Don't let the Apology's great hope die

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Ten years have passed since the Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on behalf of Parliament and the nation. It seems longer. It was a time of great hope. Today, with respect to Indigenous affairs as to much else, fewer people hold great hope that anything good can come out of Canberra.

Chris Johnston cartoonThe evidence of the harmful effects of the Intervention, of the continuing disproportionate and brutal incarceration of young Indigenous people at Don Dale, the lack of progress on the indices of Indigenous disadvantage, the brusque dismissal by the government of the proposals by the Constitutional Recognition Summit for an Indigenous advisory body and the defensive refusal to discuss any alteration to Australia Day suggest that we are back to unapologetic business as usual in Australia.

Yet the Apology remains important as a marker of what is decent and what may be possible. It was whole hearted and warm hearted in its rhetoric, it was made face to face to representatives of the Indigenous community, including many who had been taken away from their parents as children. It was made solemnly in Parliament on behalf of all Australians. The setting and the solemnity of the occasion implied a commitment to Indigenous Australians that when their welfare was at stake they would be listened to and consulted, not decided for.

The Apology engendered great hope. It remains unrealised. Indigenous Australians are still treated as the objects of policy and not as subjects who help shape it. Their voice is still shouted down.

But there are signs that public acceptance of this unacceptable business as usual is running thin. When thinking of the celebration of Australia Day, an increasing number of people recognise that the commemoration of the arrival of the first fleet as a day for all Australians to celebrate. This was evident this year in the marches on Australia Day.

As was the case with the symbolism of same sex marriage, which was seen as the necessary ending of discrimination, and so brutality, against a significant group of Australians, so people now increasingly regard as inappropriate the celebration as Australia's national day of an event that marked the beginning of the dispossession and discrimination against the First Australians and their descendants

Despite strident opposition, that sentiment will surely grow. With time and courageous leadership Australia will have a date to remember and celebrate the different strands of our history that unite us. Similarly, more people are open to a consultative body for decisions touching Indigenous Australians, seeing them as a unique group in Australian society. Prejudice and contempt remain, but sprigs of green keep pushing through the concrete.

 

"Indigenous Australians have been discriminated against, mocked and excluded often enough to make them wary of costless gestures of good will."

 

The greater challenge posed by the Apology, however, is to draw on the political unanimity and good will evident in it in order to address the enduring effects of Indigenous dispossession. This cannot be done by governments thinking up policies that will benefit Indigenous Australians and making people the objects of those policies. That way of proceeding has led to children being forcibly taken away from their children, to the massive incarceration rate of young people and to the Intervention. It will mean consulting Indigenous leaders, relying on their wisdom and moral compass to test proposed policies and administrative procedures, resourcing adequately their initiatives in their communities and staying with them for the long haul.

To build the necessary trust may be the greatest challenge in coming years. In Australian public life and communications, trust and the respect on which it is based are tightly rationed. Certainly Indigenous Australians have been discriminated against, mocked and excluded often enough to make them wary of costless gestures of good will. It is understandable that many would prefer to build a separate identity and separate communities free from the humbug of governments and experts. But even this project would require a measure of economic independence that would be difficult to achieve in isolation from the dominant culture.

Among non-Indigenous Australians the task of building trust will also be difficult because of the increasingly combative nature of public conversation. The influence of what one is tempted to call Caucasian identity politics in the mainstream and social media in stirring up fear and contempt for Muslim, African and Indigenous Australians by selectively publicising bad behaviour by individuals and calling for punitive measures should not be underestimated. Its appeal for politicians has also been all too evident.

The challenge posed by the Apology remains large. It will require nurturing the things that bind us as human beings and respect for others in their difference. That is something for Australians to work at in all our relationships.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Kevin Rudd, apology, Stolen Generations, Indigenous affairs


 

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Existing comments

Rudd's moving apology was a seminal event in Australia's history. I would suggest Fr Andrew that much has come for the Aboriginal people following that day. We have more Aboriginals in parliament than would ever have been contemplated or indeed possible before the apology. There are now, for example, many Aboriginal doctors and lawyers and university graduates in a range of other occupations. Aboriginal culture and the arts have become mainstream. There still are, of course, those who don't get it (of the Howard ilk). But their day is nigh, thank God.
john frawley | 09 February 2018


Indigenous Australians are a unique group in Australian society. Currently, in celebrations of Australia Day, we are attempting to have it both ways. The majority are attempting to set the agenda for a dispossessed peoples. And that is cringe worthy. Non-indigenous Australians need to stand up and say "We are not going to act as Masters any more, we are not going to make plans and policies that perpetuate patriarchy and hierarchy." The change starts with changing the date of Australia Day, or better still, not celebrating Australia Day, until we have something to be proud of. That's something to be worked for. In saying this, I am speaking as a white Australian who feels increasingly sad on what should be a joyful day.
Pam | 09 February 2018


I suggest that readers listen to Paul Keating's Redfern Address online, from which I quote: "... the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with that 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 diseases. 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? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us. Isn't it reasonable to say that if we can build a prosperous and remarkably harmonious multicultural society in Australia, surely we can find just solutions to the problems which beset the first Australians - the people to whom the most injustice has been done. And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with that 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 diseases. 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? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us."
Grant Allen | 10 February 2018


I suggest that one reason for the loss of momentum after the apology is the universal disdain for Kevin Rudd. The media onslaught plus the Gillard "coup" and subsequent blaming of Rudd for all the ills of government, has meant that all he accomplished is now tarnished. Whilst it is not by any means the whole story, I think it has had significant impact on attitudes to the apology and to reconciliation and justice for aboriginal Australians. I remember the apology as an absolute high point of leadership in this country (along with the Redfern speech). A more balanced assessment of Rudd's prime ministership may help restore public support for his initiatives.
Vivienne | 12 February 2018


I believe concrete action is required now. Last year we had the Statement from the Heart, won at some cost to the Indigenous People. This statement calls for a process to achieve Recognition, and we can support this as Christians interested in Justice for the People, joining Indiginous people in their efforts to push this now stalled (thx Malcolm) forward. Cheers
David Tuke | 12 February 2018


In the light of comments re Kevin Rudd making the apology, I would like to say with sorrow that he closed the ITAS (Indigenous Tutorial Scheme) programme whereby Indigenous students were tutored in their own homes or an appropriate place. This programme went through many iterations so may have had a different name when it was closed. This individual tutoring helped many students go from being in the non-suceeding group to managing successfully with their peers in the classroom, develop the confidence to do well not only at school, but also in post school life.
Gabrielle | 12 February 2018


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