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The road to reconciliation: we're in the fog but we're making progress

By Fred Chaney - posted Monday, 8 March 2004

A new vision of landscape and people is part of a difficult journey we are undertaking in Australia. We are journeying from a past misunderstanding and hostility to a present where we are more understanding of each other and on to a future where we are, however imperfectly, reconciled. The reconciliation is between the settlers and their view of land and landscape and the often dispossessed Aboriginals with their view of land and landscape.

Inga Clendinnen chose a quotation from Milan Kundera to help explain her account of the first steps of that journey after the arrival of Governor Phillip. Drawing from the journals of the time she recounts the early efforts to understand and co-operate with the local people and the general failure of those efforts with an aftermath disastrous for Aboriginals. At the front of the book we are told:

“Man proceeds in a fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog.”


I acknowledge the fog in which we worked in the past and that in which we work in the present.

Progress is slow, it is painful, with backsliding and disappointments along the way but we are progressing towards reconciliation of two ways of looking at the world, of enriching our shared sense of what is Australia.

The conflict, what needs to be reconciled, is all about two views of the physical world.

One view, the dominant view, is rational, scientific, utilitarian. Yes, even among us there are creationists who see it all as the product of six days work by the Creator. But they too are utilitarian, seeing mankind’s role in the terms of Genesis as an obligation to subdue the Earth and to have dominion over fish, fowl and every living thing on the Earth. In that sense they are a seamless part of the dominant Western view.

The other view, the Aboriginal view, the “Australian” view if you adopt Inga Clendinnen’s parlance in Dancing with Strangers is totally different. Like the creationists, the world for them has not just happened. Every feature of it is the product of the activities of their ancestral spirit beings. Like the creationists, their creators were there before creation and remain there today. But unlike the creationists they do not believe they are there to subdue the Earth and have dominion over fish, fowl and every living thing, instead they are there to work with their spirit ancestors to renew, replenish and make abundant the Earth.

It is this continuing engagement with those ancestors which underlies their law, ceremonies, and sustenance. Past and present are fused.


Land and landscape are not there to be altered for their purposes apart from the cleansing by fire to “tidy it up”. This is where the two world views are in permanent conflict. The developers against the preservationists.

That is what this particular journey is about. The journey from no accommodation of the Australian or Aboriginal view to at least some accommodation between those two ways of looking at land and landscape. In that respect, the two cultures didn’t share Australia. Until the land rights movement the dominant culture demanded all the say in what should happen, how and when. The past 30 years have been about moving to a shared position which reconciles the irreconcilable in the only way possible, by negotiation and agreement between the parties.

The notion of one Australia is beguiling, not just to Pauline Hanson but to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike. This was the conceptual underpinning and political language of the campaign for voting rights for Aboriginals in the early 1960s, that of the subsequent referendum campaign in the later 1960s which led to 90 per cent of Australians voting to, symbolically at least, support full citizenship for Aboriginals. That triumph of enlightenment, in a sense the triumph of post-enlightenment thinking, that endorsement of an equal humanity, coloured and influenced by the great civil rights struggle in the United States and the emergence from colonisation in Africa, was in fact a little step and uncontentious compared with what was to follow.

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About the Author

Fred Chaney is Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia and Deputy President of the National Native Title Tribunal. He was Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs between 1978 and 1980.

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