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'Practical reconciliation' ignores the problems of Indigenous identity

By Patrick Dodson - posted Monday, 2 February 2004

Hopefully, at some time on the Australia Day long weekend most Australians would have reflected on what it means to be Australian. And although most non-Indigenous Australians are content with - indeed proud of - their national identity, the circumstances of Indigenous Australians allow no such easy certainty.

So what do Indigenous Australians have to reflect on? For one thing, that we remain the most marginalised and disadvantaged section of the nation. And 2004 looks like promising much the same.

Socially and economically, this has major consequences for all Australians. Where is the future for our children?


Children under 15 account for 40 per cent of the Indigenous population – an extremely young population profile compared with other Australians. Yet the majority of Indigenous children grow up in households with unemployed adults and where household incomes are low, and in communities where few adults have even part-time employment.

A wealthy First World nation enjoying unprecedented economic prosperity cannot hold its head high while continuing to ignore the plight of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged Australian children.

Problems in Aboriginal communities are not simply of Aboriginal peoples' making. They are contributed to by inept programs that cold-shoulder genuine dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and turn an introspective focus on supervising Indigenous peoples' behaviour.

Public-sector control programs debilitate our communities by keeping Aboriginal people dependent, and are in serious need of a rethink.

These programs are meant to be partnerships with Aboriginal people and are supposed to build capacity and governance in their communities. They are really about conformity and compliance with mainstream objectives, and allow little accommodation of Aboriginal cultural and social values. They do not inform non-Indigenous Australians about Indigenous peoples' protocols or induce respect for them and their unique position as the first peoples of this land that we all share and love.

These values are subordinated to the continuing thrust of assimilation in this country, which tries to make us into something that we aren't and denies Indigenous aspirations to take responsibility for decisions Affecting our lives.


This new brand of assimilation is like SARS is to the 'flu. Every Australian citizen is entitled to equal access to health and education as a fundamental human right. Trading fundamental rights off as "practical reconciliation" means genuine reconciliation in Australia is not achievable because there's no dialogue. What is equally disturbing is that Aboriginal people have increasingly avoided articulating their concerns for fear of upsetting the government.

Aboriginal affairs policy must be about rebuilding Aboriginal nations, not just about populist campaigns, worthy as they may be. Violence, abuse, exploitation, drugs and excessive alcohol lead in any society - not just in ours - to a loss of quality of life, suffering, sadness and poverty - poverty in fact and poverty in spirit, resulting in despair.

No human being in the world would willingly desire such a life, and we Aboriginal people certainly do not. These things don't just happen by chance - there are causes for them being central to people's lives.

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This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 26 2004

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About the Author

Professor Patrick Dodson is a Yawuru man from Broome in Western Australia.

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