Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Intervention turned our backs on reconciliation
Patrick Dodson is the founding director of the Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Research Unit at the University of NSW, to be launched at a ceremony in Sydney tonight. Elizabeth Farrelly's column will appear on Saturday.
In June 2007, John Howard decreed a national emergency for about 50,000 people living on Aboriginal-designated lands in the Northern Territory on the basis of allegations of widespread sexual abuse of children.
In the absence of any consultation with affected communities or any real debate in the Australian Parliament, the Government took control of communities, compulsorily acquired land and imposed administrative and statutory management over people's lives that no other Australians, free from prison, endure.
The suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, which accompanied the intervention, hardly ruffled the nation's conscience.
It happened in the context of a sustained attack on indigenous rights and the fragile structures that have emerged to support indigenous people's culture and society since colonisation. In 1992, the High Court repudiated terra nullius as a monstrously unjust fiction. Its decision challenged the imagination of the nation to incorporate indigenous culture and society into its national fabric, despite its history of "unutterable shame".
Progress was made in this endeavour during the early years of the decade of reconciliation but at the final hurdle the nation turned its back on reconciling its past.
Instead, a new Australian story has been forged. The persistent inequity and deprivation of the colonised exist in a historical vacuum.
Community dysfunction is now understood as the fault of the colonised and their persistent cultural practices, rather than as a result of violent dispossession, brutal colonisation and authoritarian state intervention.
The nation has been told that indigenous disadvantage is also the result of four decades of failed government policies designed and perpetrated by progressive liberalism and romantics who believe in the integrity of indigenous culture and its place in modern Australia.
And those who have dared to tell the story of dispossession, exclusion and injustice – now apparently dated and short-lived in the manufacture of Australian history with its accompanying policy prescriptions for restitution and national reconciliation – are condemned for entrenching victimhood and dependence.
The relationship between indigenous people and the nation state is framed by two opposing forces. On the one hand there is an aggressive polemic, often masquerading as scholarship, which portrays traditional culture and the structures that protect and support Aboriginal society as reasons for chronic disadvantage and impediments to closing the gap.
On the other hand, there is the reality of contemporary indigenous nations throughout Australia whose people want liberation from material deprivation, sickness and social disorder, but at the same time to defend what is most important to them – their culture and identity.
Our inability to reconcile or mediate these two opposing views reduces debate in indigenous affairs to a scramble for the moral high ground, leaving most of the population confused and disengaged. As a result, we are a nation trapped by our history and paralysed by our failure to imagine any relationship with first peoples other than assimilation, whatever its guise.
Government after government has responded to this paralysis with new iterations of philosophically compromised policies – of which the NT intervention is merely the most recent example – that have done nothing to improve the life chances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
This political paralysis has motivated a number of prominent Australians – black and white – to work together on a national dialogue to search for pathways for honoured coexistence. Launched last year by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, the Australian Dialogue aims to stimulate serious conversation about modern Australia's complexities, rather than continue a dysfunctional debate that does not respond to the political and economic challenges of our time.
The work of the Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Research Unit at the University of NSW will be a vital mechanism in the Australian Dialogue. It will provide the scholastic rigour to help us answer some key questions: What are the conditions for a meaningful, nation-building dialogue? What will need to change to allow the dialogue to be effective? Who speaks for indigenous people (locally, regionally and nationally) in any such dialogue? And what do indigenous and non-indigenous people have in common that we can build on in developing a new framework for dialogue?
This research will be a crucial part of incorporating the unique philosophical, religious, cultural and political traditions of indigenous nations into a truly inclusive democratic constitutional Australia.