An ANTaR Opinion about "Sorry" Reconciliation and the Public Debate

How to Cite

Kwok, J. T. (2001). An ANTaR Opinion about "Sorry" Reconciliation and the Public Debate. M/C Journal, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1896
Vol. 4 No. 1 (2001): Sorry
Published 2001-02-01
Articles

To my mind the word ‘sorry’ is important as a national symbol – a symbol that addresses the dispossession and cultural damage caused to the Stolen Generation by past governments. This apology is important on a number of levels – because it is a recognition of past wrongs, a recognition that our present society is a beneficiary of these wrongs and a recognition that those wrongs have tangible and extensive effect on Indigenous people today. When it is provided by individuals, I don’t believe it should be confused with an admission of personal responsibility. It more closely resembles an expression of sympathy or empathy.

I think the symbolism of a national apology is an important tool in influencing the national consciousness and preserving the moral integrity of this nation. In saying this, however, the significance of a national apology only extends this far. Such a symbol is an initial step. An apology is the starting point from which real change can occur.

I believe in comprehensive social change, and this position is reflected in the organisation to which I belong – Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR). ANTaR began in 1997 as a response to John Howard’s Ten Point Plan and at the request of the National Indigenous Working Group (NIWG) for a non-Indigenous support group. The National ANTaR body consults a number of prominent Indigenous leaders, including such inspirational individuals as Pat Dodson and the elected ATSIC Chair Geoff Clarke.

The Ten Point Plan was the Liberal Government’s response to new native title developments brought by the High Court’s Wik decision in 1996. In our initial project we gathered 100,000 signatures protesting the existence of the Ten Point Plan and its ramifications upon the concept of native title. It became Australia’s largest public art installation – the Sea of Hands. In the Sea of Hands each of those original signatures was attached to a plastic hand and displayed en masse in public parks and venues. The Sea of Hands has toured Australia and made appearances in most major cities and in places such as Alice Springs, the Gold Coast and Cherbourg.

We aspire to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities together. We believe this can only be done where there is an environment of communication and respect. Our definition of reconciliation lies beyond symbolic rhetoric. We wish not only for a substantive change in the opinions of mainstream society but for the effects of this to impact upon the daily lives of Indigenous people. This includes not only the improvement of health, education and social welfare but also involves cementing in Australian law the human rights and legal rights to which Indigenous peoples have a legitimate right.

I support a national apology and the reconciliation campaign on the basis that it is a first step towards changing mainstream society and providing the dignity and respect Indigenous peoples deserve. I support practical reconciliation on the basis that adequate living standards are something that all Australians should expect. I support land rights, the concept of a treaty and the concept of Aboriginal sovereignty because these are just legal rights and because they are reinforced by international and British colonial law.

What I fear most in the ongoing public debate is that these issues, which have overriding importance to the future of Indigenous people and thus to the posterity and reputation of our nation, are being slowly acquired by parties who may not really have these interests at heart. One example is the concept of ‘practical reconciliation’ as espoused by current Prime Minister John Howard. It was inevitable that as the national reconciliation movement gained pace we would see the politicisation of the concept.

John Howard’s position in the last few years has been to emphasise the importance of social welfare in the scope of the reconciliation debate. He has coined his approach as ‘practical reconciliation’. In an interview with Fran Kelly he said:

"It is what I call practical reconciliation. The real problem of the indigenous in this community still remains that they are disadvantaged compared with the rest of us in things like education, health and job opportunities. And reconciliation to me is all about removing that disadvantage."

The insidious nature of this project however is only revealed when we look at the Federal Government’s performance in terms of the protection of Indigenous peoples’ legal rights. The legal integrity of the original Ten Point Plan was criticised by legal bodies no less prestigious than the government’s own legal counsel. Henry Burmester, Chief Counsel and the government’s second most senior legal adviser, described crucial aspects of the legislation as racially discriminatory. It also came under attack from the Brian Harradine.

The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) continued criticism of the new act on an international level. The government sent a delegation that included the current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Phillip Ruddock, to the March 2000 meeting in Geneva in an attempt to convince it to reverse its opinion. After the CERD Committee repeated its criticism that the legislation was racially discriminatory, the Government announced a whole-of-government review of Australia’s participation in the treaty bodies system – an act unprecedented by any other western nation.

The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) continued criticism of the new act on an international level. The government sent a delegation that included the current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Phillip Ruddock, to the March 2000 meeting in Geneva in an attempt to convince it to reverse its opinion. After the CERD Committee repeated its criticism that the legislation was racially discriminatory, the Government announced a whole-of-government review of Australia’s participation in the treaty bodies system – an act unprecedented by any other western nation.

The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) continued criticism of the new act on an international level. The government sent a delegation that included the current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Phillip Ruddock, to the March 2000 meeting in Geneva in an attempt to convince it to reverse its opinion. After the CERD Committee repeated its criticism that the legislation was racially discriminatory, the Government announced a whole-of-government review of Australia’s participation in the treaty bodies system – an act unprecedented by any other western nation.

While I agree that the improvement of Indigenous living standards is overwhelmingly important, it is a moral crime to seek to improve these on one hand while attacking native title and the UN on the other. I would suggest to the many ordinary Australians out there in the community who are committed to a reconciled vision of this country that they remain aware that their moral cause is also a political game and that they seek to be critical when listening to those in power.

Author Biography

Jen Tsen Kwok

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