The inherent flaw in the concept of ‘practical reconciliation’

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Tuesday, 9 March 2004

The Howard government says Indigenous Australians will be assisted by what it terms, “practical reconciliation”, rather than by pursuing what Co-chairman of Reconciliation Australia Fred Chaney calls “the symbolic aspects” of the Indigenous struggle. The Government claims that it is a pragmatic government and demands that Indigenous Australians put to one side the déclassé concept of a rights-oriented reconciliation process. Any discussion of a treaty is totally verboten.

With the exception of the many “bridge marches” that followed Corroboree 2000 Australia’s reconciliation process has been in retreat since December 1993 when Paul Keating delivered his “Redfern Speech”. So few are the tangible advances nowadays, that Chaney claims it is significant that Prime Minister Howard had acknowledged the traditional owners at a recent function in Kalgoorlie. Quoted in an article by Jobson in The Age, February 9, 2004, Chaney claimed that this “acknowledgement” demonstrated that John Howard recognised “you cannot divide off the symbolic from the practical aspects of reconciliation”.

It is worth recalling what former Prime Minister Keating said at Redfern:

The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.

It was our ignorance and our prejudice and our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask: how would I feel if this were done to me?

The Keating government implemented the 1994 Native Title Act and attempted to give momentum to the Reconciliation process. Then came the Pauline “please explain” Hanson phenomenon. In the wake of the backlash the Howard government moved to deliver, in the words of the then Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, “bucket loads of extinguishment” of Indigenous land ownership. The 1998 Ten Point Plan revision of the Native Title Act did just that. Around this time, the Howard government committed itself to “practical reconciliation” as away to limit the Indigenous rights agenda.

Practical reconciliation was initially defined in terms of practical assistance to improve health, housing, education and employment opportunities. At various times “practical reconciliation” has been promoted as a way to decrease Indigenous truancy, alcoholism, family violence and the number of people in prison. In his Kalgoorlie speech John Howard said:

All the theories in the world will not replace the value of employment; will not replace the value of sustainable economic opportunities; and will not replace the value of the embracement of the Indigenous people as part of our economic future. And that is why my government has placed such a great emphasis on what I call practical reconciliation, on giving all of the people of this country, irrespective of their background or their heritage, economic opportunity. And the greatest measure of that, of course, is to give people employment.

Few One Nation politicians could state it as eloquently.
The practical outcomes flowing from “practical reconciliation”.

As a panacea for all the ills that have befallen Indigenous communities “practical reconciliation” has patently failed.

  • Family violence has not decreased. Alcoholism is still a major problem facing Indigenous communities.
  • Unemployment remains between 40-80 per cent of the Indigenous labour force, once the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) is recognised as a “work for the dole” program, not as employment..
  • The number of Indigenous people in custody continues to increase, according to Cunneen, in Conflict, Politics and Crime: Aboriginal Communities and the Police.
  • The backlog in Indigenous housing has been costed at $3 billion.
  • Increased fees and charges are discouraging Indigenous education, and Aboriginal mortality and morbidity figures disgrace this nation in the eyes of the world.
  • Indigenous Australians are dying on average 20 years younger than other Australians and this statistic has remained virtually unchanged for two decades.
  • Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation point out that “the Indigenous health crisis is both solvable and preventable. In similar countries, such as New Zealand, the US and Canada, the health of Indigenous peoples has been rapidly improved by determined government action over the last 25 years”

Jon Altman and Boyd Hunter in a summary of Discussion Paper, No. 254  Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU, compared Indigenous employment, education, income, housing and health in Australian Bureau of Statistics figures in 1991,1996 and 2001 and concluded that in relation to all of these social features the position of Indigenous Australians relative to other Australians has hardly altered except that they were doing better prior to “practical reconciliation”.

What stymies the government’s “practical reconciliation” attempts to assist Indigenous people is that “practical reconciliation” amounts to the imposition of a unilateral white technocratic solution to a complex multicultural situation. It is not even a white social solution. Implicit and often explicit in such efforts is the “we, the non- Aborigines, know best”. Any community worker could have told the Howard government that once the community’s voice is silenced, the community members will resist involvement in the imposed solution. Indigenous people have experienced 214 years of white indifference and/or oppression. Because Indigenous people have seldom been allowed to control their social life they have become very skilled in avoidance and non- involvement techniques. Indigenous community members need to be free to determine the direction and pace of change if they are to maintain self-respect. It is they who must control the processes in their communities or non- involvement or unrest will be the result.

Of course it is possible, at one level, to distinguish conceptually between the practical and symbolic aspects of reconciliation. As an academic exercise it might even have some use in that each part of the reconciliation process can be analysed. But Chaney is correct in his assertion that the practical and symbolic aspects of reconciliation are inseparable and that you can’t have one without the other in any meaningful or practical sense.

That being the case it is necessary to ask to what use has Howard put his “practical reconciliation?

First, “practical reconciliation” deals with the problems that Indigenous Australians confront. It points directly at the deficits in Indigenous communities such as their poor health, lack of material possessions, inadequate education, overcrowded houses, their inordinately high incarceration rates and low rates of employment. “Practical reconciliation” blames the victims of government policies and exaggerates the generosity of government assistance.

Second, and more importantly, by concentrating on their problems and our assistance, attention is deflected from the symbolic aspects of reconciliation. This is particularly so in relation to the question of rights. If the government were to take the question of Indigenous rights seriously then it would have to recognise their right: to self-determination; to promote Indigenous cultural beliefs; to land; to have their stolen wages returned to them in full; and to reparation for land alienated from the Aboriginal nations.

In the current political climate, following nearly a decade of the Howard/Hanson line, it will be hard to rediscover the spirit that inspired Keating’s Redfern Speech. Unless Australians wish to maintain the lie of Terra Nullius, the lie that this country was settled peacefully, the lie that there were no stolen generations and the lie that all the difficulties that confront Indigenous people in the 21st Century are entirely of their own creation, then this nation will need to address such symbolic reconciliation issues.

It is a pity that Henry Reynolds’ This Whispering in our Hearts won’t be read by all Australians. While Rabbit Proof Fence has been seen and moved many, we are still waiting for our very own Dances with Wolves movie. After 214 years of denial, lies and guilt-ridden half truths, “It’s time” to face our past invasion of this continent, the frequent rape of Indigenous women, the crimes perpetrated against the stolen generations and the theft of Indigenous land and wages.

Once we have done what Keating asked us to do and recognise that the problem resides with non-Indigenous Australians, we need to ask “How would I feel if what is being done to Indigenous people were done to me?” The practical aspects of reconciliation must proceed hand in hand with the symbolic/rights features of a just reconciliation process. It is we who must work with Indigenous people to ensure that Aboriginal employment prospects are as good as any one else’s. We must no longer tolerate Indigenous people dying on average 20 years younger than other Australians. We must work to lower the inordinately high Indigenous incarceration rates. We must engage with the Indigenous community to ensure that Indigenous Australians have adequate housing.

Recognition of the importance of unifying the practical and symbolic aspects of the reconciliation process can only occur when Indigenous Australians are allowed to take an equal place at the negotiating table.