Journey to reconciliation
by Andrew Jackson Over 250 000 people joined together and walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge last Sunday. It was the largest ever human rights demonstration this nation has seen. People from all over Australia, representing trade unions, peace groups, schools, immigrant communities, political parties and families walked for reconciliation, land rights, justice, in recognition of crimes committed in the past, and as a national apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The word "Sorry" was carried on placards, flags and t-shirts. As a plane wrote "Sorry" in the sky it was cheered as it made each pass to write the word. It so moved Ms Evelyn Scott, chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, that she claimed "I will die happy." The march on Sunday followed the handing over of the Statement of Reconciliation at a ceremony at the Opera House on Saturday. Corroboree 2000 was also the largest ever assembly of Australian leaders, from Australian Federal and State parliaments and the Aboriginal community. Several leaders, including the Governor-General Sir William Deane were granted rapturous standing ovations in recognition of their work. Sir William Deane said that "even more important than the specific milestones that I have mentioned has been the ever-increasing grass roots awareness of the importance of both national reconciliation and the battle to overcome entrenched Aboriginal disadvantage." Ms Scott hoped "that this will be a day that future generations will look back upon as one of the landmark steps on the long road towards genuine reconciliation ... The First Fleet arrived on these shores in 1788 with the instruction to `take possession of the continent with the consent of the Natives'. Consent was not sought and never given." During his speech to the Corroboree, ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clarke renewed calls for a treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. He said, "No constitutional or other document records our consent to the terms of our relationship with non-Indigenous Australians. There has been no treaties, no formal settlements, no compacts. There now needs to be." The idea of a treaty was first raised in 1988 during the Prime Ministership of Bob Hawke, but was side-lined by Prime Minister Keating who, instead of proceeding to negotiate a treaty, established the Council for Reconciliation. Now with the Council drawing to a close, Geoff Clarke said that a treaty would be the "central objective of the Reconciliation Foundation", the body being set up to replace it. As the Corroboree took place in the Concert Hall, over one thousand people gathered to witness the event on a large screen erected in the Opera House forecourt. Hundreds of home-made placards saying "End the Genocide", "Reconciliation and Justice" and "Let's Work together on Unfinished Business" were held high. Michelle, an Aboriginal woman from Western Sydney argued that "without a treaty enshrined in the constitution this is all pointless. Governments can pass and interpret legislation as they like. They can use it to play people off against one another. We need that protection." Another man who spoke to The Guardian was an 80 year old veteran of WWII, a Russian soldier who had been taken prisoner by the Nazis at Stalingrad. He remained incredulous at John Howard's failure to act. "I witnessed the genocide of the Jewish and Slavic peoples. The Germans are (now) really ashamed of that period and are trying to do their best to repair the damage. But here, where is the leadership? John Howard, Alan Jones, Bruce Ruxton and their ilk claim to speak for the ordinary people. They don't. The ordinary people are here today to say 'sorry'". Ms Evelyn Scott closed her speech to the assembled with "Our struggle for Indigenous rights and equality is bound up inextricable with the rights of all Australians. Our freedom is your freedom. Reconciliation is not an isolated event but part of the fabric of this nation. Will you take our hand? Will you share our dream?"