Is reconciliation still alive, or is it just an empty concept?

BY TRACKER, MAY 17, 2012

NATIONAL: “Reconciliation” is a word that has a great deal of mainstream support, but is also the root of cynicism amongst many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As a formal policy, it was first put forward by the Keating government, with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation charged with leading the process. But how successful is reconciliation? And is it still alive? Reconciliation Australia CEO LEAH ARMSTRONG* debates AMY MCQUIRE and BRIAN JOHNSTONE*.


Reconciliation is alive and kicking. It’s expanded from protests to policy change and demonstrations to consultations.

Long after the days of the Bridge Walks of 2000, reconciliation is still loud and proud but instead of a megaphone the conversation has been taken one-on-one to organisations, communities, government and individuals.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the 20th anniversary of the Mabo decision; two significant dates in Australian history framing National Reconciliation Week.

Two momentous decisions made in the reconciliation journey—coupled with the major milestone of the National Apology—they are indicators of how far we have come.

Let’s face it, reconciliation is not an easy process, but there is no denying the steps forward.

The Australian government’s Apology to the Stolen Generations was a huge leap and the demand for engagement in the process is increasing.

The latest Australian Reconciliation Barometer shows that more than two thirds of the general community believe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is important to Australia’s identity as a nation.

Also four out of five Australians believe it is important to know about the First Australian’s history and culture are therefore open to learning more. People are listening, and there is the desire to be involved in change.

It is easy for people to take the negative stance that reconciliation is dead; but improving the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians is a continuing endeavour not easily laid to rest.

The Barometer also found that 87 percent of Australians agree that the relationship is important.

It is clear, that this relationship is not going to be progressed without working together; which requires reconciliation within this country.

No cookie cutter option and no plain and simple answer can define reconciliation but we do know it is based around respect, relationships and opportunities; integral societal building blocks that most people take for granted.

These three foundations form our Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs); concrete indicators of how reconciliation is flourishing.

Earlier this year the RAP Impact Measurement Report revealed that there are more than 1.6 million people working or studying in a RAP organisation.

Momentum is increasing with more and more organisations developing a RAP. Just last month GrainCorp became the 300th organisation to join the RAP community.

Although some may argue this is simply ticking a box, the statistics tell a different story.

A commitment by RAP organisations to employ more than 21,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, has already seen 13,397 positions filled; with this number continuing to rise.

And through our framework of respectful relationships equalling sustainable opportunities; there is not just a number tally but a commitment to retention.

Through RAP actions, almost 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander apprenticeships and traineeship positions have been awarded; RAP organisations have provided more than $9 million to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholarships.

Good intentions are leading to tangible outcomes; the commitment to reconciliation is obvious. People are joining forces to improve the relationship; with 161 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities working with a RAP partner.

Law firm, Allens Arthur Robinson and Nambucca Heads Local Aboriginal Land Council and Unkya Local Aboriginal Land Council are a perfect example of this.

The Allen’s team assisted the Councils on a pro bono basis to finally establish, in April 2010, an Aboriginal owned and jointly managed National Park at South Beach near Nambucca Heads – the Gaagal Wanggaan (South Beach) National Park.
Spanning over four years, the proceedings not only assisted the Land Councils in achieving their goal, but also fostered long lasting and unique relationships, which Allens’ partner

Bill McCredie credits as having the most impact at the firm.

“Our lawyers valued highly the unique experience in working so closely with Indigenous organisations at the grassroots, on a matter with such practical outcomes for reconciliation in this part of Australia.”

Allens had already been engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through a range of pro-bono work; though the launch of the firm’s RAP in 2009 saw it publicly commit to working with more Indigenous clients.

“I think the formal adoption of the RAP helped to refocus our efforts, assist us to be clear on the goals we wanted to achieve, and a structure to assess our progress in achieving them” Mr McCredie said.

Tellingly, the RAP program and Indigenous Governance Awards show that unless Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander voices are listened to in decision making, we can never hope to address the challenges before us.

Hence why these programs are growing awareness and changing the way people see and do things.

It is examples like this that take reconciliation out of the theoretical sphere and into practical outcomes. Through projects like this we build relationships based on respect and discover our shared histories and common aspirations.

Reconciliation is far from dead, we’re just getting started.

*Leah Armstrong is a Torres Strait Islander woman, and CEO of Reconciliation Australia.


“Reconciliation is far from dead, we’re just getting started.”

That’s how the case for reconciliation is concluded on these pages.

The facts are reconciliation is the concept of a white government which is now more than twenty years old.

One only has to take a brief glimpse into the decades old history of reconciliation to see how little it has assisted the people it was designed to help – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

History shows the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) was established by the then Federal Labor Government in 1991.

It was given a ten year life.

In the final year of its term it sought to produce “documents of reconciliation.”

These were designed to achieve “recognition and respect for the unique position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Indigenous peoples of Australia through a national document of reconciliation and by acknowledgment within the Constitution of this country.”

The Council conducted extensive consultations throughout Australia and eventually produced a Document Towards Reconciliation and a set of strategies, the Roadmap for Reconciliation.

The Council released a final report at the end of 2000 with a host of key recommendations including the need for the Government to embark on a process to unite Australians through a formal agreement or treaty with its
First Peoples.

The conservative Howard Government took nearly two years to formally respond.

It did so by rejecting most of the Council’s recommendations designed to formally advance reconciliation.
Prime Minister Howard rejected any notion of an agreement or treaty.

The Council was replaced by Reconciliation Australia in 2011with dramatic reductions in funding for both the new body and the reconciliation process.

No mention is made of any of the above in the case for reconciliation.

This is the problem with the current process.

It does not acknowledge how and when it started or how the first phase ended.

It gives no hint of when this current phase might end.

And the defeat of the Howard government signaled no change in the nebulous process which replaced the Roadmap for Reconciliation.

There was no recommitment to advancing a Treaty despite the fact Rudd Labor’s election policy platform promised it would do so if elected.

There was no pledge to revisit the calls from Aboriginal people for a national land rights regime.

Yes, the Stolen Generations finally received a formal apology thank to Prime Minister Rudd.

But it was an apology without reparation.

How can you reconcile that?

These are the issues that will pave the way for true reconciliation, because they deal with reconciling the past and ensuring the future.

I don’t believe Australia can fully ‘reconcile’ with its Indigenous peoples until it makes a treaty with them and fully recognises them within the Constitution.

I don’t believe Australia can fully ‘reconcile’ if we do not have land rights, because land rights can deliver real self-determination for Aboriginal communities as it is beginning to do in NSW.

How can one ‘reconcile’, when the Gillard government’s idea of ‘re-setting the relationship’ with our people is continuing a $2 billion failure of a policy under the tag of ‘Stronger Futures’, with zero Aboriginal control and little evidence to its success?

How is that reconciliation?

In 2009, the Labor Party redrafted its national policy platform to take out any commitment to fulfilling CAR’s visionary recommendations, including its Roadmap to Reconciliation.
We have gone backwards in the 12 years which have since passed.

Reconciliation is now just a buzz word for empty rhetoric. The original goals were lost a long time ago.

*Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist, and editor of Tracker. Brian Johnstone is a Walkley award winning and human rights ward winning journalist, and an employee of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council.

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