Reconciliation Can Change Us All for the Better

Reconciliation Can Change Us All for the Better

I am 52 years old. In the half century of my life there have been dramatic shifts in the relationship between non-indigenous and indigenous Australians: the 1967 referendum to include indigenous peoples in the census and grant to government power to make decisions that positively discriminated towards indigenous people; recognition of land rights; Keating’s Redfern speech; the Mabo decision, its recognition that the Australian land mass was not empty but was taken from the indigenous nations, and the recognition of native title; and the apology to the stolen generations.

These changes at the national/formal level have been accompanied by some profound shifts at the popular level. In my childhood and youth I often heard people telling jokes about indigenous peoples that were not only racist but were venomously so. I don’t hear them very often today. Nor do I often hear the stereotyping of indigenous peoples as lazy and unreliable (usually masked behind the assertion that they would “go walkabout”) that were common in my youth. Similarly, we seem to be coming to grips with the ability to describe the colonisation of Australia as an invasion and to recognise that it was violent and unjust.

Nonetheless, we still have some way to journey. Indigenous people as a whole continue to suffer the long overhangs of two centuries of dispossession, marginalisation and exclusion. The annual Close the Gap reports by the Department of Prime Minister make clear that indigenous Australians, as a whole, have poorer health, education and lifestyle outcomes than non-indigenous Australians. For example, indigenous children are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday than nonindigenous children; average life expectancy for indigenous people is still a decade less than that of the non-indigenous population. These are the outcomes of dispossession. As the Uluru Statement from the Heart puts it:

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.

And too many Australians retain racist attitudes. A 2014 survey by Beyond Blue found that one in five of us would move away if an indigenous person sat near us; one in five would suspect an indigenous person in a shopping centre is likely to steal; and one in 10 of us would not offer an indigenous person a job.

I am a white middle-class male. I have never experienced discrimination like this. I cannot begin to imagine the corrosive impacts it must have.

Where do we go from here? It’s easy to fall into the trap of paternalism.

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

We love statements like these because they call us to address the causes of disadvantage and not simply the symptoms. Yet they assume that disadvantage exists because of something lacking in the person who is disadvantaged and posit our superior skills and knowledge as the solution. We would do better to say,

“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Return the fishing gear and access to the fishing grounds that you stole and he’ll eat for a lifetime and show you how you can too.”

The Uluru Statement from the Heart and the final report of the Referendum Council, both issued in 2017, are the result of a long process of consultation with indigenous peoples and express an indigenous voice. It seems to me these are a good place for us to continue the journey together at a public/political level. They suggest the establishment of a representative body that gives indigenous peoples a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament; an extra-constitutional Declaration of Recognition; the establishment of a Makarrata Commission with the function of supervising agreement-making and facilitating a process of local and regional truth telling.

At a personal level I want to continue to learn about our first nations. It’s only in the last few years, for example, that I have heard the stories of indigenous resistance to the invasion and the appalling number of massacres of indigenous groups; understood that there were many indigenous nations; and started to appreciate that I am a citizen of a nation that has the oldest living culture in the world.

Some non-indigenous Australians feel threatened by suggestions like these. They seem to think that recognising indigenous history, indigenous peoples, and coming to grips with the injustices of the past require them to forget their own history and feel ashamed. It does not. The introduction to the final report of the Referendum Council graciously and beautifully reminds us that Australia has three parts to its history:

  1. 60,000 years of indigenous habitation;
  2. the British invasion and colonisation;
  3. the waves of migration from across the globe that that follows the ending of the White Australia policy.

In each of these phases there are things we would celebrate and things we would mourn. The report notes that

There is no doubt the second story of Australia is replete with triumph and failure, pride and regret, celebration and sorrow, greatness and shame. Like human history the world over. There is no doubt our constitutional system, our system of government, the rule of law, and our public institutions inherited from Britain are the heritage of the Australian people and endure for the benefit of all of us, including the First Peoples.

