Reconciliation pangs

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

With the Olympic Games round the corner, the Federal government in Australia is under pressure to find an acceptable way to defuse rising Aboriginal anger and avoid an embarrassing face-off.

IN February, the suicide of a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy, who was held in a Darwin detention centre for the theft of a few pencils, sparked a cascade of protests against what has been perceived as state-sponsored cruelty to the indigenous people of Austr alia. The tragedy drew attention to the practice of mandatory sentencing in the two States of Western Australia (W.A.) and Northern Territory (N.T.), precipitating a chain of events that threaten to throttle what is known as Reconciliation, a process of internal healing initiated 10 years ago.

The relationship between the first people of Australia and the white people, who came as colonisers, is understandably fraught with tension, hostility and mistrust. The wound has suppurated over the past several decades. The healing of the wound, priorit ised on Australia's official agenda, has involved the setting up of a Reconciliation Committee. The process of reconciliation draws to a close at Corroboree 2000, scheduled for May 27, with the handing over of the Reconciliation document to an official r epresentative of the Australian Government by the representatives of the indigenous people.

The story of Australia began with the first people, who are believed to have inhabited this vast island continent over 50,000 years ago. The dreamtime myths of this strongly spiritual people, who inhabit remote areas of still wild Australia, speak of a c reation that brought spirits out of the belly of the land to transform and render hospitable the landscape of a continent that they hold sacred. The people share a unique emotional relationship with the landscape, which is deemed alive and teeming with s pirits. Much of this tradition of Dreaming or the charter of living, which is derived from the connectedness of spirit to nature, still thrives among the indigenous people where they live, in the wilderness and also in the urban areas of rich modern Aust ralia. But the realities of the Aboriginal people, who constitute a mere 2 per cent of the total population, diverge sharply from that of Australia's wealthy non-indigenous majority.

The schizophrenia of this enormous country can probably be attributed to its sprawling expanses, which have allowed enough space for both a developed and a developing nation to co-exist, and for the former to ignore the latter for the most part. The stat e policy on Aboriginals, which Prime Minister John Howard now admits was a "historical blemish", was until 1967 directed at absorbing Aboriginals of mixed blood gradually by "desocialising them as natives and resocialising them as whites". This involved the forcible taking of half-white Aboriginal children from their parents, often at gunpoint. They were sent to foster homes, and many of them ended up as cheap or unpaid labour in middle-class white homes. Most of the female children taken this way becam e pregnant as a result of abuse at the places where they worked and, again, had their children taken from them.

The Aboriginal people actively mourn their collective hurt over what they call "the stolen generation" of their people who experienced the pain of the loss of their natural families and of their sense of social identity. However, in a submission to a Sen ate inquiry into the question of compensation for Aboriginal children who had been forcibly separated from their families and communities, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs John Herron advanced the startling argument that since o nly a mere 10 per cent of Aboriginal children had been thus separated from their families over a period of 60 years, the term "stolen generation" was "emotive and imprecise". This argument, which plunged the Howard government into a race relations crisis of unprecedented proportions, is not particularly novel considering that there has been a longstanding "anti-stolen-generation" campaign which sought to absolve the "child removalists" on the grounds that they believed they were doing the best for the n atives.

However, there is clear evidence to show that before 1945 and up until 1967, administrators in W.A. and N.T. removed part-Aboriginal children from their mothers in order to solve the so-called problem of the "half-caste" by a programme of racial engineer ing called "breeding out the colour" meant to assimilate and rescue them from what they believed was a hopeless and degraded Aboriginal world. The anti-stolen- generation campaign and the government submissions fly in the face of the searing anecdotal ev idence given by more than 500 Aboriginal witnesses.

"I remember all we children being herded up like a mob of cattle and feeling the humiliation of being graded by the colour of our skins, for government records," says a member of the stolen generation. The idea was to separate the lighter-skinned from pu re blacks so that the total state expenditure on Aboriginals would steadily decline along with the population of the pure blacks, who were termed "slow breeders", while the rest merged into mainstream Australian society.

The fur began to fly when John Herron brought a new angle to the story by proposing that there had been no such thing as a stolen generation in the first place. This was admittedly a rather peculiar way to address an increasingly thorny controversy surro unding the Aboriginal demand for an apology from John Howard for the same. Not surprisingly, this new angle to the story was not received with much delight by anyone, not to mention the Aboriginals, who have since hardened their stand on the apology.

