ON LINE  opinion  - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Reconciliation to a European Dreaming?

By Graham Young
Posted Friday, 15 September 2000

Aboriginal and European reconciliation is as far away as it ever was because neither side is really talking to the other.

On Friday, the Port Phillip Citizens for Reconciliation ran a "Bringing Them Home" Function in the St Kilda Town Hall as part of NAIDOC week. The St Kilda Town Hall is a massive pile, bespeaking gold field riches on the outside, but an Arthurian Chapel Perilous on the inside.

It is clean, but slightly decrepit with high up arches where a parliament of owls might be expected to stare down, except, sensibly in Melbourne, the arches have been filled with glass to stop the wind gusts. And the glass is etched with phrases, none of which immediately carried any unifying sense, but a heavy burden of care.

When we entered the building late, we were first confronted by a local Cerberus, barking at us that we should make a donation, with the clear implication that if it were not freely given, then it would be exacted.

An a capella choir - Just Add Water - was in full flight. Not really aboriginal in cadence, but a kissing cousin to the sort of African music that Lady Smith Black Mombasa sings. This was music as ideology, hypnotic, but not particularly informative, devoid of invention after the initial phrase, and repeating itself endlessly like some Buddhist chant designed to render the self into unbeing.

At one point a didgeridoo wielded by Tom E Lewis was added, but the African vernacular was still there, as though Gondwana land was still glued together at the bottom of the globe with the Kimberleys and the South African veldt cheek by jowl.

The high point of the evening was an address by Sir Ronald Wilson, "former President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission with primary responsibility for the national enquiry into the separation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander children from their families." His speech was to be augmented by a video.

I had come to this meeting because I was on a promise that if I did I could meet Sir Ronald. As it is not often that one has the opportunity to meet someone famous and good, I was there with a mutual friend. Ronald Wilson is an impish looking man who used to be moderator of the Uniting Church in Western Australia, and who is distinguished by a flap of hair that sits up at the back, a little like Dennis the Menace, giving the impression that a catch has come undone and a whole lot of good ideas might start tumbling from the back of his head if he were to give it a good shake.

He was also in the "Conservative" minority on the High Court on the Mabo judgement, and, even if he were not then, is now an unabashed advocate for Aboriginal Reconciliation. When he spoke, it was not like a High Court judge, but like a Protestant Minister, so that the modest well-worn suit in which he was dressed seemed to be shot through with preaching bands. I do not recall exactly what he said, but it was full of passion and decency.

The video was of another piece altogether. Designed as propaganda it is rescued by the strength of some of its subjects who have been put in positions that they never should have been. Inquiries draw their strength from a perception of impartiality. They are a way of having conclusions accepted that could never survive the adversarial debate of our democratic institutions. The last thing that the video is, is impartial.

During the function I looked around the room. There was a surprising number of single young women, Major Barbara types, with earnest faces. Just in front of us, and to the left, was an older man who nodded or shook his head on cue. There were aboriginal Australians and couples and a Wild Bill Hicock look-alike. I imagine that they were from the Trade Union Movement and the Labor Party Branches, Socialist Workers , Friends of the Earth, Democratic Socialists and Socialist Alternative.

Reconciliation is the sacrament of the political left in Australia, and most of us are not communicating members. Herein lies the problem.

I have been saved - a couple of times. Once most memorably by Billy Graham, when I was a 12-year-old. But the conversions always wore off, because no conversion can last when assent is wrung from the emotions despite the mind. If someone at this "function" had said "If you want to give your life for reconciliation come forward," I would have had an urge to go.

That is how crowd psychology works, and once away from the event the urge soon wears off. At the back of my mind as well would have been the knowledge that had I expressed any sentiment of apostasy the crowd might have turned maenad and torn me limb from limb.

Back here on our front verandah in Queensland things look different. My Methodist Deaconess mother, more or less the same age as Sir Ronald Wilson, and a staunch opponent of Pauline Hanson, says that she doesnít like what he is doing. He should admit that the only reason children were taken from their families was because the families didnít want them, and that if there were wrong done, then his church was there with the best of them.

I challenge her, because I have seen proof that contradicts her on many points. She will hear none of it. When she was a girl in Cairns, they had been visited by missionaries who told them of their work with Aboriginal children. There had even been collections in the Sunday School to help this work.

I cannot win the argument because the tone of the Stolen Children Commissionís advocacy makes me suspect some of its conclusions; and because my mother and my father find the accusation of wrongdoing an affront to their sense of themselves as moral beings.

In some ways they are right. What was done to Aboriginal Children wasnít done with the same intent as the Race Laws were enacted in South Africa. The public motive was one of care - discrimination on the basis of improving the lot of an "impoverished" race. Most people didnít think wrong was being done.

Now they feel that someone is trying to take advantage of them. By rewriting history they fear that an ambit claim is being made, and that they will be asked to pay up. This is not reconciliation, but more in the way of commercial bargaining.

This is the nub of the problem. The matter has become the stuff of faith and belief, and therefore not susceptible to logical proof. On both sides, you either believe, or you are damned.

On top of that there is no possibility of reconciliation. When we talk of Aboriginal reconciliation, we are not using it in the financial sense where you reconcile a cheque book with your bank statement, but in a religious sense where we become reconciled to God. That reconciliation is not the act of ticking off entries and making it add up on both sides of the ledger. That reconciliation is the act of forgiveness, freely asked and given. There are no lines drawn in the sand. No demands for more, but an acceptance of things as they are, and a determination to go forward into the future, leaving the past behind.

In Australia today we are all schismatics, those of us who are not agnostic or atheistic on the issue. What is needed is not more displays of sect loyalty, but a creed and a sacrament that we can all join in. We need to encompass the past, but not in a way that alienates the future. This is harder for Aboriginal Australians, perhaps, than the rest of us. They have lost a continent, and they will never get it back.

But they will enjoy even less of it if they and their close friends fail to realise that older Australians have their own land to lose in this whole process. That things were done that were wrong, but that people like my parents did not know that at the time, and will not acknowledge it now if there is any suggestion of lack of good will on their part.

We are talking about a European Dreaming. Of a time still remembered by older Australians just before Australia lost her innocence in World War II. Years of Federation and Nation Building. Not years without blemish, but things are never as they seem. We need to believe that they are, or we would all go mad. We have some way to go before reconciliation is possible, because we need to develop a shared dreaming. European and Aboriginal Australians need some project that will unite them so that there can be a creed to which we can all assent.

It is really too early to talk about reconciliation. At this stage we are still negotiating a peace settlement. Until that is behind us, demands for reconciliation will merely be a rallying cry for one side of the argument against the other.

This article was written in mid-1998. It is presented here in that context and as a retrospective.

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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