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Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

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

- 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

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.

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