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The inherent flaw in the concept of 'practical reconciliation'

By John Tomlinson - posted Tuesday, 9 March 2004


The Howard government says Indigenous Australians will be assisted by what it terms, “practical reconciliation”, rather than by pursuing what Co-chairman of Reconciliation Australia Fred Chaney calls “the symbolic aspects” of the Indigenous struggle. The Government claims that it is a pragmatic government and demands that Indigenous Australians put to one side the déclassé concept of a rights-oriented reconciliation process. Any discussion of a treaty is totally verboten.

With the exception of the many “bridge marches” that followed Corroboree 2000 Australia’s reconciliation process has been in retreat since December 1993 when Paul Keating delivered his “Redfern Speech”. So few are the tangible advances nowadays, that Chaney claims it is significant that Prime Minister Howard had acknowledged the traditional owners at a recent function in Kalgoorlie. Quoted in an article by Jobson in The Age, February 9, 2004, Chaney claimed that this “acknowledgement” demonstrated that John Howard recognised “you cannot divide off the symbolic from the practical aspects of reconciliation”.

It is worth recalling what former Prime Minister Keating said at Redfern:

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The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins, I think, with the 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 disasters. 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?

The Keating government implemented the 1994 Native Title Act and attempted to give momentum to the Reconciliation process. Then came the Pauline “please explain” Hanson phenomenon. In the wake of the backlash the Howard government moved to deliver, in the words of the then Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, “bucket loads of extinguishment” of Indigenous land ownership. The 1998 Ten Point Plan revision of the Native Title Act did just that. Around this time, the Howard government committed itself to “practical reconciliation” as away to limit the Indigenous rights agenda.

Practical reconciliation was initially defined in terms of practical assistance to improve health, housing, education and employment opportunities. At various times “practical reconciliation” has been promoted as a way to decrease Indigenous truancy, alcoholism, family violence and the number of people in prison. In his Kalgoorlie speech John Howard said:

All the theories in the world will not replace the value of employment; will not replace the value of sustainable economic opportunities; and will not replace the value of the embracement of the Indigenous people as part of our economic future. And that is why my government has placed such a great emphasis on what I call practical reconciliation, on giving all of the people of this country, irrespective of their background or their heritage, economic opportunity. And the greatest measure of that, of course, is to give people employment.

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Few One Nation politicians could state it as eloquently.

The practical outcomes flowing from “practical reconciliation”.

As a panacea for all the ills that have befallen Indigenous communities “practical reconciliation” has patently failed.

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Article edited by Susan Prior.
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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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