From reconciliation to Recognise: saying something in order to do nothing

7 October 2015
Diane Fieldes

Today’s government-funded campaign to recognise Aboriginal people in the Australian constitution has provoked widespread hostility from Aboriginal people.

Social media channel IndigenousX released findings from a community-driven survey of 827 respondents, which showed only 25 percent support for the Recognise campaign.

One reason for such opposition is the fact that this is not the first time an Australian government has engaged in whitewashing Aboriginal dispossession in the guise of supporting Aboriginal people.

In late 1991, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was set up by the Hawke government. Like Recognise, it was a token gesture, never intended by its Labor Party architects to be anything else.

Veteran Aboriginal activist Gary Foley’s essay, “Reconciliation: Fact or Fiction”, written in 1999, gets right to the point: “[B]oth the notion and the government agency of Reconciliation [are] essentially a cynical ploy by lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats to divert public attention from the important fundamental issues that need to be resolved.

“It must be remembered that reconciliation, both as a concept and official national committee, was in the beginning an idea that came from white bureaucrats and politicians.”

Establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was a strategy by the Hawke government to shift attention away from its failure to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and its backdown from promised national land rights legislation.

“Consequently energy that Koori activists might have put into challenging and exposing the Hawke government’s hypocrisy was dissipated by an irrelevant debate about reconciliation”, wrote Foley.

As with Recognise today, he noted “widespread indigenous community suspicion and antipathy about the concept”.

The con in reconciliation – “reconciled” to dispossession?

Reconciliation is a process by which two former enemies meet on equal terms to resolve their past differences fairly. The notion that this can happen between Indigenous people and the governments that have oppressed them (and continue to do so) is ludicrous. They are not on an equal footing.

When the leader of the original invasion of Aboriginal lands, governor Arthur Phillip, was instructed to “conciliate the affections” of the original inhabitants, it didn’t last long. As soon as Aboriginal people showed any resistance to the conquest of their land, the conciliatory approach was abandoned in favour of punitive expeditions.

The reconciliation process arose in the 1990s when struggles were winding down and the government saw an opportunity to hasten the process by offering platitudes. The most damaging aspect of reconciliation was that it was counter-posed to real change.

The reconciliation process both encapsulated and accelerated the major shift that had taken place since the radical Aboriginal struggles of the 1970s. At that time, the demands were for land rights, reparations, self-determination and real equality. Twenty years later, there was this watered-down call for reconciliation, which even a notorious racist like John Howard eventually supported.

The earlier struggles drew broad support from workers and trade unions and made Aboriginal fighters’ demands something that governments had to respond to.

The talk of reconciliation was part of drowning out these radical voices. It was also a way of diverting attention from government support for corporate demands to take back the rights that Aboriginal struggle had won.

Limited land rights had been granted to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory as a result of struggle. The Fraser Liberal government passed the legislation in 1976. But by 1984, Western Mining CEO Hugh Morgan was threatening that “if the doctrines and principles underlying the Northern Territory legislation are applied to the rest of the Commonwealth, then there will be no exploration activity in this country and, ultimately, no mining industry”.

The Hawke government complied and abandoned its promise to grant national land rights.

Then Hawke organised the “celebration of a nation”, to mark 200 years since invasion, on 26 January 1988. Aboriginal people and their supporters from all over the country brought Sydney to a standstill with a rally of 40,000.

Some mining bosses, such as Hugh Morgan, were initially opposed to the reconciliation project, claiming that it was “divisive”. More far-sighted servants of capitalism could see the process as a way of deflecting concerns about anti-Aboriginal racism and oppression into harmless channels and away from mass mobilisation.

The war against Aboriginal rights did not cease.

For example, when the 1992 Mabo decision acknowledged the existence of Aboriginal people and wiped out the legal fiction of terra nullius, some land rights were gained. But they were very limited. Only Crown land could be claimed, and it was available only to Aboriginal people who could prove continuous association with that land – a very difficult thing after 200 years of dispossession.

Nonetheless, the Mabo decision provoked a massive racist outcry from business. In August 1993 the Australian Business Monthly claimed that “the main impediment to the economic development of the Northern Territory is the vast blocks of land reserved for nature or for Aborigines”.

A subsequent High Court case in 1996 produced the Wik judgment, which required capitalists to negotiate with Aboriginal people for limited access to the land – as long as doing so didn’t conflict with the corporate leaseholder’s activities.

While Howard talked reconciliation, by the end of the decade, at the behest of pastoralists and mining companies, his government had legislated to destroy even the limited gains of the Mabo and Wik decisions.

At the same time, the government was encouraging mining companies like North Limited to go ahead with the Jabiluka uranium mine on the land of the Mirrar people, and cutting funding to Aboriginal services and organisations.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation did have an effect on grassroots attitudes. Simply revealing some of the facts about Indigenous dispossession could have a profound effect – at least on ordinary people, who had nothing to gain by denial.

Sorry Books, launched by the Defenders of Native Title in 1998, gave many thousands of people a chance to express solidarity with Aboriginal people, and dissociate themselves from the infamously un-sorry Howard Liberal government.

On 28 May 2000, there were huge Walk for Reconciliation marches across Australia. In Sydney 250,000 marched across the Harbour Bridge, with the word “sorry” skywritten above. Notwithstanding the corporate sponsorship and some government ministers participating, for most of the marchers it was another chance to snub John Howard’s racist government.

Despite all this, the nefarious achievement of the reconciliation process was that it was something that all sections of Australian society could unite around, while leading anti-racist sentiment into a dead end. No wonder the employer groups jumped on the reconciliation bandwagon.

By April 2000 the Australian Financial Review was running articles such as “Fix Aboriginal policy, business urges PM”, in which corporate leaders “worry that divisions in Australia over, for instance, Aboriginal reconciliation, are bad for business”.

From the business perspective “there is an interest in all Australians living and working together productively. Clearly we’ve got a problem here at the moment”.

Put more bluntly, the bosses didn’t want workers getting agitated about Howard’s refusal to say sorry, which could all too easily start to link up with their own numerous grievances against him.

From reconciliation to Recognise

The Recognise campaign is not a simple re-run of the reconciliation movement. The fact that there is no mass activity associated with the current campaign is due to the government and employers not liking that aspect of the reconciliation process. The elements of reconciliation that were aimed at the mass of the population involved some action and the possibility of solidarity, even if in a very controlled and corporatised form.

This time around, those in charge think it far better just to talk to small numbers of hand-picked Aboriginal “leaders”.

But for the government and the corporations, the key elements are just the same – a verbal screen behind which all the real attacks on Aboriginal people and organisations can carry on.

Land rights, acknowledgment and compensation for the stolen generations and the stolen wages, an end to mandatory sentencing, funding for Indigenous communities (without which self-determination is a hollow phrase), implementation of the recommendations of the royal commission – and prosecution of cops who kill – and much more, are pushed to the sidelines.

The class divisions at the heart of capitalism, and the endless search to profit from land and labour, prevent Aboriginal people from gaining any meaningful rights in Australia. Those divisions need to be brought out into the open, not covered up. This won’t win over respectable opinion, nor unite the nation.

But no significant progress has ever been won without struggle.

[This article draws on material from the pamphlet "Taking the Con out of Reconciliation", Corey Oakley and Sandra Bloodworth (eds), Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2000.]

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