Stark contrasts on Aboriginal Rights in Pope's Alice Springs address

Pope John Paul II in Alice Springs, 1986Some people can recall their surprise, others their excitementon November 29 this year many Australians will call to mind the most fondly remembered Address given by Pope John Paul II during his 1986 visit to Australia.

People will remember the depth and decisiveness of the Address, and both Indigenous and non-Indigenous men and women who work to alleviate the disadvantage of Aboriginal people will once more be reminded of the words which, in the intervening twenty years, have been their guiding inspiration.

Let us recall the occasion. It was the much younger and stronger John Paul II’s first visit to Australia as Pope. His day began in Melbourne, then the Pope travelled to Darwin for Mass, and to Katherine for a radio address to the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Katherine School of the Air. By mid afternoon he was welcomed in Alice Springs. His meeting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people there, and the address he delivered, delighted his audience. In his Address of thirty or so enthralling minutes, he affirmed the story of Aboriginal people and their place in this "Great South Land of the Holy Spirit".

The Pope made his position clear. He demonstrated solidarity with Aboriginal people and showed a pervading sense of compassion for those who have suffered. He went on to condemn attitudes and policies which have resulted in the perpetuation of discrimination, and he expressed a sense of urgency that new and just agreements be effected.

In his Address he particularly emphasised the right of Aboriginal people to their culture and to its preservation, their pre-existing right to their land, that the effects of past racist attitudes are still found in the present, and that many of the rights of Aboriginal people as citizens are still to be achieved.

In re-reading the Address one would think that it was delivered yesterday. Not much, it seems, has changed in twenty years.

While the whole of the Pope’s Address is still highly relevant, his affirmation of Indigenous Australian’s right to land has particular pertinence in relation to reports that are surfacing about the implementation of parts of the recently amended Northern Territory Land Rights legislation. The concerns of some traditional owners regarding the voluntary 99-year lease of their land stand in stark contrast to sentiments expressed by the Pope.

For thousands of years he said you have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day. (Par.2)

You lived your life in spiritual closeness to the land and touched the sacredness of man’s relationship with God. You realised that your land was related to the source of life. (Par 4)

Let it not be said that the fair and equitable recognition of Aboriginal right to land is discrimination. To call for the acknowledgement of land rights of people who never surrendered those rights is not discrimination. (Par.10)

There continues to be reports from the Northern Territory of traditional owners who feel that they are not being given sufficient time to properly reach decisions within their communities about their land, that they do not feel fully informed regarding the implications of the leases, and that they are uncomfortable with expectations that, unless they agree to a 99-year lease of their land, their communities will not receive essential services such as additional housing, extra health, education, employment or welfare services.

It is in response to reports such as these coming out of the Northern Territory that the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and all Congregations and Provinces of the Sisters of Sisters of St Joseph have decided that, for the first time in their history, their religious orders would work together on a pressing social issue. Their religious leaders, representing three thousand Catholic nuns across Australia, have pledged their support for Indigenous people in their struggle for basic human rights.

In a joint statement released on the anniversary of the Pope’s Address in Alice Springs, Sr Katrina Brill, a Congregational Leader of the Sisters of St Joseph, and Sr Caroline Ryan, Vice-President of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia, said that Sisters from their Congregations who work in partnership with Aboriginal people in remote, regional and urban communities, at the coal face, in policy think tanks and in advocacy networks, find that despite the best efforts of many, very little has improved in the last twenty years. Aboriginal people still suffer extreme rates of disadvantage on any current socio-economic scale and their communities’ rights to self determination can still be over-ridden.

The Sisters recalled that in his Address twenty years ago, Pope John Paul recognised the connection between Aboriginal people and their land. He emphasised a right to land that the first peoples of the country have never surrendered, and he called for a fair and equitable recognition by all Australians of Aboriginal right to land.

In this light, the invitation to sign 99-year leases on land that Aboriginal people already own, the Sisters see, poses a threat to their basic rights.

They voice concerns about reports from places like Wadeye, Galiwinku and Tiwi Islands about the implementation of the legislation. Some traditional owners, the Sisters have found, who do not have access to legal documentation and for whom English may be their fourth or fifth language, feel pressured to make hasty decisions, and feel they are not fully informed of the implications of the choices they make. Reports have suggested that some even feel pressured to sign a lease in order to receive essential services for their communities.

In situations of such unequal power, the Sisters fear, there is extreme danger of coercion.

In working towards a truly reconciled Australia, the Sisters have pledged to do all they can to ensure that Aboriginal communities and their elders can freely make decisions about matters that affect their livelihood, and that they feel fully informed in the decisions they make, without any coercion to surrender basic rights to gain essential services. They are calling on all people of good will to ensure that every Australian has, by right, a standard of living commensurate with citizenship in a developed country. Their campaign is based on the belief that if one person is diminished, all are diminished.

Sister Laraine Crowe RSJ writes on behalf of the Josephite Leaders' Social Action Office. The Sisters have developed a community package based on the Pope John Paul’s Alice Springs Address. It is available for $8.00 from Josephite Leaders Social Action Office, P.O. Box 326, Curtin. ACT. 2605. 



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