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Issue # 1425      26 August 2009

Editorial

Rekindling reconciliation

A special rapporteur from the United Nations has arrived in Australia to examine the human rights of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Professor James Anaya will also look into the legality of the Northern Territory intervention and the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act that enabled it. So far, he has been at his diplomatic best when discussing the matters. He noted the letter he has received signed by several thousand people complaining at the flawed intervention and the lack of consultation surrounding it. When asked whether the measures were discriminatory he said, “On the face of it, yes. But I’m not expressing a conclusion on whether or not that’s justified at this time.”

Professor Anaya will take two weeks gathering evidence. It is very unlikely he will hand down a glowing report. The facts are already in. Howard’s legacy of “practical reconciliation”, which involved troops rushing onto the Aboriginal peoples’ land presumably to straighten out services and build the necessary infrastructure, has been a spectacular fizzer, if that were ever its motivation. Housing in remote Aboriginal communities is still a national disgrace. A confidential government memo recently revealed that up until 15 months ago, the $673 million allocated for the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program had not produced a single new house for struggling Aboriginal communities. Not one!

While the army moved into remote communities, a propaganda war was stepped up in the media. As Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson commented in an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, the occasional efforts to improve the conditions of Aboriginal people and the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians over recent decades were derided as soft-headed, small “l” liberalism.

“Community dysfunction is now understood as the fault of the colonised people and their persistent cultural practises, rather than the result of violent dispossession, brutal colonisation and authoritarian state intervention,” Dodson wrote. The “persistent cultural practises” referred to undoubtedly include the desire of Aboriginal communities to remain on their traditional lands. These same remote sites are now being eyed off for resource exploitation. The uranium mining industry has recently been given the green light to massively increase its activities.

Stable, functioning remote Aboriginal communities are the last thing the mining transnationals want. That is a pointer to the lack of action on new housing. The lobbying of governments by these corporate interests, their spying and other meddling in the affairs of Aboriginal communities, have undoubtedly contributed to the worsening prospects for reconciliation in Australia. In countries like Colombia, the dispossession of rural communities living on land now sought by developers is carried out through acts of barbarity by the armed forces and paramilitaries. In Australia at this time dispossession is being achieved through neglect and other less blatant methods.

While PM Kevin Rudd finally delivered an apology to the stolen generations on behalf of the Commonwealth in February last year, the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has not improved. Aboriginal deaths in custody still weigh on the national conscience. Indigenous Australians still do not have a recognised voice in the form of a national representative body since Howard abolished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2005. As Dodson observes, there is a paralysis about the next step towards reconciliation.

Patrick Dodson is now the director of the new Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Research Unit at the University of NSW. This is a positive development and is being supported by other progressive figures from the political and cultural arena. The unit has given itself the task of sparking a meaningful, nation-building dialogue, to discover what “Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have in common that we can build on in developing a new framework for dialogue ...”

Something that we have in common – something that is suppressed in the same ideological onslaught directed against the land rights of Aboriginal people – is that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are exploited by the same interests. The same private interests that have been robbing all Australians of their publicly owned assets in recent times, the same ones that have had clamps put on civil rights including the right to organise in trade unions, the same ones locking us into a military build up in the region are the same ones wanting to scuttle reconciliation and land rights – the recognition of Indigenous Australians as the original owners and inhabitants of this land.

A dialogue around how together we can control and then finally be free of this malign influence would be a good point to start. 

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