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Trending Issues: Achievable Indigenous Reconciliation?

Election Year – More Political Traction for Indigenous Reconciliation?

As the slow momentum towards this year’s Australian national elections continues, there are still exciting opportunities for a deepening of reconciliation with the Australian Indigenous communities.

Labor’s Reconciliation Plan rekindles the Whitlamesque Spirit and will be a vital campaigning asset in marginal electorates across Northern Australia. After the It’s Time Campaign of 1972, Labor held every federal electorate in Northern Australia from Wide Bay to Kalgoorlie federal electorate with the sole exception of the Townsville-based seat of Herbert.

Labor’s Cathy O’Toole won the seat of Herbert in 2016 by the slenderest of margins after an exhausting exchange of preferences.

Victory in Herbert would not have been achieved without the mandate from the Indigenous voters of Palm Island. Palm Island Booth delivered 86.74 per cent of the votes after preferences to Cathy O’Toole which was the best Labor booth in Herbert. With a final buffer of just 37 votes after preferences in Herbert, the assistance of the Palm Island Booth was a vital asset for change:

Words of encouragement from Bill Shorten in support of Labor’s Reconciliation Plan give a Whitlamesque flare to current policy initiatives (Preface to Labor’s Vision for Reconciliation and Recognition 2018):

For Labor, reconciliation and recognition is about ensuring that First Nations People have the same rights, opportunities and outcomes as every other Australian.

These goals have eluded us as a nation for more than two centuries. It is time for that to change – and Labor wants to lead this change.

Reconciliation and recognition are about acknowledging – and celebrating – the unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants and custodians of Australia. We are home to the oldest surviving culture on earth. That is something that we can all take pride in.

Reconciliation and recognition are about acknowledging the truth of our history, the wrongs that have been committed against first peoples–and not shying away from our historical pain. Without truth, there can be no healing. Reconciliation is about building relationships, and about listening.

Above all, it is about taking action to tackle disadvantage and inequality. It is about introducing practical measures to close the gap in health, housing, education, employment and life expectancy.

The long anticipated 2019 Australian election will come close to the 52nd anniversary of the constitutional amendment from 27 May 1967. It was supported by 91 per cent of voters.

Having worked as a volunteer for Young Labor at Ipswich Town Hall on both that referendum day and the senate election on 25 November 1967, I always hoped for a smoother pace of structural change on Indigenous issues.

More considerate examination of the senate results beyond the local Oxley electorate showed that would have revealed Labor’s primary vote in Queensland had increased by just 1.4 per cent on the 1964 senate result. Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and West Australia were still bastions of neo-conservatism as the magic of Gough Whitlam’s leadership had only been operational since 8 February 1967 when he defeated Dr Jim Cairns in a caucus vote for the leadership vacancy after the retirement of Arthur Calwell.

Reconciliation Day in the ACT on 27 May 2019, is also ironically the 65th birthday of Senator Pauline Hanson who also represented the federal seat of Oxley for a single two-year term from 1996-98 before the formation of the new electorate of Blair to cover population growth in the Ipswich Region.

On issues relating to Indigenous reconciliation, Pauline Hanson drew inspiration for her stand against more government support for Indigenous Australians on cherished advice from that illusive adviser called Commonsense (20th Anniversary of Pauline Hanson’s Maiden Speech-SMH Online 15 September 2016):

On issues relating to Indigenous reconciliation, Pauline Hanson drew inspiration for her stand against more government support for Indigenous Australians on cherished advice from that illusive adviser called Commonsense:

My view on issues is based on commonsense, and my experience as a mother of four children, as a sole parent, and as a businesswoman running a fish and chip shop. I won the seat of Oxley largely on an issue that has resulted in me being called a racist. That issue related to my comment that Aboriginals received more benefits than non-Aboriginals.

