Working together for reconciliation

Imagine ourselves dispossessed of land we had lived on for fifty thousand years ' and then imagine ourselves told that it had never been ours.

Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless.

Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight.

Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books.

Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice.

Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed.

Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it.

It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice we can imagine its opposite.

And we can have justice.

Paul Keating, Redfern
December 1992

IN 1993, THE U.N'S INTERNATIONAL YEAR FOR THE World's Indigenous Peoples, the Independent Education Union published an edition of this journal dedicated to the struggle of Australia's indigenous people for justice û a recognition of their rights.

It also drew attention to the fact that 1993 was not only the International Year for the World's Indigenous Peoples, it was also ten years since the conclusion of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (1973 û 1983).

1997 is the 30th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which amended the constitution to give the Commonwealth legislative powers to enact laws deemed necessary for the welfare of the Aboriginal peoples, provided for the inclusion of Aboriginal peoples in the national census, and gave indigenous Australians the right to vote. This referendum and its carriage by more than 90 percent of the people, constituted a first major step along the road to true reconciliation.

This edition of the journal reflects upon the state of the race debate in Australia at the present time. This is particularly in the context of what many see as, not simply lack of leadership from the current federal government about issues of race, multiculturalism, land rights and reconciliation, but also the fostering and nurturing of a political climate which encourages a mean spirited approach to these complex issues, and which does very little to quell the increasing "hate speak" based on race, skin and culture, coming from some sections of the Australian community.

These are very recent historical markers in the long time line which traces the struggle by Australia's indigenous peoples to achieve their basic human rights. Yet that in itself should give us cause for disquiet. There are many who reject our having any part in the tragedy of Aboriginal history of the 19th and early 20th centuries, claiming that we are not responsible for what happened generations before. But the current debates on Mabo, Wik, national reconciliation, the stolen generations, black deaths in custody and multiculturalism, strongly suggest that not only do many want to wash their hands of the injustices of long ago, but that there is a preparedness on the part of many, including federal and state governments, to roll back the gains so recently made.

It is important to make these historical connections and build on those moments in our history which demonstrate a generosity of mind and spirit and a rigour and resilience of purpose to advance the interests of all Australians, and which acknowledge the unjust and racist policies which have harmed indigenous Australians.

In launching the 1993 International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples, the Prime Minister at the time, Paul Keating said:

"we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia û the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.

That is perhaps the point of this Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples: to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognise that they are part of us, and that we cannot give indigenous Australians up without giving up many of our own most deeply held values, much of our own identity û our own humanity."

The strength of this speech was that it challenged non-indigenous Australians to acknowledge their role in the injustices done to Aboriginal peoples.

"the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins with that act of recognition.

Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases, the alcohol.  We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.

With some noble exceptions we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.

We failed to ask 'how would I feel if this were done to me ? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us."

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:

  • the experience of truth ' of coming to terms with the truth of our past in order to build and to heal. This is painful because it requires an acknowledgment of accepting my role, my part, my responsibility.

  • the anchor of restitution ' that reconciliation must result in helping those who have been hurt the most in the most practical terms, to target the great disadvantage in indigenous health, housing, education and employment.

  • the restoration of the moral order. This is about the soul of the nation that has to be rediscovered.


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?


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
the Independent Education Union