The great silence


The 2004 election campaign was marked by a loud silence about Aboriginal issues and reconciliation. Since then, except for Michael Long’s walk to Canberra, a small flurry about the ‘school for pool’ program and Mulan’s petrol pump, it seems that this subject is unspeakable. It is like we ‘white fellas’ want to return to the last century, pre-1967, when we tried to keep Aborigines invisible — not even counting them.

Even in New Matilda a search for Aborigine and Indigenous yields a paucity of references, mostly as points or passing asides within an article. There is an excellent article on reconciliation, one on indigenous health and a couple on Mulan and mutual obligation. If New Matilda is to assist in achieving improved policy, we need constructive dialogue
about Aboriginal issues.

I believe that the relationship between the original inhabitants and the rest of us is the most important long-term issue facing Australia today. It goes to the heart of who we are. It is a complex issue with no magic bullet solutions, just a hard messy slog requiring in-depth changes in the national psyche of ‘white fellas’ to respect and acknowledge all of our past history, white and black, and to work with Indigenous people to create improved health, education and economic opportunities for them.

Until we have come to terms with our history and acknowledge how we have oppressed and discriminated against Aborigines, this relationship is going to inhibit our maturity as a people. It demeans us as a nation that our Indigenous people have the health outcomes of a poor, third world country. This is just a symptom of this deep, underlying problem. Evidence of the harm trauma does to people and communities is well understood today. It is impossible to undo the effects of past oppression simply or in a short time. It will take large commitments, efforts and enlightened leadership.

These people have lived here for at least fifty thousand years. This makes Anglo-Saxon history look insignificant, let alone the last 200 odd years of Australian history. But we seem to be only able to see it in the 200 year context and even then we are having trouble seeing this small time frame in its entirety. We are mainly interested in our ‘white fella’ history — and then only the nice bits. There is no doubt about the trauma that white settlement has caused — intentionally and unintentionally — trying to do the right thing or just greed and ruthlessness. It is documented by historians; it is in Aboriginal stories and white stories. It is captured in the language of ‘snipe shooting’, or whatever local euphemism was used for the leisure activity of shooting Aboriginals for sport.

We continue our old ways when we enforce our arrogant certain solutions onto Indigenous communities — and don’t acknowledge their culture and world views which are so different to ours. We do it when we blame ATSIC for all the failed attempts to improve their lot — then dismember it and appoint a selected advisory committee. When we denigrate the Dodsons, Langdons and Pearsons, and all those Aborigines who have shown great commitment and leadership for their people. We do it when we resist Native Title in the Mabo decision by using every available chance to water it down, even when our white justice system acknowledges that their claims are valid. Where is the generosity of spirit that would show we care about what we or our ancestors have done — and what they have lost forever? Not based on guilt and black armband history but on genuine understanding and compassion gained from standing in another’s shoes.

Why can’t we acknowledge their contribution to this nation, the fifty thousand years before white settlement and since then? The opening up of the country relied on Aboriginal people; whether they were guides and helpers to explorers, pastoral workers or divers off Broome. Now we are trading on their artistic talents for which they receive less than 10 per cent of the value. We have to work with them as equal partners in a spirit of respect and co-operation. We need to assist them to build the capacity of their communities by acknowledging and using their historic experience and knowledge and by assisting them to add to their skills and knowledge in ways that will enable them to achieve what they want in ways that work for them.

Mutual obligation can have many meanings. I believe that Aboriginal people have a lot of credit in their account and it is time that we did pay back in a generous way. The Cape York Partnership is an example of an innovative community development process which may lead us into a new era of how to do this. Communities, clans, families, and individuals are encouraged to move beyond passive welfare and actively participate in the economy. There are other innovative examples such as at Shepparton, Victoria, and with the Titjikala community (Plants for People program, ECOS 123, Jan – March 2005 – )

Practical reconciliation is impractical. By trying to deal only with the ‘practical’ part of the situation it fails to deal with all of the parts of what is a human system. Therefore it is not going to achieve its proponents’ goals. These are very complex situations and need
complex interactions to make significant improvements. There is no quick fix.

The great need to move towards more sustainable ways of living in our ancient landscape means that we need the thousands of years of knowledge that Indigenous people have to assist us. It was Governor Phillip’s settlement that nearly starved where the local Aborigines had been living well for a long time. They had local knowledge. The late ‘Banjo’ Clarke from Framlingham, South Western Victoria said that ‘If the people have a healthy psyche, we will have a healthy country.’ Do we want budgets in surplus or healthy souls?

In fact, if we continue to follow our recent path then we are very likely to see more incidents like those that have occurred in Palm Island, Redfern and Geraldton. The younger generation may no longer be prepared to tolerate widening injustice so peacefully. If you are not heard then what other options are there?

No matter what Aboriginal people do it will take improved leadership from the white community to achieve reconciliation. If the South Africans can implement truth and reconciliation then surely Australians can. We need to get rid of our yoke of racism. It will take enlightened and respectful leadership with integrity to achieve this. The payoff, besides an Aboriginal community with equal opportunities in health, life expectancy and life well-being, will be a mature nation which understands its history more completely.

We will no longer carry a world stigma for allowing part of our community to live in third world poverty. There would be pride in what we had achieved and learnt in doing it. Until we do achieve this we are only half a nation and I think that this means that we are still not ready to let go of our colonial past and become a Republic.

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