We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians by those who promote political correctness and those who control the various taxpayer funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society servicing Aboriginals, multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups. In response to my call for equality for all Australians, the most noisy criticism came from the fat cats, bureaucrats and the do-gooders. They screamed the loudest because they stand to lose the most – their power, money and position, all funded by ordinary Australian taxpayers

Present governments are encouraging separatism in Australia by providing opportunities, land, moneys and facilities available only to Aboriginals. Along with millions of Australians, I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia. I do not believe that the colour of one’s skin determines whether you are disadvantaged.

This cautious spirit still permeates federal LNP policies relating to Indigenous reconciliation. Despite some positive rhetoric, Indigenous reconciliation is still largely at a Reconciliation Light Phase in the federal LNP’s political cosmology:

After rejecting calls to change the date of Australia Day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says there could instead be another national day to celebrate Indigenous people and culture.

The PM floated the idea amid renewed debate over national celebrations being held on January 26, the date the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove.

Mr Morrison ruled out changing the date but suggested it would be good to “chat with the Australian people” about the concept of a new national day to recognise Australia’s Indigenous history.

“There’s a lot to celebrate … and I think we can celebrate the fact that this is the world’s oldest living culture,” he said.

While not nominating a date for the new day, Mr Morrison noted the ACT now holds a Reconciliation Day public holiday on May 28, which marks the anniversary of the successful 1967 Indigenous referendum.

“We don’t have to pull Australia Day down to actually recognise the achievements of Indigenous Australia, the oldest living culture in the world; the two can coexist,” Mr Morrison told Channel Seven.

With another 192 countries and eleven associated states of UNESCO, Australia supports the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

At Triple J’s Laneway Festival in Brisbane on 29 January 2019, the contribution of Indigenous artist Danzal Baker as Baker Boy was acknowledged by the thronging crowd. Even the Australian Government through the Department of Communications and the Arts offered rhetorical support for Indigenous Reconciliation.

Reconciliation Light History policies have been developed by the federal LNP to patch over two centuries of piecemeal change but there are inconsistencies in the current approaches from the federal LNP.

Reconciliation Light Strategies for the Leichhardt Electorate in North Queensland

Prime Minister Morrison brought the reconciliation theme to Cooktown with local LNP member Warren Entsch in his marginal seat of Leichhardt. It extends from Cairns to the Torres Straits.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted that preparations for the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing at Cooktown would offer new generations an insight into Captain Cook, the Endeavour and the experiences of Indigenous Australians:

As the 250th anniversary nears we want to help Australians better understand Captain Cook’s historic voyage and its legacy for exploration, science and reconciliation,” the Prime Minister said.

That voyage is the reason Australia is what it is today and it’s important we take the opportunity to reflect on it.

The Prime Minister assured everyone from Cooktown that the 250th Anniversary would promote the theme of reconciliation:

Warren and I have shared a passionate interest in these stories for a very, very long time and with the 250th anniversary of that historic voyage, it was a great opportunity to come here. I was particularly keen to come here before Australia Day this year, because in my own community back in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney, we have the annual meeting of two cultures ceremony on the 29th of April each year.

It’s an opportunity to understand this story from both the view from the shore and the view from the sea; to understand what took place and to build understanding and learning. But importantly it’s a ceremony that actually brings Australians together… That is what we take from history. That’s what we have an opportunity to do in a few days’ time. Not to walk away from our history, but to understand it, to embrace it, to recognise things that have happened both positively and otherwise.

It’s so great here in Cooktown to see that spirit of reconciliation, that spirit of understanding, that spirit of appreciation and respect to be played out. I really want to acknowledge the Waymburr People here. Not only because they helped a bloke out when he turned up here almost 250 years ago and got him back on his ship and on his way, but for the spirit in which they have kept that story alive amongst their own people and to hear it relayed to me today by local Indigenous people, it was incredibly special.

At the flag raising ceremony in Canberra on 26 January 2019, some elements of the old Foundation Day theme crept into Prime Minister Morrison’s speech:

The wonder of our country is that out of such hardship and cruelties would emerge a nation as decent, so fair and so prosperous as ours today.

