Indigenous summiteers put dreams into practice


Flags Not since the 1998 Wik controversy had Noel Pearson and I enjoyed a pleasant conversation. But we did at the 2020 Summit. Back in 1998, the Labor Party was adamant that the Howard government amendments to the Native Title Act were utterly unacceptable, and they would be reversed at the first opportunity. Wik and the Native Title Act hardly featured in any 2020 Summit discussions.

The Summit was an opportunity to leave old conflicts at the door and look beyond the short-term political future. With a new government in Canberra after 11 years, all came with their favourite agenda item and wish list. But even these had to be scrutinised and packed down with an eye to Australia in four elections' time, regardless of who might be in government and who might be running for election — Samantha '20 or whoever.

I was one of 20 or 30 non-indigenous Australians privileged to join the largely indigenous group discussing options for the future of indigenous Australia. I came to Canberra hoping to hear new, young Aboriginal voices. Some of them were there, but unfortunately they were not heard above the media din surrounding the established Aboriginal leaders occupying their well known positions.

Much of the media commentary since the Summit has drawn lines between those committed to a rights agenda (constitutional recognition, treaty, representative bodies to replace ATSIC, UN declarations etc.) and those committed to alleviating the plight of children in remote communities.

But being an ideas summit for the long term, this meeting was not either-or. It was both-and. We were allowed to dream and strategise about closing gaps while also wondering how best to recognise the enduring rights and entitlements of indigenous Australians once the gaps are closed, and even while we are working together to close the gaps.

The symbolism was strong from the beginning, with the indigenous welcome to country in Parliament House, following upon the National Apology two months before. Whatever the blemishes in Brendan Nelson's February apology speech, the summiteers saw the apology as a new beginning, as a bipartisan commitment to put the past behind us and do the hard work in closing the gaps in health and education as completely as possible.

The nation was introduced to a bold new idea in the presentation at the opening plenary by 24-year-old PhD student Sana Nakata, who spoke proudly of her mixed heritage, proclaiming that there was no need for her migrant narrative to suppress her Torres Strait one.

During one of the session breaks Peter Yu told a few of us about his recent visit to China tracing family roots, while in the formal sessions he was relentless in advocating the preconditions for Aboriginal business success in the Kimberley.

Though a long-term critic of the Howard government's ham-fisted federal intervention in the Northern Territory, I participated in a small group with Aboriginal magistrate Sue Gordon, who has been instrumental in advising government on the intervention strategies. At the summit, we were urged to think bold new ideas, to be positive, and to be respectful of opposing views. Regardless of the divisive media coverage of some of the indigenous participants, we had the opportunity to find common ground and to complement our differences.

The priority themes to emerge were formal recognition of Australia's indigenous peoples, closing the gap on all social indicators, and a renewed focus on indigenous children and their families.

Unfortunately, lawyer and National Bank board member Danny Gilbert failed to develop effective support for the idea of building on the joint policy commission announced by Kevin Rudd and endorsed by Brendan Nelson on the National Apology day.

Gilbert suggested this commission be turned into a statutory authority with representation from corporate and indigenous Australia together with health and education experts. He saw such an authority as the most efficient way of having governments, service deliverers, and the corporate sector cooperating to close the gaps.

I was impressed by this bold idea. The stream considering the 'future of the Australian economy' proposed a new Federation Commission to review the roles and responsibilities of all levels of government in the national economy. If such a commission is a good idea for the economy, then why not for the most pressing blight on our landscape and national soul?

Everyone accepts that the situation for residents in the Alice Springs town camps or for children in remote Aboriginal communities is a national disgrace. Given real life choices, no one would choose to live as they do.

Everyone knows that these situations will not be changed except with full cooperation by all levels of government and with Aboriginal participation in the decisions which determine the priority of rights and obligations.

The sexual abuse of children in remote communities without any prospect of adult supervision or intervention has been the catalyst for revising the romantic notion of land rights and self-determination that resulted in children having no real prospects in life, regardless of their cultural heritage to land.

