. It seems that, for the authors, reconciliation means accepting that the complex and emotive issues of citizenship, justice, equality and Indigenous rights have already been authoritatively adjudicated -- which leaves one wondering why recent Australian works on these issues (for example, Chesterman and Galligan, Citizens Without Rights, 1997, and Petersen and Sanders, Citizenship and Indigenous Australians, 1998) needed to be published at all. Perhaps these concepts aren't as clear-cut as Johns and Brunton's contention requires them to be.

This IPA backgrounder lambasts CAR's Draft Document as based on the fallacy that different `contracts' (in the social and political sense) can exist for different, racially defined, parts of a nation. For the authors, this is the reason why the Council's draft Declaration and National Strategies for Reconciliation are doomed to failure. The first buttress to the authors' gloomy forecast is the contention that the Council's agenda is dichotomous. The backgrounder denounces CAR's desire to have Indigenous peoples' unique status as First Peoples properly recognised, on the grounds that it contradicts the Council s stated vision of a united Australia based on notions of universal equality and human rights. To arrive at this objection, one must subscribe to the outdated contextual paradigm, citizenship = equal treatment = justice, and allow no consideration of the way that Indigenous rights explodes such a construction. For a political science lecturer and a cultural anthropologist, the theoretical ignorance implicit in this contention is breathtaking.

Countless international and domestic examples have proven that such a blunt formula perpetuates discrimination. If it didn't, those countries where citizenship is supposedly universal would have no need for anti-discrimination legislation or affirmative action policies. Nor would countries like Canada, the United States, Norway, Denmark and New Zealand have bothered legislatively recognising and protecting the status of Indigenous peoples through treaty or territorial agreement. Furthermore, denying Indigenous people their right to claim unique status as First Peoples requires the necessary infringement of basic human rights. It negates the right to self-determination and the right to personal identity, the latter of which forms the basis for human existence. Such denial heaps scorn on both the rule of law, which seeks to uphold human rights, and democratic freedoms which seek to allow the free expression of those human rights.

The reality is that Indigenous people are entitled to have their distinct status recognised by nature of their continuing existence through the ruins of dispossession; by nature of the fact that they occupy what Henry Reynolds in Aboriginal Sovereignty (1995) describes as an intermediate place between the individual and the State -- constituted more by their collectivity than their individuality. Equality is more about the proper accommodation of difference, a point which theorists such as Iris Marion Young (The Politics of Justice, 1991) and Will Kymlicka (The Rights of Minority Cultures, 1991), have argued convincingly. Equality cannot be perceived as sameness unless we wish to entertain heinous notions of a Fourth Reich.

The backgrounder also plays a card commonly dealt in the game of political rhetoric. It involves ridiculing your opponent's opinion as based on historical untruths and a need for self-flagellation. The authors equate supporting the Indigenous case for reconciliation with support for a `one-sided' version of history that portrays Australia as morally bereft and worthy of derision. Evidence produced in support of this claim includes the suggestion that catalysts such as dispossession and the `stolen generations' are not the factors really to blame for the current state of Indigenous social and economic indicators. If they were, the authors maintain, these indicators should have been improving, not declining, over the last thirty years because there have been many advances in righting these past injustices. Johns and Brunton seem entirely unacquainted with the theory of cause and effect if they can believe that the end of assimilationist policies should automatically provide Indigenous people with the same living conditions as other Australians. They appear unable to comprehend that any period of social transition is often accompanied by the teething problems of social ills rising to the surface before the community deals with them. Instead, Johns and Brunton prefer to blame the desire of Aborigines for self-destruction as the reason behind accelerating suicide and poverty rates. In the same vein, they also warn against levelling charges of racism at this type of populist rhetoric, arguing that it is these very charges which give Indigenous people an alibi for their apparently self-destructive behaviour. It is difficult to view this kind of historical misrepresentation as anything other than an attempt to rationalise white dismissiveness of any black problem.

