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Overseas experience tells us that Reconciliation must be more than practical

By James Ensor - posted Monday, 15 January 2001

Last year almost a million Australians walked for reconciliation in towns and cities across the country. With the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation recently handing its blueprint for the future of reconciliation to the Australian government, the most challenging part of the journey still lies ahead.

The Council's core message to the government is that so-called "practical reconciliation" – health, housing and education – is nowhere near sufficient. Practical reconciliation is a euphemism for simply providing those basic services to which every Australian citizen is equally entitled. Instead, the Council asks the government to commit to the more difficult, unfinished business of reconciliation. Constitutional reform. Indigenous rights. An apology. A treaty.

The Council's vision presents a major opportunity for the Australian government: to take a completely different road to the one it is now travelling.


How should they begin this journey? Learning from international experience would be a good start.

As an international aid organisation working with Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world, Oxfam Community Aid Abroad has learned that there are many parallels in their experiences. In many countries, Indigenous communities are the most marginalised of the poor. They usually have the least political power and – because of their prior ownership of land – inevitably find themselves in conflict with commercial interests wanting to exploit their natural resources. Around the world – in Indonesia, India, Guatemala or Malaysia – Indigenous peoples suffer because their law, their culture, their land rights and human rights are sacrificed to the economic interests of the dominant, non-Indigenous culture.

Australia is not unique in facing these issues. Yet on the world stage we are increasingly visible because of our reluctance to tackle them seriously. A recent investigation by the Oxfam International network, a network of eleven aid agencies of which Oxfam Community Aid Abroad is the Australian member, found that in some respects Indigenous Australian rights lag behind those of Indigenous peoples in similar industrialised countries, and in a number of developing countries.

Unlike India, Australia has no provision for limited Indigenous self-government. Unlike Guatemala, our constitution does not guarantee Indigenous rights. Unlike Bangaldesh and Malaysia, our constitution allows negative discrimination, rather than providing for positive discrimination for Indigenous peoples.

Unlike Canada, the United States and New Zealand, Australia has never had any treaties, formal settlements or compacts with the Indigenous peoples that might record Indigenous rights and the terms upon which Indigenous and non-Indigenous people will live together. Far from being divisive - as our government claims it would be - treaty- making processes in these countries have delivered unity, certainty and practical benefits for First Nation peoples.

Also unlike Canada, the United States and New Zealand, Australia now routinely finds itself the subject of international criticism – including UN condemnation – of our handling of Indigenous issues. Criticism that our land rights laws breach the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Criticism that our mandatory sentencing laws may breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


The message is clear. We are not alone on this journey. There is a vast store of successful international experience to draw upon, if as a nation we choose to rise to the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's challenge.

We are now at the crossroads. After ten difficult years during which reconciliation became a people's movement, an integral part of the Australian consciousness, the Council for Reconciliation has shown us the road we must take. And as nearly a million people showed last year, more Australians than ever before – Indigenous and non- Indigenous – are willing to take the journey. What a tragedy it will be if the Australian government continues to block the road ahead.

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About the Author

James Ensor is Director of Public Policy at Oxfam Australia.

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Oxfam Community Aid Abroad
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