That is what we celebrate.

While our beginnings were marked with the cruelties and dispossession of empire, they were also accompanied by the idealism of the enlightenment age. Australia was to be a great project.

Here in Queensland, the public execution site of Indigenous resistance leader Dundelli is highlighted by Associate Professor Dr Libby Connors at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba in several accredited sources including the Australian Dictionary of Biography:

Dundalli was tried before (Sir) Roger Therry at the Brisbane Circuit Court in November. In his Reminiscences (London, 1863), Therry described how the prisoner brazenly attempted to bribe him, for sixpence, and on another occasion offered to row the judge to Sydney if he would release him.

Dundalli was sentenced to death for the murders of Andrew Gregor and William Boller. The gallows were erected on the Queen Street footpath in front of Brisbane Gaol.

A crowd gathered to witness the execution on 5 January 1855 and the town constabulary, and a detachment of native police surrounded the gallows to prevent any attempt at escape or rescue.

As Dundalli mounted the scaffold he called out to a large number of indigenous people, who were gathered in the brushes that lined the Wickham Terrace hill, overlooking the scene, to avenge his death. They let out a loud cry when his body dropped.

Alexander Green, the executioner sent from Sydney, bungled the hanging. Dundalli’s feet fell upon his coffin, forcing Green to bend and drag on the hanged man’s long legs until he died.

In 2008, LNP Lord Mayor Campbell Newman authorised the re-location of a monument to Colonel Sir Thomas William Glasgow (1876-1955) at the Post Office Square site. This is adjacent to the site of Dundelli’s public hanging. There is no reference to Dundelli’s execution at the site.

A promotion for Libby Connor’s book is offered by Allen and Unwin Book Publishers and Booktopia:

The fascinating story of one of the great Aboriginal resistance fighters of the colonial frontier and a compelling portrait of life in early Brisbane.

‘Connors lays down the hard truth. Not all our warriors were Anzacs. Not all our wars were just.’ – John Birmingham, author and columnist

In the 1840s, white settlement in the north was under attack. European settlers were in awe of Aboriginal physical fitness and fighting prowess, and a series of deadly raids on homesteads made even the townspeople of Brisbane anxious.

Young warrior Dundalli was renowned for his size and strength, and his elders gave him the task of leading the resistance against the Europeans’ ever-increasing incursions on their traditional lands. Their response was embedded in Aboriginal law and Dundalli became one of their greatest lawmen. With his band of warriors, he had the settlers in thrall for twelve years, evading capture again and again, until he was finally arrested and publicly executed.

Warrior is the extraordinary story of one of Australia’s little-known heroes, one of many Aboriginal men to die protecting their country. It is also a fresh and compelling portrait of life in the early days of white settlement of Brisbane and south east Queensland.

This valued work could be a welcome addition to personal libraries and a gift welcomed by family members and friends. Its wisdom might be extended in the future to ANZAC Day pageants with respectful moments of silence for the thousands of indigenous people killed in Australia’s own Frontier Wars.

Old Symbols: Barriers to Indigenous Reconciliation?

Tolerance of the colonial perspective of Australian history is still embedded in earlier monuments which still stand in Brisbane.

Explorer John Oxley (1784-1828) is credited with the literal discovery of Brisbane in 1824 by the riverside monument. It was put in place around 1932. This was a time when conservative political elites sought closer ties with the British Empire during the troubled years of the Interwar Period.

After the fall of Singapore in May 1942, John Curtin insisted on withdrawing Australian troops from North Africa for the defence of Australia despite opposition from Winston Churchill. The attitude of Sir Thomas Glasgow to the strategic changes as our first High Commissioner in Canada could probably be assessed from the National Archives in Canberra.

In King George Square, monuments to British royalty tower over benign images of the occupation of Indigenous lands during the Frontier Wars.