Yet a black problem does exist t the collective and political reality of Indigenous culture -- which refuses to go away, and refuses to submit, much to the authors' chagrin. This reality is based on those conditions which the authors seek to deny and Indigenous supporters seek to uphold -- that Aborigines are uniquely First Peoples, that their distinct collectivity and culture has enabled them historically to withstand brutal treatment at the hands of the state, that they are in fact a `peoples'. To excuse the obvious contradiction this reality presents to their argument, the authors accuse anyone who accepts such a reality of succumbing to what Brunton has referred to as `the great Australian wickedness' (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 5 April 2000). Brunton explains this as the desire, prevalent in the Aboriginal movement and much of the educated middle class, to undermine the legitimacy of the non-Aboriginal version of history. Such people obviously believe the evidence presented in books like Ros Kidd's The Way We Civilise (1998) -- an exhaustive and clinically impartial account of colonial government administration of Queensland Aborigines, and the genocidal impact of assimilation policies. Nowhere do the authors consider for a minute that these people might actually be interested in righting a historical wrong in order to celebrate Australia's capacity for justice and recovery, rather than merely relishing the opportunity to pour scorn on one's own. So how far should we let the authors' opposition to authentic historical representations go? To the point that anyone who doesn't agree with Johns, Brunton and other populists' `white blindfold' version of history are legitimately deemed wicked?

Denying that Indigenous people have any right to claim unique status is not enough for Johns and Brunton. The backgrounder also serves to mount an attack upon the right of Aborigines to call themselves `peoples'. By maintaining that Aboriginal peoplehood is an artificial construct used purely for political gain, the authors purport to refute Indigenous claims for political autonomy. They alternate between scare-mongering -- e.g. autonomy would lead to separatism from Australia -- and pedagogy -- e.g. Aboriginality is now so diluted by the diversity of Indigenous peoples' life circumstances and the lack of official definition that it doesn't really exist. To evidence this, the fatuous claim is made that Aborigines no longer wish for definition and are actually more desirous of integration than autonomy because of the increasing number of inter-racial marriages. The contradiction that this evidence presents to Johns and Brunton's claim that Indigenous people seek political autonomy through desire for separatism seems to have passed them by. As has the fact that, regardless of life circumstances and `lack of definition', those hailing from an Anglo-Saxon background have no trouble referring to themselves as `English-speaking peoples' in third person narrative.

The authors maintain we cannot acknowledge peoplehood because it involves an implicit attack on the sovereignty of the State. They skim over the issue of sovereignty, again assuming that it has been immutably established in the same way as their version of citizenship, justice and equality. To accept this notion of sovereignty, one must also accept `the fact of colonisation', it appears, so that no doubt can be raised as to whether Australia was colonised or invaded, terra nullius or land owned by Australia's First Peoples. For those who do entertain doubt about the above, Henry Reynolds' Aboriginal Sovereignty resoundingly dispels any myth that Australia was terra nullius, through analysis of comparative legal experience in European colonies, bringing the full force of morality to bear on the historical debt to which this fact contracts Australia.

Another issue to which Johns and Brunton extend their questionable adjudication is that of self-determination. According to them, we must defeat collectivist notions of self-determination, because only the self (or individual) can authentically exercise it. Yet in the same breath, they typify Aboriginal people (using the force of collective self-determination, one can only assume) as asserting victimhood -- the apparent end result of Aboriginal politics of `revenge'. The authors claim that victimhood is really the only thing holding Aborigines together.

So, it appears, self-determination is not the exclusive domain of individuals, as Johns and Brunton would have us believe. This is a fatal misconstruction of self-determination, both for the authors' argument and for the enduring applicability of the concept itself to the politics of justice and equality.

One of the requisite conditions for exercising a right is having a context in which to exercise it. Hence, some rights cannot be exercised in isolation from the group, for example the right to vote, and the right to freedom of speech. Yet Johns and Brunton still strive to disprove that collectivities can exercise self-determination, as obviated in their call to deny Indigenous people the right to identify as part of a group, a `peoples', and to have that right recognised legislatively. In order to unpack this issue with more clarity than smoke and mirrors can impart, the first Article of the two Covenants which buttress the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states:

All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

So, in order to deny Indigenous economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the right to political autonomy, Johns and Brunton must deny that Aborigines are `peoples'. Yet the authors feel qualified to do so, through their membership of Australia's `dominant culture'. A culture which, according to them has `the most respected means of governance devised, a most bountiful economy, the most brilliant economic traditions and an openness and tolerance unknown in Aboriginal culture'. This superiority apparently gives the dominant culture the right to determine Indigenous peoples' political status, as well as the right to question the integrity of Aboriginal indigeneity, their bond to the land and their ability to earn respect when not lobbying from the position of victim. All well and good until one asks what gives the dominant culture this right, if not its constitution by the majority `peoples' of Australia. And so one must ask the question, what are the authors hiding in the `game' of Aboriginal reconciliation, if not ethnocentricity that smacks of cultural arrogance?

