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On common ground
Southern Cross Magazine

WHINGING, whining blackies.” That comment perhaps was the most relevant moment of a recent visit to London by a high-powered Aboriginal delegation in town to learn more about Australia’s “English” past and let the British people know about Australia’s true past.

Not the sanitised version, not the watered-down version too often bandied about in Australian political and legal circles. But the version that includes 100,000 “stolen” Aboriginals and a government with two hundred-plus years of documented failure over trying to get the indigenous and European Australians to live together in harmony.

However that comment — referring to Aboriginals as whingers — was not made by an outspoken politician. It was made by Professor Marcia Langton, well-known Aboriginal leader and ranger professor of Aboriginal Studies at Northern Territory University.

Langton said removing that mindset from Australia’s politicians, and indeed, many citizens, when referring to Australia’s indigenous people and their fight for equal rights in their own country, was all-important before true reconciliation could ever take place. But make no mistake, this visit was not about a chance for three Aboriginal leaders to gripe about the problems Down Under.

This visit was about setting the record straight.

It included a visit to the Queen, the first visit by an Aboriginal delegation to Australia’s head of the monarch since Benelong was kidnapped and shipped from Sydney to London in 1793.

But Southern Cross caught up with prominent Aboriginal leaders Langton, Pat Dodson and Peter Yu at The Menzies Centre For Australian Studies at Russell Square.

Dodson, the most immediately recognisable of the three, is a West Australian, director of the Central Land Council and Kimberly Land Council and a former royal commissioner who sat on the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody enquiry.

Yu, is a director on the Kimberly Land Council and also sat on the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission. They each spoke on one aspect of the battle for reconciliation and recognition.

Langton spoke first, opting to talk about the shared links between Australian and the United Kingdom and just what did happen when the Great Southern Land was “colonised” by Captain James Cook in 1770. “If Australia should become a republic any time in the future it would be appropriate to reconcile this long and sometimes very sad history of relations between our peoples,” she said. “And that, of course, involves an audit, not all of which is bad and draw to an end a very sad chapter of history and close off that chapter of history.

“We believe we can move beyond the caricatures of the coloniser and the colonised and create new relationships.”

Langton cited documents sent to Cook by English lawmakers that stated that no European could legally take control of Australia when it was obvious the natives were the rightful owners of the land.

That, she said, put paid to the “lie” perpetrated by ministers of the crown in Australian who chose not to give any credence to that true version of history.

“It is interesting that we look to history here in the United Kingdom to find the justifications in British law for our own possession in order to educate the ministers of the crown back home who cannot yet believe that we own land,” she said.

And when Yu came to the podium, to discuss Australia’s legal history in terms of the processes of reconciliation, Langton’s comments only rang truer.

In 1992 Australia witnessed a landmark legal decision, Mabo, that should have changed the path of the country forever.

In layman’s terms, the Mabo ruling stated that Aboriginals owned the land that is Australia and should therefore be given rights to that land under common law.

“The 1992 Mabo decision is far greater in its implications and the ramifications that it has not only for the indigenous community but for the entire country,” he said. “Everyone dived for the decision and how it might shape the nature of Aboriginals legal relationship with the rest of the community. “I think what was underestimated was the nature of the impact it had on our own community, that is the Aboriginal community. “You’ve got to think that it took 206 years to get legal recognition about what was this thing called native title in common law.”

But Yu quickly added that since the decision there had been a concerted legal and political effort to undermine Mabo and return to the previous mindset of white Australia again putting its head in the sand about the issue of land rights. “For us it was an enormous confidence booster,” he said.

He said those seemingly-positive decisions hugely raised expectations within the Aboriginal community for a brighter future but then the community was let down when political victories did not translate into a better way of life, equal rights or movement on land rights.

“What Mabo did for aboriginal people was to say, ‘Alright you’ve had a legal victory’ but it wasn’t just only the common law property rights that were recognised. What it recognised was the legitimacy of Aboriginal customs and traditions.” However the progress hasn’t come, he added. And until it did, until that court ruling translated into real progress for Aboriginals, there could be no reconciliation between the people.

Enter Pat Dodson, the delegation’s leader. Of the three speakers, he was the one to focus on just how the peoples of Australia could come together.

“The process of reconciliation in Australia is really about what the shape of the Australian identity is going to be,” he said.

“It’s not about whether we have a positive outcome from the referendum — that will simply alter the legalities and formalities that will have been sorted prior.

“We’re left internally to figure out, “What are we” and that’s a dilemma for all Australians. “We have this British heritage and yet we’re a multicultural nation and we have unsolved matters and rights in relation to the indigenous people.”

He said the reconciliation process took a step forward in 1991 when both the Liberal and Labour parties agreed to establish an act called the Council For Aboriginal Reconciliation Act, which was designed to embark on a 10-year process of consultation and education. It sought to bring people together who would not normally come together and to open a dialogue about the issues that are a source of division and discourse between the indigenous people and non-indigenous people in Australia.

“But it was not only designed for dialogue but to concentrate on how to develop a practical means of interacting at a regional, local and national level,” he said. “It was also designed to deal with reconciliation on a personal level: whether you like me because I happen to be different by virtue of my appearance, colour of my skin or what your stereotypical perceptions of what a native of Australia is.”

“The process of reconciliation is not about fine words alone. “It’s not about good programs, nor is it about good laws. It’s about substantial acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous people and enshrining those rights in a way so they are not capable of being tampered with by the political vested interest at the whim and fancy of a change of government.

“Because that unfortunately has been the way in which the indigenous interests has been dealt with has been dealt with over the last 200 years or so.”

But Dodson said while the time for looking back on past injustices was definitely not over, looking ahead was the only way to forge real progress.

“Let’s seek to find the common ground,” he said. “We can easily identify about what it is that we don’t like or what we don’t agree with but we need to find out about what but it is that we hold in common.

“That’s the harder task of reconciliation. Finding that when you’ve got a cattleman’s industry in Australia or the pastoral industry who have taken such a strident position in opposition to the native title interests of the Aboriginal people and the Aboriginal people who are also pasteuralists in many parts of Australia.

“Bring those two parties into the one room and getting them to identify what it is you hold in common rather than what it is you dislike about each other that leads to the locked gates.”

“As a dynamic it’s a very important process to find out what it is that we have in common.


”FOR most Australians, the issue of whether or not to vote for a republic seems pretty cut and dried: do we want the Queen as our head of state or not? Or at least that’s all we’ve been told, according to Queensland academic Dr Nigel Greenwood.

Launching his book For The Sovereignty Of The People at The Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, Greenwood said Australians had been “criminally uninformed” about the ramifications of becoming a republic.

Basically, Greenwood’s book suggests that the November 5 referendum to vote on the republic should be knocked back so that the Australian public can be made aware of the true ramifications of having a president.

His argument is that Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy because the Westminster system, headed by the Queen, offers a “safety net” during a time of political crisis within the country.

Greenwood says he is not an outright monarchist and rather has weighed up the benefits and costs of becoming a republic and believes the former is the way to go for

the time being. “I’m not saying we should always stay a monarchy,” he said. “It’s just that the people of Australia have not been told everything about the issue and therefore can’t be well-informed enough to make an informed decision. “The whole issue has been broken down to political cliches — it’s either ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ or ‘A resident for President’.”

International television celebrity and sattirist Clive James was on hand to help Greenwood launch the book and said while he was not “the biggest fan of the monarchy”, Australia had benefited greatly from being a monarchy and, in a worse case scenario such as a major conflict such as war, could find itself divided internally. “I know it sounds dramatic but under the monarchy there is no doubt where the loyalty of such things as the army lie,” he said.