Sorry? How Did A Decade Pass Like That?


Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the Sorry Day walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge.

In 2000, over a quarter of a million Australians walked to show their support for reconciliation. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation report and recommendations released that day both concluded a process established by former prime minister Paul Keating which set the stage for the Australian Parliament’s historic apology in 2007 under the Rudd Government. A decade on however, the Australian Government is being called to revisit its recommendations by Indigenous lobby groups.

Peter Lewis, of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) told that while Kevin Rudd responded to the important symbolic call for an apology to the Stolen Generations at the beginning of his term, his Government’s responses to substantive issues have ignored ANTaR’s practical recommendations.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Bringing Them Home report and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s Roadmap Towards Reconciliation between them contained a total of 419 recommendations for Indigenous Australians based on detailed research and consultation. Few of these have been implemented by the federal government.

While the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation declared that principles of self-determination, adequate resourcing of communities and cultural respect should form the basis of governments’ relations with Aboriginal peoples, the federal government has instead based its policies on tried and failed stock-in-trade policy options.

The so-called "Close the Gap" strategy has been driven not by the principles of reconciliation, but by knee-jerk reactions to statistics. In particular, the Northern Territory Intervention has been a "one size fits all" response in an area where Aboriginal groups and researchers alike have pointed to the need for programs tailored community by community.

In spite of its claims to adhere to evidence-based policy, the Rudd Government has overlooked too much of the available evidence in the race to be seen to be doing something big — much like its predecessor.

There is little evidence, for example, of the efficacy of income management, yet this controversial aspect of the NT Intervention is shortly to be extended to all welfare recipients in the NT. The driver behind this expansion is not evidence that it works. Instead, it is driven by the government’s desire to evade international criticism of the Intervention which currently breaches UN anti-discrimination covenants and has been exempted by the previous government from the Racial Discrimination Act. In other words, the amendments to the NT Intervention are simply a public relations exercise, with the costs to be borne by an ever broadening tranche of the population.

Another flaw with the NT Intervention is its "deficit based" approach. This means the Government looks primarily at what communities lack based on its own perceptions of what communities need. By framing Aboriginal communities as impoverished and by focusing on what they lack, the deficit approach fails to take into account and thus to develop what resources Aboriginal communities actually do possess. The deficit approach to poverty is similarly disempowering because it frames communities a priori as poor and powerless. This runs counter to the principles of respect and of self-determination.

ANTaR, by contrast, highlights the success stories of community-led development in the Northern Territory and around Australia. These stories provide an alternative to the top down, "big stick" approach favoured by the federal government. Projects such as the anti-petrol sniffing campaign in Yuendumu NT, the Mums and Babies program in Townsville, or the Nutrition campaign in Western Australia’s Jalaris Aboriginal Corporation exemplify the success that can be achieved when Aboriginal people own and control the development process on a project by project basis. If the federal government would treat Aboriginals with respect, it would highlight one of their greatest assets, their own dignity as people, rather than attacking and discounting that dignity through a colonialist and condescending approach.

The need for respect and genuine engagement post Rudd’s Apology makes the next step towards reconciliation all the more important. That next step must be towards a treaty process.

It is probably no coincidence that Australia not only has the worst record of Indigenous health in the developed world, but is also alone among British settler nations in having no treaties with Aboriginal peoples. While opponents may dismiss the treaty as more symbolism, the failure to commit to such a process exposes the rottenness at the core of the reactions of successive Australian governments to Indigenous disadvantage. Not only is the reluctance of governments to engage with Aboriginal people on a basis of equality made clear, but so is our fearfulness as a nation to re-examine ourselves and the basis upon which our country is constituted.

A decade after hundreds of thousands of Australians urged their parliament to say "sorry", the goals of a reconciliation process based on principles of self-determination, adequate resourcing and respect still seem a long march from realisation.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.