The final three sections of the booklet are devoted to exploding Aborigines' claim to special rights. Thus, the reader is treated to a diatribe on the dangers inherent in recognising Aboriginal customary law (anathema to the rule of law in the `fixed' context of the Australian legal system); affording special protection to Indigenous culture (which allegedly has components more damaging to Aborigines than typical social prejudices); and protection of subsistence rights over commercial interests (Aborigines should stop bastardising the moral high ground with their claim to welfare to keep remote communities alive). The authors assert that Aborigines should instead all be absorbed into full employment, which would of course mean that they would have to move off their traditional homelands to find work in urban centres. This section can ultimately be seen as the authors' ointment for the perceived ills of their target audience -- right-wing populists. After all, it says what they want to hear -- stop welfare, free up the land for mining interests and pastoral leases, no more exposure to Indigenous culture, full employment and so on.

In their desire to pander to the interests of the IPA's collectivity, the authors have forgotten a crucial point -- Indigenous rights are human rights made `special' by explicitly maximising the rules of engagement between the collectivity and the state, as opposed to the minimum rules of engagement that are invoked by citizenship rights. Indigenous rights are special measures enacted to buttress the ability of Aborigines to exercise their citizenship rights. Quoting from the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) will no doubt incense Johns and Brunton, yet some clarity is required here. Article 4 of the CERD reads:

Special measures taken for the sole purpose of securing adequate advancement of certain racial or ethnic groups or individuals requiring such protection as may be necessary in order to ensure such groups or individuals' equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall not be deemed racially discriminatory.

This reiterates a point made earlier in this article -- that equality does not mean equal treatment, and requires instead the accommodation of difference. Yet the authors do not even seek to guarantee equal treatment in the approach that they advocate -- instead they attack the welfare-based Aboriginal policies of the last thirty years, and ridicule Aboriginal leaders for suggesting a rights-based approach. So what are we left with? The Johns and Brunton `do-nothing' approach; otherwise known as the `stand by your choices' tough love approach. Which is fine, if people are free to choose, and not disempowered by attacks on their status as First Peoples; their decision to hold a certain view of history; their ability to exercise self-determination in collectivity with their `peoples'; or their fundamental rights which accrue by nature of their human existence.

To arrive at a conclusion using flawed premises does not, however, mean that the conclusion is incorrect. Johns and Brunton have maliciously used the wrong proof to support their contention that the prospects of CAR's Draft Document are limited. They have done this in order to disguise the real reasons why CAR' s agenda will not succeed -- Howard Government populism and the stranglehold that this has on the prospects for Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia. Indigenous voices, including Patrick Dodson and Olga Havnen, have long expressed doubt as to the enforceability and long-term prospects of any document for reconciliation that does not seek a solution through a framework of political negotiation. This type of framework would prevent the trade-offs so often witnessed in discussion of rights and freedoms, such as last year's debate over the use of the word `custodianship' in the Constitutional Preamble.

Political frameworks go much further than ceremonial lip-service, which is all the emasculated final document will be able to provide. In the fourth annual Vincent Lingiari lecture presented in August 1999 (and excerpted in Arena Magazine 45), Patrick Dodson presented a call for a political framework in which to accommodate Indigenous people within the Australian democratic system. Such a framework would include political negotiations over Indigenous rights to equality; distinct characteristics and identities; self-determination; traditional and customary systems of law, culture, spirituality and religion; economic and social development; self-government and other issues integral to Aboriginal reconciliation. A lot better than the `do-nothing' approach!

Indigenous-State relations have been `colouring' Australian political life for the last 212 years, and no solution has been forthcoming. Why? Because the political reality is that collective Indigenous culture is here to stay, and thus a solution will not be forthcoming until there is political negotiation between peoples. Negotiation not based on the populist rhetoric of Johns and Brunton, but negotiation based on empathetic and informed understanding of the pertinent issues. Gentlemen, in the final analysis, it is not a question of who has the moral high ground, it's a question of who has the right to comment on that ground.

Jodhi Rutherford is a Melbourne researcher and writer.
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Title Annotation:issue of reconciliation between aboriginals and whites in Australia is debated; report critiqued
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2000

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