Image: Petrie Tableau from Monument Australia (Russell Byers)

Progressive change in education about Indigenous culture will not come through the federal LNP’s funding models for public broadcasting and the increasing commercialisation of the electronic media. Expect more political blasts from talkback radio chieftains in the promotion of the federal LNP’s fear strategies relating progress towards Indigenous reconciliation. Radio 4BC in Brisbane was accidentally left out of the initial press release from Fairfax Media (Radio Today 26 July 2018):

Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media have announced a merger agreement this morning, in a deal worth an estimated $4 billion. The merger sees the formation of a merged entity, which will become Australia’s largest integrated media player, and has significant implications for radio with Fairfax being a majority shareholder of Macquarie Media.

Under the new merger, Macquarie Media’s radio network, including stations 2GB, 3AW and 6PR, as well as the newly rebranded will join a portfolio comprising Nine’s television network as well as a suite of large-scale brands in digital and publishing.

Popular talkback hosts from Macquarie Broadcasting retain an enduring faith in Howard era rhetoric on reconciliation:

Broadcaster Alan Jones has declared that Australia needs more stolen generations, saying that children brought up around alcohol abuse and drugs should be taken away from their parents.

The controversial 2GB breakfast host was discussing Saturday night’s Indigenous All Stars rugby league match with a talk-back caller on Monday morning when he launched into a speech about the stolen generation – the children of Indigenous descent who were removed from their parents.

At the match, held at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, the national anthem was first sung in an Indigenous language, before a minute’s silence was held to acknowledge the stolen generation, and the Indigenous All Stars players performed a war dance.

The 2GB listener, Dell, described the Indigenous commemorations at the start of the match as a “load of twaddle”, to Jones’ amusement.

Such shrill rhetoric is being trumped by mainstream and institutional support for reconciliation.

On a visit to the George Street office of the Queensland Government’s Q Super in George Street, I was impressed by the display of two acrylic canvases in support of Indigenous reconciliation by Robert Henderson, a Wiradjuri practicing artist in Brisbane.

Robert Henderson’s art work on the importance of balance between personal, community and universal space is still on display in the foyer at Q Super.

The artist offers words of optimistic wisdom to clients and staff at the Q Super office which offers some of the best performing retirement assets from public sector investment strategies with the added moral backing of a proactive Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). This is summarised in a short video.

Explanatory Notes from Robert Henderson

The three circles the personal areas we all occupy. The Centre is the self, our values, our integrity, thoughts, intensions, endeavours, aspirations. Intellect, intuition and spirituality. The middle circle is country, family, community and business. The outer circle is the world community, the universe, our ancestors and creator spirit.

The paintings depict the importance of achieving balance across the three areas. In this practice, we are holistically healthy and dynamic. The two pieces the balance between positive and negative, light and dark aspects of the principle. Light and shadows coexist symbiotically.

Commitment to Indigenous reconciliation cannot be achieved by institutions which are fixated on aspects of just one circle of influence.

The federal LNP’s Reconciliation Light Strategies have a paler hue from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson:

Business groups say creating another public holiday could cost the Australian economy $3 billion after the prime minister suggested a special day to recognise Indigenous Australians. Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said the potential cost in foregone economic activity of an extra day off work should be factored in.

“So consideration should be given to the possibility of replacing an existing public holiday so the total number of public holidays remains the same,” he told Fairfax Media.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for a new national day to celebrate Indigenous Australians, in an effort to sidestep the growing calls for Australia Day to be moved from January 26.

This concern about the financial costs of a National Indigenous Day needs to be balanced by a more humane assessment of the enormous costs of Indigenous incarceration and the over-representation of Indigenous people in the corrective criminal justice system:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men make up 27 per cent of the Australian prison population, costing the nation about $3.9 billion per year, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) said.

“Over-representation is both a persistent and growing problem — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates increased 41 per cent between 2006 and 2016.”

“There has to be a change because we just cannot continue to lock up the First Nations people at the rates at which we do,” Labor senator Pat Dodson said.

