Whatever happened to reconciliation?

Speech by Dr William Jonas at the media conference to launch the Social Justice Report 2001 and the Native Title Report 2001.

15 May 2002

Acknowledgements - to Gadigal people; those present.

Yesterday in federal Parliament the Attorney-General tabled the Social Justice Report 2001, my annual review of the exercise of human rights by Indigenous Australians, and the Native Title Report 2001, my annual review of native title developments.

In both these reports I found cause to express serious concerns about the nation's progress in achieving the exercise of Indigenous rights, particularly in regard to the lack of national leadership and commitment shown by the federal government on the issue of reconciliation.

To date, there has been no formal, comprehensive public response by the federal government to the reconciliation documents handed to the government at Corroboree in May 2000 or the recommendations of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's final report of December 2000

This is despite the passage of almost eighteen months since CAR's final report and of nearly two years since the documents of reconciliation were released.

The timing of my latest reports in itself provides further cause for reflection on the nation's failure to make significant inroads on the reconciliation process.

The year 2001 marked the tenth anniversary of the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This year will be the tenth anniversary of the Mabo decision which rejected terra nullius and recognised the continued existence of native title. It is also the fifth anniversary of the Bringing them home report. Indigenous affairs seems to have become a series of anniversaries - operating as an annual reminder of the unfulfilled promises and commitments of governments.

We should remember that the reconciliation documents and recommendations were the result of a ten year process partly instigated by the Royal Commission, which identified reconciliation as 'an essential commitment on all sides if change is to be genuine and long term' . [1] Reconciliation was an initiative of government, not of Indigenous people themselves, and one to which Indigenous people responded and acted in good faith.

But now instead we face a deplorable situation in which not only has the federal government failed to respond adequately or comprehensively to CAR's recommendations, they have quite deliberately sought to shut down debate and avoid any engagement about them by stating that they are committed to practical reconciliation.

In pursuing this approach, the government has responded to only one of the six recommendations of CAR's final report - through the limited focus of COAG's framework for addressing disadvantage. They have ignored the broader-based agenda for reconciliation put forward by CAR that recognised the necessary interrelatedness of symbolic and practical measures to Indigenous people's self-determination.

It is entirely reasonable to ask whether it is adequate that at the end of a sustained ten year process of reconciliation the government has failed to provide a national response and detailed plan of action for implementation of the recommendations of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and has instead dismissed them as being of largely symbolic rather than practical application.

The impoverished notion of practical reconciliation will not in and of itself lead to meaningful reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. It is simply not enough to assert that what is needed is for Indigenous people to assimilate to mainstream society or that reconciliation will be the product of a country that is relaxed and comfortable with itself.

It is also simply not enough to suggest, as in the past year, that the rights agenda is over by splintering the focus on Indigenous affairs and shifting attention from one topical issue to another, whether it be violence or substance abuse or petrol sniffing in Indigenous communities. Such an approach indicates a failure to move beyond the policy paradigm of throwing palliatives in the form of quick-fix, short-term solutions at the urgent problems experienced by Indigenous people an approach which often serves only to manage and even perpetuate enduring cycles of disadvantage, at the expense of resourcing more holistic and far-reaching solutions.

The lack of progress in addressing the concerns of the Royal Commission offers us a stark reminder of what is at stake in this country with reconciliation.

It is for these reasons that I am calling for a Senate inquiry into the reconciliation process and in particular into the documents produced by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the recommendations of the Social Justice Report 2000. This inquiry would examine the adequacy of the Federal government's response to each of these recommendations. It would also consider the processes by which by which government agencies have reviewed their policies and programs against the documents of reconciliation, as well as the adequacy of targets and benchmarks adopted and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.

At the end of a ten year, multi-million dollar process of such pivotal importance to the development of Australian society as reconciliation, it would be reasonable to expect a formal response so that all members of the Australian community are clear as to the level of commitment provided by the government. As a society we cannot afford to look back in 10 years' time on the reconciliation process with the same regrets we now do on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

1. Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, National Report - Volume 1, AGPS Canberra 1991, p xlviii.