Recent news that Patrick Dodson had become a senator for Western Australia was met with widespread enthusiasm.
For those of us watching, working and waiting for “reconciliation” between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other Australians, the imminent elevation of this highly regarded Aboriginal statesman to the legislature seemed appropriate and inspired.
But it’s just one step. And we need to ask why it’s taken so long to achieve even this most basic indicator of genuine reconciliation – in terms of recognition of Australia’s Indigenous history, culture, identity and, indeed, sovereignty.
In many ways, the “great Australian silence” about Indigenous history, pointed out by eminent anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner back in 1968, still endures in this country some 50 years later.
In 2008, the federal parliament’s Apology to the Stolen Generations was widely acclaimed as a significant and overdue acknowledgement of white Australia’s often damaging interaction with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
But despite the symbolic and therapeutic meaning attributed to the apology, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still removed from their families at a far higher rate than non-Indigenous children. And they’re greatly over-represented in out-of-home care.
Constitutional and legislative deficiencies in their recognition and the disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples also persist. Even the current discussions about a referendum for meaningful constitutional recognition seems to have become protracted and confounded.
Similarly, the Closing the Gap in Indigenous Disadvantage strategy – “a long-term, ambitious framework that builds on the foundation of respect and unity provided by the 2008 National Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples” – has been only partially successful.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still have a shorter life expectancy, and suffer from more adverse life stressors across their lifetime. But the mainstream health system lacks cultural sensitivity, discriminates against Indigenous people, and fails to tackle the root causes of their poor health.
The effects of more than 200 years of dispossession, racism and discrimination have left many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with low levels of education, an inability to gain meaningful employment, over-representated in the prison system, and appalling housing conditions.
Too many recommendations made for and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over decades have never been acted on. Instead, poorly designed policies made on their behalf are funded and enacted.
More weighty and bewildering government reports will not assist reconciliation, and even if they make governments feel like something is being done.
Part of their success comes from changing the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s issues are talked about and addressed – from one of deficit in which people are described as problematic to one of empowerment and strength.
A Deep Need
Reconciliation is not an outcome or a goal as much as a relationship and an ongoing journey. It’s vital for the long-term well-being of settler nations – for their identity, history, polity and nationhood.
But whatever its terms or whoever its participants, reconciliation will be no more than a series of slogans if settler Australians cannot come to a just understanding with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
It’s now 25 years since the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, now Reconciliation Australia. That’s 25 years since Australia started a national conversation about how to become reconciled, equitable and just.
There have been many achievements, disappointments and challenges since then in the process of healing the deep rift between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
But despite all the backlashes, put-downs, trivialisation and wedge politics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have come back stronger, more articulate, more practical, more resilient and surer of their capacity to contribute. And they’re also surer of what they expect from their contribution.
Reconciliation provides a legacy platform for our continued growth and prosperity as a nation. It’s time to make it happen.
Kerry Araben is the Chair of Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne and Melissa Castan is a lecturer and the deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University