Reconciliation doesn’t require me to diminish my own story. It not only offers me an opportunity to be honest about its failings at the same time I celebrate its achievements, but it invites me to enlarge my story, to celebrate the fact that as an Australian I share in a story that goes back 60,000 years. Reconciliation it seems, if successful, will change us all for the better.

To Members of our First Nations.

Yesterday indigenous leaders gathered  at Uluru released  a statement calling  Australians to walk with them on a journey to a better future. It’s an invitation I accept.

As a follower of Jesus I think I’m called to this. One of the most significant Christian thinkers on questions of justice is Yale philosopher and theologian  Nicholas Wolterstorff. He notes that in the philosophical tradition from Plato through to  the most significant contemporary thinker on justice, John Rawls,  justice is understood through abstract reasoning, but that in the biblical tradition justice is about God coming alongside the orphan, the widow, the immigrant and the poor  and seeking the redress of their situation. Deuteronomy 10 is typical:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. Deuteronomy 10:17-18

Where the gods of other nations were consistently seen to stand behind the powerful and to endorse their rule, the God of gods and Lord of Lords uses his power to execute justice for those who are trodden down, taking up their cause not because they are more loved but because they are more disadvantaged.

Israel’s writers must have believed that when we look at the actual condition of widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor and compare it with the condition of other social classes, we discover that the former are not only disproportionately vulnerable to injustice but usually disproportionately actual victims of injustice. Injustice is not equally distributed. The low ones enjoy those goods to which they have a right – food, clothing, voice, security, whatever – far less than do the high and mighty ones.

It takes no special insight to understand why Israel’s writers believe this. For any society whatsoever, it is likely that those at the bottom are suffering the most … injustice. Here is why. Robbery and assault are events, episodes. If the victim of a robbery is a wealthy person, the robbery is an episode in a life that likely has been going quite nicely. By contrast, it is all too likely that the daily condition of those at the bottom is unjust. Widows are burglarised and assaulted; episodes of injustice also occur in their lives. But in addition, the situation is all too often unjust – demeaning, impoverished, voiceless…

Wolterstorff, Justice. Rights and Wrongs.

In Australia today it is surely those of our first nations who are equivalent to the widows, orphans and immigrants of the biblical era. Following the way of Jesus and the God of justice means hearing their cries, as God did for the Israelites in Egypt, for the widow and orphan in Israel, and for the fieldworkers in the book of James.  As a non-indigenous Australian this must mean I start by listening to my indigenous brothers and sisters, seeing the experience of life in Australia through their eyes.

My listening must include openness to the idea that there is something systemically wrong in our society.  As the Uluru statement says

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.

This is certainly consistent with the biblical treatment of poverty and disadvantage. While there is acknowledgement that people sometimes fall into disadvantage as a result of their own failings, the dominant reason for their disadvantage lies in failings on the part of the non-poor and the powerful, who either have directly oppressed and exploited  their vulnerable neighbours, or have acquiesced in social systems that keep people excluded  from that which they need to flourish. It does not follow that because this was the case in the biblical era,  that it is necessarily the case today. Nonetheless, it coheres so closely with what the Uluru statement says that I must give it serious consideration.

In their statement first nations leaders  point out that they never ceded their sovereignty over Australia,  yet their experience in modern Australia is one of powerlessness.  And so they are seeking systemic change that will leave them empowered.

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution. Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination. We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

The statement concludes

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

To our first Nations peoples, I accept your invitation.  I will seek to walk with you gracefully, to listen carefully, and  do what I can to help us find a better future.

The pain of the first peoples. When will enough be enough?

Pain inhabits her words, her tone, her posture. Raw. Visceral. Some pain is intense but short-lived, but not hers. This is a deep sorrow decades in the making. The pain of one who has been terribly wronged, whose loss has been incalculable, but whose pleas for redress fall upon deaf ears. There is also anger, pain’s erstwhile companion. An anger that cuts like a knife but in her case is righteous rather than vengeful or bitter.

And grace. Etched in her words, her tone, her posture as indelibly as the pain. The grace of one who has struggled long for justice and learned to be patient with those who don’t understand.