The year-long inquiry received 120 submissions and was informed by a committee of Australia’s pre-eminent Indigenous legal minds.

Criminal justice targets should be set by governments to reduce rate of incarceration, and rates of violence, the commission found.

The inquiry also recommends an independent justice reinvestment body be established to divert money away from the criminal justice system and into trials in local areas to drive down high rates of offending.

“Commonwealth, state and territory governments should support justice reinvestment trials initiated in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”

The report said irregular employment, previous convictions for often low-level offending, and a lack of secure housing was disadvantaging some Indigenous people when they applied for bail.

But the inquiry found that magistrates and judges faced a shortage of community-based sentencing options for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders and said state and territories should establish specialist Indigenous sentencing courts.

“These courts should incorporate individualised case management, wraparound services, and be culturally competent, culturally safe and culturally appropriate.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people deserved to have greater confidence their police complaints would be investigated independently, the review said.

The costs of unnecessary incarceration of Indigenous people and legitimate refugees can be addressed as the myths fostered by Australian neoconservatives are finally put to rest.

Denis Bright is a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is committed to citizens’ journalism by promoting discussion of topical issues from a critical structuralist perspective. Readers are encouraged to continue the discussions in this current series of Trending Issues for Australians in this election year.


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  1. Mia

    Few visitors to Brisbane are made aware of our indigenous past and present.

  2. Leila

    Brilliant article Denis, very comprehensive coverage of the topic. We as a nation need to have the courage to face our past together. Knowing the reality of what happened, to the people already living here, when the British invaded this continent. Then together we can really move forward bringing everyone and being inclusive of all.

  3. Chris

    Brisbane has an indigenous past and prison history which extends to today’s sentences for prisoners in our Courts.

  4. Paul

    Great article Denis!

    It’s certainly great to bring this matter to attention. Its such a complex topic. I hope that labour can work with the indigenous community collaboratively to bring about need change.

    Thanks so much!

  5. Free and Independent Australia

    A most important topic to deepen Australia’s national identity. Overseas tourists to Brisbane are kept in the dark about our Colonial Past when the Moreton Bay Settlements were off-limits until Indigenous Resistance had been crushed.

  6. Stella

    Denis, such a great well researched article. Indigenous Australian policy is a high priority issue for the Government and it’s an important issue for the coming election. The idea of a national indigenous recognition day is definitely a good one.

  7. Bill

    Indigenous policy should be the focus of all campaigns – even if it doesn’t bring the votes!

  8. Michael Taylor

    Can’t argue with you on that note, Bill.

    When I worked for ATSIC one of Howard’s minister joked that “ATSIC bashing is good politics.”

    Those bastards were always using Indigenous people as political football.

  9. Pingback: A great article from the AIM ntework – Author David Tyler | Townsville Blog.

  10. Tessa_M

    An important election issue. Looking forward to greater emphasis on reconciliation and bridging the gap at the upcoming elcection.

  11. James_Robo

    Yes definitely agree with you on that note bill! It should the focus on all campaigns and policies.

  12. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Great article Denis ; I’ve learned things about the Frontier Wars I did not know before. And I support a new public holiday as you suggest. But I don’t think it must come at the expense of an existing holiday. As far as public holidays enhance our quality of life they’re a good thing. And they’re an especially good thing where they promote understanding, recognition and reconciliation.

  13. Denis Bright in Brisbane

    Appreciated your comments, Tristan. Australians work longer hours in a largely non-unionised workforce outside a few key sectors of the economy like nursing, teaching, building and construction. Another public holiday is not a problem although it is opposed by business groups on cost factors.

    The ACT’s Reconciliation Day is a very important event on the annual holiday cycle.

    In Brisbane, tourists are given minimal information about our indigenous and convict past.

    The alternatives to the hegemony of corporate culture and militaristic interpretations of our past will be developed by a newer generation of leaders.

    Let’s check the situation again in another 31 years at mid-century to assess what progress has been made!

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