The strength of this speech was that it challenged non-indigenous Australians to acknowledge their role in the injustices done to Aboriginal peoples.
Keating called on Australians to open their hearts and to commit to the practical things that need to be done. He referred to the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation whose mission was to "forge a new partnership built on justice and equity and an appreciation of the heritage of Australia's indigenous people."
From 26-28 May 1997, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation convened the Australian Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne, attended by more than 1,800 participants.
There were over 50 teachers and students from non-government schools around Australia at the Reconciliation Convention, and there is no doubt that they would have experienced it as one of the most challenging, inspiring and passionate events they have ever attended. All were touched by the emotion of the music, the art, the poetry, the dance, the words.
The most eminent of Australian and international guests gave their hearts, their wisdom and their authority to the cause of national reconciliation. The Hon. Dame Roma Mitchell asserted that "education is the key word to equality in national citizenship. It will play a large part in the elimination of disease, will lead to mutual understanding and trust and will enable all Australians to partake in the running of the affairs of the nation".
Dr Alex Boraine, Vice Chairperson of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, brought to the convention words written by President Nelson Mandela.
Dr Boraine argued that the vision of reconciliation must be grounded in reality. He talked of three anchors of reality:
It is clear that within the intellectual indigenous leadership, not only of Australia but of the world, there is a sustained discussion and debate under way. These are complex moral and legal questions and our way forward on them will remain blocked if white Australia continues to believe it can find the answer alone. The clear message from Frank Brennan was "that we have to work on it together". Any objective analysis would show that for their part, Australia's indigenous communities have been and continue to be willing to work with non-indigenous Australians to achieve reconciliation.
During the course of the reconciliation convention, and in the weeks following, a vigorous community debate occurred across the nation through the print and electronic media, regarding the many complex issues which were discussed in the main forum and workshops of the convention. The issues of particular contestation were those concerning the government's 10 point plan in response to the High Court's Wik decision, and the Prime Minister's refusal to apologise on behalf of the nation for the great injustices suffered by Australia's indigenees,
particularly in regard to the Stolen Generations report. His apology and statement of regret was a personal one and did not extend to the nation:
"In facing the realities of the past, however we must not join those who would portray Australia's history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism, exploitation and racism. Such a portrayal is a gross distortion and deliberately neglects the overall story of great Australian achievement. That is there in our history to be told. Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control."
It is hard to imagine that a people who had lost their land, their language, their health, their culture, their children, would not see Australia's history in a negative light and want to lay blame and induce guilt.
The great pity is that what remained unsaid by the Prime Minister, is the inspiration we should take from Australia's Aboriginal nations. That in the face of the greatest injustices, suffering, violence and torment, the indigenous people and their leaders have remained steadfast and determined in their belief that an open heart to working with the community is not only in their interest, it is also in the national interest. Their sense that this is a crossroads for national reconciliation, transcends any expression of revenge and bitterness.
In standing before the leaders of Australia's Aboriginal nations, what was there to lose in John Howard expressing the nation's deep sorrow for their losses, and for non-indigenous Australia's collective part in them?
THE IEU'S RESPONSE
At its July Federal Council meeting in Darwin, the Independent Education Union unanimously passed a resolution supporting the call for national reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and apologising on behalf of members in the non-government education sector for the great injustices and suffering experienced by Aborigines since 1788.
But what does this mean for the IEU in practice? Obviously education of our members is an important obligation and this issue of Independent Education is a good start. Some of our members are indigenous Australians and we need to ensure that there is dialogue between union offices and these members. As one of the nation's twenty largest unions, we also need to be involved in the wider union movement's response in the reconciliation process.
The IEU has a long tradition of involvement in professional issues for members and in this involvement we must ensure that appropriate curriculum is developed as well as the necessary resourcing to help open younger Australians' hearts to reconciliation. Teaching history to students and helping them become good citizens is one of our duties as educators. Those of us who work with young people know how strong their innate sense of justice is. The many students in our schools who are already involved in working towards righting the past wrongs do not see themselves as Prime Minister Howard would suggest, "accepting guilt and blame for past actions over which they had no control". They are simply doing what they see as just and fair.
Lynne Rolley is the Federal Secretary of