The failure of ATSIC has tempered the appetite of many indigenous people for a national representative body which could be more attracted to symbolism and the blame game rather than partnership with governments, doing the hard work to close the gaps. But rightly, they still want a place at the table when their lives are being subject to government intervention foreign to other citizens.

The summiteers came away with two insights confirmed. Disadvantage gaps will not be bridged unless the people on the wrong side of the gaps and their leaders believe in the programs and own the compromises on rights and dignity. Further, even were the gap to disappear, all Australians would be enhanced in their identity were they to acknowledge the uniqueness of our indigenous citizens, most of whom, like Sana Nakata, incarnate the national history of indigenous Australia and migrant Australia meeting and living in harmony.

Reflections on the 2020 Summit (

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan participated in the 'Options for the Future of Indigenous Australia' stream of the 2020 Summit. He writes from Darwin where he has been reviewing the Northern Territory Intervention.

Flickr image by kabl1992



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Existing comments

One of the clarion calls in the lead up to the federal election was that of the would-be Prime Minister Kevn07 Rudd who declared that his election would mean the end to the "blame-game".

Sadly, as if the new governmment hasn't yet quite grasped the reality that it is indeed in government now, the blame game goes on.

That same thread spoilt Frank Brennan's latest piece. He talks of leaving things in the past but can't resist the dig "Whatever the blemishes in Brendan Nelson's February apology speech..."

Frank would do well to reflect on the disgraceful gesture of Mr Rudd's own media advisors on that historic day, when they were caught turning their backs on Mr Nelson on that vital occasion.

Time indeed to move well beyond the dreaming and the imagining and into some practical realities that aren't politically skewed.
Brian Haill | 30 April 2008

It is a pity that Fr Chris Riley's agenda did not occupy the time that Frank Brennan's did at the 2020 Summit. Something tells me that we would have less social dislocation in 2020 if he did.
Brent Egan | 30 April 2008

Brian Haill writes of "the disgraceful gesture of Mr Rudd's media advisers".
By his willing participation in Mr Howard's Cabinet, during Halliburton's taxpayer-funded annexation of Iraqi oil assets, the maintenance of business as usual at Abu Ghraib, complicity in the perversions of justice known as Guantanamo Bay Camps Delta and X-ray (particularly attempting to extract political advantage out of the victimisation of Messrs Hicks and Habib), the enthusiasm with which Scott Rush was put on Death Row, the reluctance to invest in Australian health, education, indigenous needs, and Mr Haill reckons that turning one's back is disgraceful?
David Arthur | 30 April 2008

Where there are no dreams the people perish.

The rhetoric that we cannot do more than one thing at a time - acknowledge the power of symbols and show respect for the first Australians while moving to engage thoughtfully and effectively in shaping policy to tackle the shameful conditions unfortunately still seems to be dominating the media discussion.
Doug | 01 May 2008

My bold idea is inspired by my buddy Nungala who reminds me that "It happens quicker when we acknowledge the Dreaming".

220 + years of the machinations of humans who seek to subjugate and dominate other humans is a paltry whisp of time compared to the hundreds of thousands of years of Dreamtime authority that is the true Law of this country.

Perhaps if we drew on the original practices that maintained personal, communal and ecological health and wellbeing and painted together, sang together, told our stories together and invited the Ancestors to guide us through this next stage of our collective maturity as a nation, things will happen a whole lot quicker.

Maybe if meetings ceased to be a place where we lined up in chairs with backs to one another and we return to talking Circles and embraced the lessons of the Elders we might see many of the ego-oriented blocks dissipate and create a space where spiritual, political and emotional maturity can truly flourish.
Carol Omer | 06 May 2008

Fr Frank's insights and energy continue to shine a bright light on indigenous disadvantage in Australia. His reflections on 2020, in his usual manner, give hope that we can all work with our black brothers and sisters so that their future is better than their past.
Tony Koch | 13 May 2008

There is an interesting follow up to this article - click here.
Frank Brennan | 14 May 2008


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