Canberra, Australia — Most first-time visitors to Australia preface their trips by pondering the long travel time needed to get there from anywhere else in the world, and, inevitably, entertaining phenomena such as the kangaroo and the koala bear. However, having been here in Australia for a week and after many discussions with a variety of people in the public, private and academic sectors, my impression is that Australia deserves greater recognition for the impressive manner in which it is dealing with an issue that has proven contentious in many other parts of the world — reconciliation between indigenous people and settlers from abroad.
Many books have been and will be written on this issue, which comprises a variety of complex, sensitive, and intertwined dimensions, such as law, history, dignity, communal integrity, memory, the concept of nationhood, colonial history, reconciliation, forgiveness, life and death, and multicultural national solidarity. Australians have only seriously addressed this matter since 1967, while the history of indigenous-settler ties goes back to the establishment of the first British settlement in 1788.
The relatively young but ongoing Australian experience in seeking national reconciliation is important for others to learn from, precisely because of its complexities and the slow yet steady manner in which the core issues are being addressed. Such national reconciliations are never easy to achieve, especially when, as in this case, the pertinent history includes many deaths and much suffering over a period of centuries, the shattering of the integrity of ancient, native communities, challenges to the established norms of modern nation-states and federations, continuing human suffering and marginalization today, and sentiments of racism, discrimination, and counter-discrimination by many sectors in society.
This experience is worthy of study and analysis by others around the world who face similar moral and historical-political challenges, because the Australians have downplayed neither the intensity and scope of the hurt suffered by the indigenous natives of the land, nor the legitimate concerns expressed by many other Australians today about the implications of going too far the other way in compensating for this dark history. The form of the approach to reconciliation seems to me as significant as the substance that will emerge when the process is complete, whether that substance is a formal treaty, constitutional reforms, legislative actions, or other such options.
After ten years of work by a national reconciliation council whose recommendations were not fully accepted by the present conservative government, the country now is passing through a moment of some pause and reassessment. A clear national majority recognizes the need to acknowledge the fact that the indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people were the native inhabitants of the land for perhaps 40,000 years before the arrival of the first British fleet, and that they suffered grievously from the impact of Australia’s transformation into a largely white-dominated, Euro-cultured industrial and agricultural state. According to a recent AC Nielsen Age poll, 53 per cent of Australians would accept a treaty.
The main unresolved question is about the most appropriate way to achieve national reconciliation, and whether this should include a formal ‘apology’ to the indigenous Australians by the Australian government and state today for the past suffering and wrongs that native Australians experienced. The great challenge that Australians grapple with is finding the right balance among documenting an accurate and comprehensive historical narrative of the land and its people, acknowledging the wrongs and sufferings of the past, expressing remorse or apology in an appropriate manner, initiating compensatory mechanisms to remove the lingering human blight that is rooted in historical trends, achieving true reconciliation, and redefining future relationships among all Australians in a manner that guarantees the equal rights of all citizens.
The focus of this effort today is on the possible conclusion of a formal agreement or treaty to negotiate the unresolved issues of reconciliation among the Australian state/government and its indigenous citizens, as was recommended by the final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Those who support a treaty argue that it would deliver: a) agreed standards of rights for all citizens, b) a framework for settling relationships between indigenous peoples and governments at all levels, c) legal and constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia and of the distinct, inherent rights which flow from this, and, d) agreement to the necessary reforms for a more just society, including improved services such as health, housing, education and employment.
Opponents fear this would be a divisive move, perhaps leading to the break-up of the country or establishing unsustainable compensatory mechanisms that would aim to redress the wrongs suffered by indigenous people, but that could also generate resentment among other Australians.
This is a long-term, ongoing process whose pace and form will be deeply influenced by the incumbent government of the day. It is moving slower now than it did a few years ago, and will likely speed up if the current conservative government is replaced.
The kangaroos are not the only thing making leaps and bounds in Australia today. This country of many varied peoples is worth watching because of its collective determination to come to terms with the difficult facts of its own history. Not many countries around the world voluntarily embark on such gut-wrenching missions; but perhaps more countries will come to realize that such an effort is necessary in order to re-cast a fresh moral and political foundation for one’s own continued national progress.