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THE RECONCILIATION IMPERATIVE

Rights Rights and Freedoms

THE RECONCILIATION
IMPERATIVE

Graduation
Address, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney, 25 May 2000

INTRODUCTION

When asked last year
to give this address I was very pleased. I realised it would coincide
with the 25th anniversary of my own graduation, this month
in 1975, in this same Great Hall. On that occasion the address was given
by the then Prime Minister, EG Whitlam; I apologise that I am nowhere
near as distinguished.

I thought, when I
was invited, I would reflect on how my fellow students and I felt when
we graduated 25 years ago and on what we as a generation might have accomplished
since then - a general kind of address that is appropriate and customary
on these occasions.

But the events that
will take place in this city this weekend are of such longstanding and
continuing national significance that I must speak very specifically about
them.

On Saturday, over
2000 Australians will gather at the Sydney Opera House for Corroboree
2000, the public event to mark the completion of the decade long work
of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Those participating will
include the Governor General, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition,
the leader of the Australian Democrats, federal ministers and shadow ministers
and all state premiers and territory chief ministers. They will include
almost all the indigenous leadership. Heads of religious communities and
community organisations will be there. And many hundreds of ordinary people,
indigenous and others.

On Sunday, tens of
thousands, hopefully hundreds of thousands, of people will walk the walk
of reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which will be completely
closed to traffic for only the second time since it opened in 1932.

These events are
without doubt the most significant events of the decade or more. That
is why I must speak today about our need for reconciliation.

THE HISTORICAL
NEED FOR RECONCILIATION

If we are to understand
why we need reconciliation, we must go back to the very beginning of modern
Australia, to the day in January 1788 when Arthur Phillip raised the British
flag and proclaimed about half this continent the property of His Majesty
the King of England. Australia was already an ancient land that had had
owners and custodians from time immemorial. Yet they were not consulted;
they were not asked their opinion; they did not consent and they signed
no treaty ceding land or sovereignty.

Indeed they were
not even forced, let alone invited, to sign a treaty. In this respect
the colonisation of Australia was unique among British colonies. No other
land colonised by Britain was decreed to be empty, no one's land, and
no other original peoples were dispossessed without rights under treaty
or law. Not in the United States, not in Canada, not in New Zealand, only
here. Often, of course, those treaties were honoured more in the breach
than in the observance but they did recognise prior sovereignty and ownership
and their provisions today have new life and are effecting real change
in the legal and economic positions of the first peoples of those countries.

From this original
wrong of non recognition and dispossession flowed the sorry history of
poverty, marginalisation, deaths by disease and murder, removal of children,
degradation. The worst periods may be over but they are not events of
the far distant past. The last massacres of Aboriginal people, known euphemistically
as punitive expeditions, occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, during the lifetimes
of many still alive today, far more recently than the Gallipolli landing
we remember on Anzac Day. The last removals of Aboriginal children under
explicitly racist laws occurred in the 1960s, during my lifetime and the
lifetimes of at least half of us in this Great Hall.

I recall this history
this morning for two reasons. First, because it must be recognised and
accepted. I don't feel guilty for our history or consider that any one
else here should feel guilty. On the contrary no one can be personally
responsible for the actions of another. It's not a matter of personal
guilt but of national responsibility: that we acknowledge our nation's
past, including its very recent past, and as a national community express
our sorrow.

Second, I recall
the history because its legacy is present today for indigenous Australians.
It divides indigenous Australians from other Australians. Healing that
division requires reconciliation and reconciliation is impossible unless
and until we come to terms with our history.

THE PRESENT NEED
FOR RECONCILIATION

Dealing with the
past is necessary for reconciliation but it alone is not enough. We must
also deal with the present. For large numbers of indigenous Australians
the present is an experience of poverty and disadvantage. Indeed no matter
what social or economic indicator is used, the lives of indigenous Australians
today remain marked by inequality. I don't like quoting lists of statistics
in addresses but it is important that we remember the facts, the extent
of the disadvantage.

