2013 Reconciliation Week Blog – “On Reconciliation”

Guest Blogger – The Koori Woman

This post forms part of the Castan Centre’s 2013 Reconciliation Week guest blog series. You can also read posts by  Inala Cooper of Monash University, Shireen Morris of the Cape York Institute and Luke Pearson of AboriginalOz and Indigenous X.

It wasn’t until Kevin Rudd gave his Apology speech that I felt, for the first time, Reconciliation would be a stepping stone to the true healing of the racial divide that began in Australia in 1788 and never really ended.  Even after hard fought for basic rights such as being seen as actual humans – not flora and fauna, being counted as actual humans in the census, voting in actual elections and being allowed to apply legally for our actual land to be given back. Even after all of that, the divide between black and white in this country has been long and wide.

On that day in 2008, all previous efforts towards Reconciliation advancement since the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was formed in 1991, paled in comparison. For here, finally, was acknowledgement from the Australian Government that the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments had inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on Aboriginal communities. The Australian Government was at long last tying a loose thread, to close a horrible gaping wound on the Aboriginal psyche, that of the horror of having generations of children removed from their kin and put into care or homes,  irreparably damaging cultural connections forever.

That day, I was filled with hope for future Australia, a future of true reconciliation and not just feel good sloganeering. A united community of equality and mutual understanding and respect. I felt this crucial step, of a humble apology would open a new discourse in the Australian sociopolitical climate for the real conversation to begin, about practical ways to strengthen relationships between black and non-Indigenous Australia in ways that enriched and enmeshed both societies, and to finally start to bridge the divide that has plagued us for centuries.

But that didn’t happen. Rudd gave his apology speech on February 13, 2008. I waited, along with other Aboriginal Australians for Rudd to rescind the Northern Territory Intervention and reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act. This would be another final hurdle for Reconciliation, surely the Government would act on this throwback to the very dangerous policies that they had just apologised for!

On May 30, 2009 Kevin Rudd announced that he was resolute in keeping the Intervention in place, although the Racial Discrimination Act would be put back into effect. It was, but with major changes that rendered the Act that covers every other state in Australia virtually meaningless, much to the chagrin of myself and not only many Aboriginal people, but a growing number of non-Indigenous Australians as well. Rudd made no move to consult with the Aboriginal Communities in the Northern Territory, even though it was becoming very apparent that the Intervention was not only failing, Aboriginal people were even worse off under the oppressive conditions that the Intervention was supposed to be addressing.

Now the Intervention has been extended into Queensland and New South Wales under the Stronger Futures Act. It is a program that will run for 10 years. It is 10 more years of Government paternalism and will further divide Aboriginal people and other Australians. It is setting Aboriginal people apart from non-Indigenous Australians by virtue of its goals that are inherently racist through the targeting of Aboriginals, through framing its intent directly at problems that affect mostly Aboriginal people and communities. There will be a few non-Indigenous Australians that get caught in its rather insidious intent, but they will be Australians that are trying to make a living below the poverty line, as a vast number of Aboriginal people try to do.

The social norms of an apology are such that when one apologises for something, it is after they have stopped doing what they are apologising for. The person or people being apologised to then either accept the apology and forgiveness follows, or reject it because the wounds are too great, the apology is not enough on its own, or because they do not believe that the apology is sincere or that it reflects understanding, sorrow, and a change in behaviour. It has been 5 years since Kevin Rudd’s historical speech to parliament, and in that 5 years, the suicide rate of Aboriginal youths in Australia has risen to alarming levels, Aboriginal incarceration rates are up in every state, most glaringly the Northern Territory, and across Australia an astonishing 48% of juveniles in detention are Aboriginal. I am 14 times more likely to be imprisoned than a white woman on the exact same charge with the exact same criminal history, the mind boggles.

When I think about that apology today, the answer is a resounding no. No, I don’t forgive the Government, how can I? How can I forgive a Government that still gaols our kids? How can I forgive a Government that still doesn’t consult with the communities whose lives it seeks to control? How can I forgive a Government that allows our youth to die at such alarming rates? How can I forgive a Government that is still not making any tangible attempts to deal with the comfortable racism that permeates its society? How can I forgive a Government that would send me to prison simply because of the colour of my skin? How can I forgive a Government that apologises, then sets about making the lives of my people so grindingly oppressive that nearly 1 in 3 of us experiences psychological distress, that’s twice the rate of the rest of Australia?

Australia seems to be stuck in a perpetual loop of 1 step forward, 10 steps back when it comes to engaging meaningfully with its Aboriginal population. I yearn for an Australia that places everyone on an equal footing, regardless of colour and I fear for my children growing up in the Australia of today, a country that places little to no pride in its Indigenous race. Instead it places detrimental policies on our lives without regard for our dignity and individuality, creating a toxic despair that is breaking our collective heart.

The current path that the Government is forging does not bode well for any meaningful Reconciliation advancement to be made any time soon. Judging by the amount of money it’s spending on its advertising to create a rosy picture of progress, and funding to form pro-Indigenous groups that are essentially duplicating each others goals, the Government is well aware of its shortcomings, but is so intent on staying on its path that it will definitely fool some people, but it definitely won’t fool the people that are truly waiting for sincere amends to be made, so genuine forgiveness can be given.

There are genuine steps happening in areas around the country. One of those is in health, where current programs are shining beacons of hope for the well being of my people. Very positive advancements have been made since the introduction of the Close the Gap Initiative, an initiative that relied/relies heavily on full community engagement in most aspects of its service delivery. The mere existence of this program is proof that the Government hasn’t entirely lost its way on the path to Reconciliation.

And while my belief of a truthfully unified Australia has taken a beating, is bruised and battered, I still haven’t given up on the future of Reconciliation. Of an authentic togetherness where we all walk with our heads held high, no wrongs not atoned for and a mutual respect that my children’s’ children will never personally know the feeling of not having, except through stories.

The Koori Woman is a Gomeroi woman. You can follow her on Twitter at @TheKooriWoman

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