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Reconciliation spirit is vital

By Greg Barns and Howard Glenn - posted Thursday, 1 June 2006

Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough's admirable commitment to improving the lot of Aboriginal Australians puts him on the side of the angels, but he doesn't need to reinvent the wheel to find solutions.

The Sydney funeral last week of Rick Farley could provide Brough with some inspiration.

Farley's death reminds us of a period 15 years ago when governments across Australia committed to a new deal for Aboriginal Australians that might, if it had been allowed to continue, have saved Brough a lot of headaches today.


What emerged in 1991, after the four-year Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, was an acknowledgement by governments and politicians from across the spectrum that improving the well-being of Aboriginal Australians required symbolic redress, as well as practical measures.

At the beginning of 1991 the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody provided a comprehensive blueprint for social and economic change to lift Aboriginal Australians out of poverty, ill health and community degradation.

And, although it seemed at times like herding cats, there was almost universal adoption of the commission's recommendations by state and territory governments.

Led by Sandy Hollway, who went on to head the 2000 Sydney Olympics organising team, and Peter Shergold, who is now head of the prime minister's department, but then head of ATSIC, and backed up by key ministerial staff, the Federal Government formulated a whole of government response and bureaucracies and governments around the nation - conservative and ALP - eventually fell into line.

Then Aboriginal Affairs minister Robert Tickner also established in 1991 the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, which brought together Indigenous community leaders like Pat Dodson and Lowitja O'Donoghue, non-Indigenous community leaders like Farley, unionist and now federal MP Jenni George, former High Court judge Sir Ronald Wilson, mining magnate Robert De Crespigny and employers advocate Ian Spicer.

The federal Labor Government failed to leap over one major hurdle: it refused to make state and territory government future funding dependent on keeping their commitments to implement the recommendations. It did, however, set up an accountability regime, with ongoing whole of government reports and with the establishment of a watchdog, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.


It led by example, committing $300 million in new funds over five years, and pushed the states and territories to do the same.

Apart from the practical measures in the royal commission's report dealing with health, education and strengthening communities, the final recommendation - No 339 - dealt with the need for a symbolic acknowledgement of past wrongs that European Australia committed towards Aboriginal people.

The reconciliation process, launched by the Keating Government with the support of the then Liberal-National Opposition, would have provided that symbolic recognition allowing Aboriginal people to move on, or denying them a continuing excuse whatever way you want to look at it.

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First published in The Canberra Times on May 29, 2006.

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About the Authors

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Greg Barns
All articles by Howard Glenn

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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