As I listened to this indigenous elder speak I connected with her pain, was warmed by her grace, and humbled by the dignity with which she carried herself. But I was wearied. Grief and anger are an all consuming pit, a beast that can never be sated.

I couldn’t help asking, “when will we have done enough?” We’ve had the 1964 referendum, land rights, Mabo, the apology to the stolen generation. We’re heading towards constitutional recognition. Yet pain, grief and anger linger unabated.

I wonder if these things will ever be enough because, as important as they are, they have two fundamental failings. First, they are piecemeal responses to an historic injustice that we have never really come to grips with. My ancestors came to this country, waged war on the indigenous nations, took their land, and displaced them. There was no treaty, just a denial that any war had occurred and that the land had been occupied. In the decades that followed the stains of this upheaval were passed from one generation to another, both black and white. Violations were heaped upon the original violation as we non-indigenous continued to deny history and indigenous people struggled to find a way forward in a new order that treated them like ghosts.

Second, there is an assumption that indigenous people will assimilate into a wider Australian culture, that the price of losing the war waged 200 years ago was that the vanquished would abandon their sense of nationhood. Australia has become a nation built upon the idea that many cultures can exist around a common core, but this is a far cry from recognising separate nations within a single landmass. We operate with the idea of singular sovereignty, that nationhood is a case of either/or, that one belongs to this nation or that nation. So what are our indigenous people who remain connected to their sense of indigenous nationhood to do?

There is a wound in the soul of our nation and in the hearts of the first nations that cannot be healed by piecemeal reforms and a denial of their nationhoods. Do we not need a comprehensive settlement that squarely addresses the past, not just parts of it but all of it; that recognises that an invasion occurred, wars were waged, peoples displaced; by which some measure of compensation is made; and that lays a platform for a better future in which the rights, status, and the nationhoods of the first peoples are recognised? I don’t know what this will look like. That will require much dialogue and negotiation. But I can’t see that there is any other way for enough to be enough.

photo credit: Aboriginal flag Adelaide Australia dailyshoot flags via photopin (license)

On Shutting Down Remote Indigenous Communities

A furore has erupted this week over the Prime Minister’s description of aboriginals living in remote communities as being there as a result of their “lifestyle choices”.  Aboriginal leaders,  even those who have been supportive of the Prime Minister, have expressed disappointment in what seems to them to be a failure to understand the complexities of the situation.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics only a very small percentage of the indigenous population in the eastern states live in remote or very remote locations. In Western Australia however, 41% of indigenous people live in a remote or very remote location and in the Northern Territory that number is 83%.  Just over half of remote indigenous communities have less in 20 people living in them.

The ABC reports that indigenous leaders themselves are divided on whether or not  some of the least viable communities should be closed down (  Whatever the outcomes of these discussions, indigenous leader Noel Pearson hit on one of the most crucial issues when he said:

‘There was a time in our history when blackfellas were being pushed out of town and into remote communities, missions and church-run institutions.

‘Now, policy fashion changes, and we want to put Aboriginal people into trains and send them into the suburbs of Perth or back onto the fringes of country towns,’ he said.

‘These are real human beings, with a long history of displacement and great uncertainty about their place in Australian society.

‘Don’t talk about the great welcoming mat in the cities and country towns that awaits these people, because we know that people coming in from remote areas just end up in the underclass and fringes of these communities. ‘

This sense of displacement is made all the more traumatic  because of the relationship indigenous people have to the land.

Land is fundamental to Indigenous people, both individually and collectively. Concepts of Indigenous land ownership were and are different from European legal systems. Boundaries were fixed and validated by the Dreaming creation stories. Each individual belonged to certain territories within the family group and had spiritual connections and obligations to particular country. Hence land was not owned; one belonged to the land. Aboriginal people experience the land as a richly symbolic and spiritual landscape rather than merely a physical environment.
Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice, edited by Nola Purdie, Pat Dudgeon and Roz Walker

The discussion should not be reduced to economics. It is not as though there is some flat cost of services that applies equally across the country. It will always be more expensive to provide services to some communities than others. A willingness to fund them is a sign that we believe in a decent life for all Australians.

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