In fact many people felt that John Herron's gaffe had actually served the Aboriginal cause although that was probably not the intention. The episode triggered an unprecedented outpouring of feeling through the electronic and print media, overwhelmingly i n favour of the Aboriginal cause. Media commentators pointed out that the denial of the stolen generation had indeed swung the pendulum in favour of those who wanted an apology and quite against the official stand.

Mainstream newspapers attacked the Prime Minister. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald said: "Because not every aboriginal child in Australia - only 10 to 30 per cent of them - was separated from his or her parents, no stolen generation exis ts, so says John Howard, a man with a heart the size of a caraway seed."

The condemnation of the practice of mandatory sentencing by a United Nations human rights body drew bitter protests from the Howard government, which threatened to review its support to U.N. human rights monitoring elsewhere. Under mandatory sentencing, youngsters, mostly Aboriginal, are imprisoned for the most trivial offences. The sentencing does not apply to cases of fraud, which statistics show are predominantly committed by whites (three out of four cases). This leads to piquant situations - a home less Aboriginal was sentenced without bail to months in detention for taking a towel (worth a couple of dollars) off a drying rack to shield himself from the cold, while a white, who may commit fraud involving several thousands of dollars, is allowed bai l and will have his case tried on merit.

Indeed, the crimes for which many young Aboriginals, many of them children, go to prison are petty thefts such as the stealing of biscuits or pencils, thefts that point to the abject poverty and neglect that a lot of them live in, which is an indictment more of the state than of the citizens who have not had a share in its prosperity.

The death of the Aboriginal teenager in Darwin brought a reaction of shame and disgust from many sections of the Australian community, provoking quick talks between Howard and the Chief Minister of Northern Territory, which raised the minimum age of mand atory sentencing to 18 and allowed the police (against whom there are allegations of racism) more discretionary powers to determine whether the offenders are sent to diversionary programmes or taken to court.

The problems with mandatory sentencing are linked to the elaborate federal structure of government, which many people feel undermines the Central government. Some people question why Australia, with a population of just 19 million, needs nine parliaments , a total of 15 chambers and nine civil service streams. Many people condemn the federalism for its failure to find national solutions to overwhelming problems, which range from the de facto racist legislation in N.T. and W.A. to environment, educ ation and transnational power. John Howard ignored the U.N. conventions ratified by Australia, in deference to federalism. The recent Howard-Burke deal on mandatory sentencing has been termed a quick-fix solution, which will not change the fact that an 1 8-year-old will still face a minimum 14-day sentence for a first conviction, a minimum three months for a second one and a year for a third - all for the theft of a few dollars.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which comprises elected representatives of the Aboriginal communities and is headed by its chairman Geoff Clark, sat down to a reconciliation dinner with John Howard over the contentious issues of the stolen generation, mandatory sentencing and the demand for an apology, but Howard refused to be moved on any of them. Howard refuses to say sorry because he does not believe in inter-generational guilt. As a member of the present generation of Australia ns, Howard claimed it was inappropriate and unnecessary to accept responsibility for past official policy.

Many citizens have written to newspapers to say that the question is not of individual responsibility but of the collective indebtedness that the majority community needs to feel for having deprived Aboriginals of a land that was rightfully theirs. It ha s been pointed out that Howard was already an active member of the Liberal Party when the abductions (strongly supported by the Liberals) were still taking place and that this made him squarely culpable even on a personal level.

Non-indigenous moderates in Howard's party have threatened to cross the floor over the government's attitude on the stolen generation issue. Howard clings to his basic point of not separating the indigenous from the non-indigenous Australians. "No separa te development," says Howard, "we are all Australians."

YET statistics do reveal the existence of a separate Australia that trails slowly and painfully behind the rest of the energetic and prosperous nation. While the rest of Australia enjoys a life expectancy at birth of over 75 years for the average male an d over 81 years for the female, more than half of all indigenous men and 41 per cent of indigenous women die before they reach the age of 50, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. This essentially means that indigenous men are four times more likely to die before they reach 50 than non-indigenous men, of whom only 13 per cent die before they turn 50. The story is worse for indigenous women, who are six times more likely to die before they turn 50 than non-Aboriginal women, of whom only 6 per cent are likely to die before the age of 50. The causes of death are injury, homicide, infectious diseases and diseases related to the digestive system and mental health in that order. Alcohol abuse is a major social problem. The actual s ituation, say reports, is likely to be much worse than suggested by the survey because the data are incomplete - they were obtained from available sources in just three States.

This report revealed damningly that among the United States, New Zealand and Australia, three developed nations that have indigenous populations that are not integrated into the mainstream, Australia has the highest mortality rates among the indigenous p eople.