Indigenous Australians
have

  • a life expectancy
    20 years less than other Australians
  • death from diabetes
    5 times the national average
  • an infant mortality
    5 times higher than other Australians
  • 30% of all maternal
    deaths though they make up only 2% of the population
  • a one in three
    chance of having some form of trachoma by the time a child is nine years
    old
  • a one in four
    chance of being under-nourished
  • 16 times the likelihood
    of being homeless compared with other Australians
  • chronic overcrowding
    due to lack of housing supply
  • a lack of basic
    sewerage and roads in remoter communities and safe water
  • a school retention
    rate to year 12 of 33%, compared with the national rate of 75%
  • nearly half of
    all Aborigines over 15 with no formal education
  • a one in eight
    chance of not even going to school between the ages of 5 and 9
  • an unemployment
    rate four times the national average
  • an unemployment
    rate of 46% for those aged 20 to 24
  • annual income
    of less than $12000 for nearly 60% of those aged 15 and over
  • household income
    around half the national average
  • police custody
    rates 27 times the national rate
  • children placed
    in institutional care at 19 times the national rate
  • children detained
    in a juvenile justice institution at 20 times the national rate.

Reconciliation is
in large part a question of social justice. My friend and colleague Mick
Dodson, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner,
described social justice in these terms.

Social justice
must always be considered from a perspective which is grounded in
the daily lives of indigenous Australians. Social justice is what
faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with an adequate
water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability
to nourish your children and send them to a school where their education
not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge
and appreciation of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect
of genuine employment and good health, a life of choices and opportunity,
free from discrimination.

Reconciliation then
is also very practical. I have visited many Aboriginal communities in
all sates and territories. I have seen the conditions in which people
are forced to live, in which children grow up. When I went to Halls Creek
Shire in Western Australia I was told of research that establishes that
child nutrition levels there are comparable with those in Cambodia according
to UN criteria. I have also seen communities with life and hope, doing
wonderful things to address the disadvantage:. Let me give you two examples.
Yirrkala in Arnhem Land has a lively, innovative school that teaches children
in both the local languages and English. Bathurst Island has a program
to ensure that by the year 2010 there will be a local person educated
and trained for every job on the island, whether in education, health,

Reconciliation requires
that we address these and other basic life issues for indigenous people,
the issues that Mick Dodson listed: safe running water and food, a house,
a school, a doctor, a job. It is a present need, not just an historical
one.

OUR NEED FOR RECONCILIATION

When I speak about
past treatment and present disadvantage, you might think that I consider
that only indigenous Australians need reconciliation. The truth, however,
is that we all need it, our nation needs it. The Governor General, Sir
William Deane, put it most clearly when he said that without reconciliation
we are diminished as a nation. That's why the events of this weekend are
significant for all of us.

The weekend will
not be a celebration of reconciliation achieved. Maybe that was always
too ambitious a goal but I think it could have been accomplished. Unfortunately
it hasn't been. The failure of national political leadership has left
reconciliation out of reach, still beyond us. The statement that the Council
for Aboriginal Reconciliation will deliver the nation on Saturday will
not be a statement of reconciliation but a statement towards reconciliation.
It will not have the unequivocal support of the Prime Minister or his
government.

For me now that is
a deep disappointment but perhaps in years to come, in retrospect, we
will see that as a good thing. The failure of political leadership has
forced the cause to be taken up by ordinary people in cities, suburbs
and towns across the country. That is happening. There are 369 local reconciliation
groups registered with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. There
are over 200 local groups that are part of the network of Australians
for Native Title and Reconciliation. There are regional and local coalitions
to promote the development and well being of whole communities. In the
Barwon-Darling Valley in north west New South Wales, all the local councils,
cotton growers, farmers organisations, tourism groups and Aboriginal organisations
have formed a regional development alliance. In Cape York in far north
Queensland the graziers, miners, tourism groups and local governments
have negotiated a regional development and land use agreement with the
indigenous communities. Reconciliation is happening already on the ground
in many parts of Australia and it must continue.

That is, in my opinion,
why the walk across the bridge on Sunday will be the most important event
of the weekend. It will be the occasion when we can show that we are committed
to healing the divisions, to building a united Australia based on justice,
equality and respect.

Our nation then needs
the commitment of each of us to this cause. Our future depends on it.
We are diminished without it. That's the challenge you face as new graduates.
What contribution can you make, as doctors and as citizens? What contribution
will you make? What about your families and friends? Your teachers and
others here this morning?

Though we cannot
be held personally responsible for what was done in the past, we are responsible,
and history will judge us, for what we do or fail to do in our own time,
with the opportunities and privileges given to us by our education and
position.

Chancellor, ladies
and gentlemen, I hope I run into you on the bridge on Sunday.

Last
updated 1 December 2001

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