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Walker, Natalie --- "Reconciliation: A Perfect Day" [2004] IndigLawB 33; (2004) 6(2) Indigenous Law Bulletin 4

Reconciliation: A Perfect Day

By Natalie Walker

On a perfect day my Australia would be a place where my people can freely exercise the same rights as our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters. On this perfect day all Australians are proud of our Indigenous cultures and all Australians acknowledge my peoples’ unique and rightful place in society. And on this perfect day, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians acknowledge our scarred past but choose to walk alongside one another into a mutually respectful future.

On my perfect day, I would not only feel most at home with my black brothers and sisters; I would also feel that same connection with my white brothers and sisters.

I have just shared with you what Australia would look like for me once we have achieved reconciliation.

And given Reconciliation Week has recently passed without the same level of attention given to events such as Miss Universe, the football grand final and test cricket matches, which are surely less significant to our national identity and national conscience, it is appropriate that I share my opinion on where I think reconciliation is at and where I think it needs to go.

I believe that achieving reconciliation is an essential ingredient to Australia maturing as a nation and to Australians proudly acknowledging its Indigenous identity. Unfortunately, despite the critical importance of reconciliation and everything it hopes to achieve, I am afraid that the reconciliation agenda has not progressed beyond the rhetoric.

Evidence for this lack of progress is clear. As the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner notes in the Social Justice Report 2003,[1]

The statistical data indicates that there has been limited progress over the past five years in achieving the central purpose of practical reconciliation, namely improved Indigenous well-being. Of particular concern is the fact that the disparities that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have remained substantially the same, or have widened over the past five and ten years.[2]

Even Reconciliation Australia notes that while some achievements in the reconciliation agenda can be celebrated, ‘the majority of Indigenous Australians still experience extreme disadvantage’.[3]

If the success or failure of practical reconciliation is to be measured by improvements in Indigenous disadvantage, the government’s policy has clearly failed.

I am also at a loss to understand how we can move towards reconciliation when the government continues to make unilateral decisions regarding Indigenous policy such as abolishing our peak national representative body and tendering out Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services. When the government makes such decisions in isolation it takes away my peoples’ human right to effective participation in decision-making.

As long as my peoples’ relationship with the government is flimsily based on ‘partnerships’, ‘agreements’ and ‘memoranda of understandings’ it will allow the power imbalance to continue because the government will have the licence to change the rules of engagement at any time.

Despite the current climate there is a way forward. Here is what I think it will take to achieve the perfect day I often dream about.

First, and most obviously, we need effective national leadership which genuinely supports reconciliation. This leadership must come from the government of the day, especially the Prime Minister, as well as our Indigenous leaders.

At the moment I do not trust that there is a genuine commitment by government to nurture the principles of reconciliation. Reconciliation is travelling down a road highly controlled and restrictively defined by the government to the exclusion of the needs and wants of my people.

Reconciliation - in part - is about developing a shared experience and collective future between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia; unfortunately I see the current government acting in a way that divides and conquers instead of unifies.

Second, it must be acknowledged that leadership and responsibility for reconciliation not only lies with the national leadership. It is important to harness the energy and power of individuals, communities and the business sector to effect real change towards reconciliation.

The 2003 Reconciliation Report notes the important partnerships which have been established between Indigenous communities and the business sector. There have also been a range of community-led initiatives to progress reconciliation on a more local level. I believe that this is probably where the majority of the gains regarding reconciliation have been made.

Third, the integral role that all young people play in leading reconciliation must be supported. Young Indigenous people also have a rightful place in the determination of our peoples’ future. Leading reconciliation is not only the role of our established non-Indigenous and Indigenous leaders. It is the role of all generations – young and old – to harness the enthusiasm, passion and eagerness to act that comes from youth and combine that with the wisdom, lessons learned and life experience gained from age. This formidable combination is crucial to our nation achieving reconciliation.

Finally, all Australians must acknowledge and respect our scarred past in order to move towards the future together. It is important that all Australians have a genuine desire to respect and understand each other.

In creating our shared future it is important that as Indigenous Australians we will no longer have to justify our rightful and unique place in Australian society. Non-Indigenous Australians need to recognise that what is given to Indigenous Australians does not result in having something taken away from them because we all understand, as Professor Larissa Behrendt states, ‘that we are bound to each others fate’.[4]

It is also critically important that we start creating a common experience so that we can build our shared future. For example, the very fact that most non-Indigenous Australians refer to the 26th of January as ‘Australia’ Day and most Indigenous Australians refer to it as ‘Survival’ or ‘Invasion’ Day shows that we have had separate experiences that still need to be shared. We must share the reasons why some of us believe this is a time for celebration and why others feel it is a time to mourn.

I feel that at times this separation and lack of understanding of each other’s experiences only serves to maintain the gap between black and white Australia. For this reason it is critical that we start developing a common experience and a shared future that all Australians truly believe in.

All Australians need to acknowledge our past and all Australians must also acknowledge our future together. Once we achieve this, we can say we have achieved reconciliation and perhaps I will be able to say that I have lived my perfect day.

Natalie Walker is a young Kuku Yalanji woman from Far North Queensland who works as an Indigenous rights policy advisor. She is also a Circle Member of the National Indigenous Youth Movement of Australia. Natalie has a degree in psychology from the University of Queensland and is currently studying law at Queensland University of Technology.

[1] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2003, (2003).

[2] Ibid 54.

[3] Reconciliation Australia, 2003 Reconciliation Report (2003) 1.

[4] Larissa Behrendt, speech delivered at the Pathways for Reconciliation Seminar, September 2003.

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