Statistics show that at the moment the Aboriginal population of Australia is most vulnerable to the policies that the government may choose to follow. This is because 40 per cent of the population is under the impressionable age of around 14. Only 28 per cent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders live in major cities. The rest live in rural Australia, in far-flung areas where about 68 per cent have access to Aboriginal health workers within 25 km of where they live.

It is the education and employment situation that is more alarming. While the number of Aboriginal people who have enrolled in school is increasing sharply, the retention levels are dismal. Only 17 per cent of the Aboriginal people over the age of 15 hav e obtained post-school certificates, only 7 per cent have a year-12 certificate and only 6 per cent are pursuing a course to obtain a technical qualification. As for employment, only 63 per cent participate in the labour force, mostly in part-time positi ons. Government employment schemes account for the income of 55 per cent of the indigenous people. To indicate how critical the implications of laws relating to crime and punishment are for these people, over a quarter of the Aboriginal population betwee n the ages of 15 and 44 have been arrested at least once.

The problem is complex because modern urban Australia is concentrated in a cluster of major cities along a narrow coastal belt, while Aboriginal populations are scattered across remote and far-flung areas of the continent. This translates into a high cos t of delivering social infrastructure, which needs to be sudsidised by taxpayers who pay steep taxes on their income to support an economy that prides itself on its ability to support the medical and basic needs of the unemployed and disadvantaged sectio ns. Seen from Howard's perspective, an admission of the truth that the Australian Government had indeed wronged the Aboriginal people would amount to an admission of the need for redress - redress that would involve a huge compensation. That would be an unpopular political move for a government that is attempting to push through a goods and services tax (GST), which is to be introduced on July 1, 2000 and will impact every business and organisation in Australia. The move is fraught with tension and prep aratory jitters. In fact, the taxpayers have already coughed up a lot of money for the Sydney Olympics, with an extra couple of millions incurred as a result of a major bungling by the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) on the arra ngements regarding the sale of tickets for the Olympics.

Corroboree 2000 at the Opera House in Sydney is the occasion at which the Reconciliation document will be delivered to the nation, ceremonially marking the end of a 10-year-long process. This could, however, be a reconcilation disaster if the Prime Minis ter does not endorse it. The wording of the document is tough and it is expected to call for an apology from the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of the States even while the Prime Minister remains adamant about his refusal to say the 'S' word. The Prime Minister is backed by a council-commissioned poll, which said that only four in 10 of the over thousand people interviewed favoured an apology. On the other hand, polls with a wider base, involving 276 public meetings, 2,769 personal response form s and 200 public submissions, showed that there was support for a stronger wording of the document with regard to the process of takeover of the land from original inhabitants and the stolen generation and a clear definition of the stand on customary law , of which native title is a part. Howard is reluctant to accept any of these. The document is expected to set up a framework agreement for a process guaranteeing resources that will strengthen the development of Aboriginals.

Aboriginal activists are threatening to target trade in their protest against the Federal government's race relations record. They expect that raising human relations issues would endanger Australian trade; they intend to start sending out information so on about issues such as the stolen generation and mandatory sentencing, to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) everywhere. Charles Perkins, a prominent Aboriginal activist, said that he had requested a large number of people not to come to Sydney for t he Olympics since Australia was as racist as South Africa had been. Many Aborigines have planned protests at the Games and are prepared to go to jail. The biggest international sporting event in the world is expected to be marked by sharp and bitter Abor iginal protests. According to a spokeperson for Aboriginal rights, "The world will now learn that Australia has a government that refuses to apologise to the victims, denies them the right to believe it ever happened and thinks their systematic removal f or the purpose of biological or cultural assimilation was not racist in intention but fundamentally benign."

The anxiety surrounding the Games in Sydney has understandably increased the pressure on the Federal government to find an acceptable way to defuse rising Aboriginal anger and anguish, which could lead to extreme embarrassment for it at a time when it ca n ill-afford it. While Australia has been able to keep its skeletons in the cupboard for years, the ending of political and geographical isolation is forcing the country, which is increasingly conscious of its international profile, to acknowledge a part of itself under the full glare of Olympic spotlights.

White Australia has been coming to terms with its black heart, albeit very reluctantly. But there is a long way to go before any substantial integration will take place. For many non-indigenous Australians, who do not understand the Aboriginal culture or the more than 90 surviving languages or nature-based religious concepts, it is hard to identify with a past they did not share and do not want to claim.

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