Alternative Law Journal
edited by Michelle Grattan; Bookman Press, 2000; 318 pp; $24.95 softcover.
In the most relaxed and comfortablenot to mention offensively complacent-contribution to this collection of 40 essays, John Howard characterises reconciliation as 'a remarkable word'. How right he is. This volume exemplifies Humpty Dumpty's maxim that a word means whatever one chooses it to mean. According to these essays, reconciliation is everything from 'a political obstacle course' to 'a fragile Australian imperative', 'a buzz word', 'a powerful social movement', 'the debate we have to have', 'a social engineering apparatus', 'moral narcissism', and, I'm embarrassed to record, 'a process of facing up to the realities of our past as well as understanding the needs of the present and the priorities of the future'. Yes, Prime Minister.
Editor Michelle Grattan has purposefully anthologised both the bold and the bland, cannily sitting the smug PM alongside the strident Colin Tatz. 'One suspects', Tatz tartly observes, 'that the ambiguities [of 'reconciliation'] could be convenient for govern ments: since no one defines the term with any precision, specific programs don't have to be devised, let alone implemented'.
From a plurality of viewpoints, a liberal consensus emerges, as typified by Rick Farley. Reconciliation, he says, requires an acknowledgment of history, political leadership, public education, saying sorry, and legislating to fix 'unfinished business'. He, like many of the other contributors, is a little vague on this last point.
Melissa Castan is more hard-headed. After accurately pointing out that the changes wrought by the 1967 referendum - an episode frequently eulogised elsewhere in this volume as a great achievement - were symbolic and of little practical value, she warns against settling for aspirational resolutions unless they are given good strong legislative - and constitutional-teeth.
The sorry business is endlessly dissected. There are several earnest but ultimately rather arid philosophical, theological and even Oedipal analyses of the subtle distinction between 'guilt' and 'shame' (it is generally agreed that while the former is inappropriate, the latter is necessary). The most illuminating variation on this particular theme is from Bain Attwood, who recounts how one of his German exchange students, explained his opposition to a national apology by saying, 'It's too early. Most Australians don't know enough about their history yet.' This illustrates one of the book's limitations. All of the contributors bar one (Peter Jull, who provides a useful sketch of the reconciliation movement in his native Canada) write from an Australian perspective. The work would have been enriched by essays on how the challenge of reconciliation has been met in, say, South Africa or Germany.
There are also other absent voices whose presence would have been welcome. As a counterpoint to John Howard PM it would have been marvelous to include the other John Howard's national apology broadcast on the ABC's The Games. Similarly, Mick Dodson's impassioned address to Corroboree 2000 would have been a worthy inclusion. The fact is, however, that both of these speeches postdated publication. Grattan went to press in the lead-up to Corroboree 2000 and the Sydney Olympics. The frequent anticipatory references to these events give the book a slightly out-of-date feel, and in retrospect the editor may have been better advised to have delayed publication to allow reflection on these two highly significant episodes in the continuing history of reconciliation.
In particular, the book would have been strengthened by a debate about the Homebush opening and closing ceremonies, which epitomised and powerfully expressed the spirit of reconciliation, but which arguably papered over the continuing fissures which continue to divide Australia on racial lines. Colin Tatz, in 'The Dark Side of Sport', is one of the few contributors daring enough to rain on the Our Cathy parade, warning us against letting the Freeman feelgood factor delude us with its 'illusion of national unity'.
The most significant absence in this book, however, is the voice of the nay-sayers outside the liberal consensus, those who represent the views of that large chunk of Australians who say we shouldn't, can't and won't reconcile. There is a fascinating chapter by a group of pollsters, who depressingly conclude that 'it is as though people do not have the imagination to look at the world through the eyes of the victim'. P. P. McGuinness puts his hand up for this silent, sizeable minority. Despite various factual errors which are, to use his own favourite word, egregious, he is quite correct in asserting that the polls show 'the people will not be sold a bill of goods in the name of reconciliation', an uncomfortable fact which most of the other contributors avoid. The only other voice from right field is that of some time Howard speechwriter, Christopher Pearson, but his is a nasty little piece, and no substitute for the reasoned response required for real debate on the issue to progress.
As against that, there are some inspiring highlights. Keating's 1992 Redfern Park speech is here, perhaps the most important document in the book (Christopher Pearson dismisses it as 'infamous'). The stark acknowledgement that 'we took the traditional lands... smashed the traditional way of life... committed the murders ... took the children ...it was our ignorance and our prejudice ...' will be familiar to many readers. What is often omitted is his very next sentence, a key insight which is elaborated by several other contributors: 'And our failure to imagine these things being done to us'.
But the essays which most profoundly impressed me were those by former ATSIC Chairperson Lowitja O'Donoghue, Boyer lecturer and historian lnga Clendinnen, and educator Lillian Holt. Unhappily, these three wise women convey a desolating sense of enormous, despairing fatigue. As Holt confesses, 'in the past decade I have felt the mean spirit of attitudes in this country in a way I have never felt it before'. Clendinnen admits that 'in darker moods I can sometimes see the native title movement as a giant red her ring'. And O'Donoghue, after baring her 'heavy heart', concedes that the battle for a treaty has been lost, and is unable to positively answer the question she poses in the title of her piece: 'A Journey of Healing or a Road to Nowhere?'. She has every reason to be pessimistic, but no choice but to be optimistic: 'We must aspire to keep reconciliation alive ... We must have faith in the fundamental decency of the Australian people.'
So after reading these 40 essays, almost all of them hopeful, this reviewer remains reluctantly skeptical about the reconciliation movement. As a gloomy Geoff Clark says, 'the process has become an empty one in recent years. 'Reconciliation' now means preaching to the con verted. There's no effort to engage the whole community or challenge the status quo. The word itself has now been soured...'. Both O'Donoghue and Clark are right. We must keep faith. But for the time being at least, it is a faith gone sour.