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Hands, Tatum --- "Opinion" [2000] AltLawJl 22; (2000) 25(2) Alternative Law Journal 52

Choosing change

Change, it seems, is an appropriate tum of century theme. Indeed, it appears that our annual 'new year' resolutory changes build up to a point of explosion at the end of a century. Whereas we may be satisfied with relatively small changes in our annual resolutions, the hearkening of a new century inevitably causes some unnerving desire to seek change of a more fundamental order.

Generally, it can be said, calls for change begin to appear about 15 years prior to the end of a century. By ten years these calls build into a cacophonous chorus clamouring for urgent consideration. This insistence upon the urgency of the change in question is possibly the most inexplicable aspect of the phenomenon. It is almost as if the end of a century creates an imperative for fundamental change which, if not largely achieved by the tum of the century, will wither and perish, never to be heard of again.

The past two centuries stand testament to this centennial trend. In Australia, our 'change of choice' is fundamental governmental change. The 19th-20th century change involved the move towards nationhood. Calls for serious change in the relationships between the colonies began about 15 years before the end of the century. By 1890 the ad­ vocates for change had joined ranks and Melbourne hosted the Australasian Federal Conference with the purpose of discussing the cause of federation. A series of constitutional conventions followed and the rest, as they say, is history.

In marked contrast to the success of the centennial pro­ gram of the 1890s which saw the formation of a nation of federated States under a new constitution, that of the 1990s can claim only failure. In citing such failure, I am not refer­ ring to the cause of the republic. Nor am I referring to the failure of the process of constitutional change in this country -a subject capably addressed by two of the articles in this issue. Instead I refer to the failure of the cause of reconciliation. Reconciliation was essentially a centennial program. Again, the calls for a true and final reconciliation between white and black Australia began in earnest about 15 years before the end of the century. By 1991 we had a national Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation charged with the task of addressing the wrongs of the past and bringing Australians together as a united people. It seems, however, that the passing of the last century has taken the wind out of the sails of this important cause. Even before we have reached the formal date for reconciliation[1] those in political control of this country have foreshadowed its failure.

So what is it with the sentimental notion of the end of the century that drives change? And is it only change underwritten by pragmatism that ultimately succeeds? Certainly that was the case with our successful bid for federation. The need for a unified defence force and freedom of trade between the colonies was what began and ultimately drove this cause. Perhaps too, that is why the recent bid for a republic failed. There was certainly no overwhelming need that dictated such a change. The republican cause was largely one of sentimentality rather than practicality.

But can we attribute the apparent failure of reconciliation to mere notions of impractical sentimentality? Is it that we, as a nation, have failed to appreciate the fundamental nature of such a change? It is unfortunate in the extreme that our political leaders chose to ride the tide of centennial change on an issue of sentimentality. Whilst the republican cause could have waited, clearly the cause of reconciliation could not. Perhaps it is true that only one issue can occupy the minds of the broader public at any one time. If this is the case then it is a grave lesson for our political leaders and even graver for the indigenous peoples of this country. For although it may not perish, if the imperative of reconciliation is not soon achieved it may well wither.

Tatum Hands

Tatum Hands is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Australia.

[1] The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 (Cth) has a 'sunset clause' setting an automatic finishing date of I January 2001.

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