Does the trouble in Redfern spell the end of reconciliation, as some commentators have suggested this week? Does it show that our experiences and attitudes are so polarised that we can never bring together our experience as fellow Australians?
It is hardly surprising that Sunday night’s riots in Redfern attracted a lot of publicity, some of it helpful, much of it uninformed and inflammatory. This tragic situation, and our reaction to it, does show what we’re up against but to use the crisis to give up on reconciliation is irrational and dangerous.
We must respond to the Redfern riot by showing that we have learned something in the 30 years of the Redfern “experiment”. Firstly, we’ve learned how important it is for policy-makers to admit when we’ve got it wrong.
We must be prepared to honestly analyse successes and failures in past policy to chart a better way forward.
I have a photo of myself as a new, inexperienced Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the early 1970s being conducted through Redfern as the project was getting off the ground.
We all look pretty pleased with ourselves, happy to bask in the potential of a plan for building self esteem, competence and a better future for Indigenous Australians. We believed that Redfern would reduce, or perhaps even fix, Aboriginal disadvantage and facilitate more successful integration into what too often had been a hostile white society.
The warning signs about Redfern were already apparent in the early 1980s. What had seemed a good idea at the time was not producing the kind of outcomes we’d anticipated.
All of us, white and black, who were involved over that period should feel a sense of personal responsibility for not asking some of the hard questions or being sufficiently critical of our own well-meaning efforts, and those of successive governments.
Parallels can be made with the flawed thinking that saw the removal of generations of Indigenous children from their families and communities. In retrospect, I don’t think we can be any more comfortable about our own period of policy-making than we were about earlier leaders who’d promoted assimilation. We just made different mistakes.
So, is Indigenous Affairs in better shape in 2004? Are policies of today any more likely to achieve results, for Indigenous Australians and the nation as a whole?
The enduring disadvantage which limits reconciliation was highlighted in last year’s report from the Productivity Commission, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage. Against the background of high birth rates and a dramatic increase in the proportion of young Indigenous people, it is widely acknowledged that if we don’t turn the situation around, the entire nation will suffer.
These days we benefit from the interventions of policy whistle blowers like Noel Pearson. His clarion call from the Cape for recognition of rights, but also for integration into the real economy, represents a frank assessment of what’s wrong and a direction for alternative policy.
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