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Havnen, Olga --- "Book Review: Reconciliation - Australia's Challenge (What is done cannot be undone)" [2001] IndigLawB 24; (2001) 5(7) Indigenous Law Bulletin 20

Book Review:

Reconciliation- Australia’s Challenge (What is done cannot be undone)

Final Report by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation

Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation,

December 2000, 199p, paperback

Reviewed by Olga Havnen

The progress of the reconciliation process with respect to its formal manifestation in the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, was a mixed affair. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the most wide-ranging inquiry into Indigenous affairs in our history, endorsed a process that had received overwhelming bipartisan support in Federal Parliament. It was a feel-good time, far removed from the rancour that had been in evidence through much of the bicentennial year. Despite misgivings in some Indigenous quarters, there was hope in the air.

By 1996 things had changed radically. Among its first moves the new government ordered a witch hunt into Indigenous programs administered by ATSIC. Savage cuts were instituted to the peak Indigenous organisation and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

Under the leadership of Patrick Dodson many Indigenous, and not a few non-Indigenous people, had invested much in the reconciliation process. The subsequent purging of the Council in 1997 was proof to critics that the whole process had been hopelessly compromised from the start.

Then something curious happened. The government’s ‘lap dog’ appointments bit back. The likes of Gatjil Djerrkura and Evelyn Scott on the one hand, and Gustav Nossal on the other, demonstrated a capacity to understand and learn from history in ways undreamed of in Howard’s cosmology. Commentators such as Robert Mann were proving more than a match for the Paddy McGuinnesses, Christopher Pearsons and Ron Bruntons.

More importantly, the years of grass roots work by the Council and off shoots that developed such as ANTaR, were bearing fruit. Local government councils across Australia were reaching agreements with local Indigenous groups; reconciliation study groups proliferated; the Sea of Hands was developing a new iconography as it traveled the country.

The final reconciliation document was handed down by the Council in December 2000. For some it went too far, others thought it didn’t go far enough. With one eye on the polls, a distinctly uncomfortable Prime Minister rejected key parts of the document, but without the tub-thumping belligerence he had previously displayed.

Did the final document or the PM’s response to it matter to the process of reconciliation?

In many senses, probably not.

The Opera House ceremony followed and was indeed outshone by the extraordinary walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The fact that a couple of federal ministers joined hundreds of thousands of other ordinary Australians from all walks of life, was an almost ho-hum event. Who gave a damn about a couple of politicians? History, and up to half a million people, were leaving them in their wake. As the sky writing above the harbour seemed to suggest ‘Sorry mate, this is what the people feel about reconciliation – not bloody pollies’.

What is crucial and what is a direct demand of the hundreds of thousands who have walked across bridges, signed sorry books and contributed to the Sea of Hands, is an urgent response to our ‘unfinished business’. ‘Treaty’, ‘compact’, ‘accord’, ‘agreement’ – it doesn’t matter what you call it. As long as it is a contemporary, dynamic document, the work of the Council over ten years will not have been in vain.

The initiative, however, lies with Indigenous peoples – with the support of Australians of good will. The suggestion that, in the first instance, there be a plebiscite of our peoples over whether such an ‘agreement’ should be negotiated has real appeal. It would be the first time in over 200 years of colonisation that we have been asked such a fundamental question.

Say, for example, we achieve levels of support amongst our peoples that was achieved in the Timor Loro Sae vote. Remember the response of our Prime Minister to such an unequivocal demonstration? Will he listen or will we have to call in the United Nations?

Olga Havnen is former executive officer of the National Indigenous Working Group on Native Title. She was also a former executive officer for Indigenous Issues, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a senior policy officer of the Central Land Council.

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