Four Aboriginal Speakers discuss ReconciliationBy: (Sep 19 2022)
A panel of gay Koori and Murray Aboriginals spoke to us on the topic of Aboriginal reconciliation and native title. The panel comprised Sue Green, from the Australian Centre for Lesbian & Gay Research at Sydney University, who got the panel together; John Scott, Chief Curriculum Officer of the Aboriginal Curriculum Unit of the NSW Office of the Board of Studies; DJ-the “legal beagle” on the panel, and Steve, a Sydney University student. Because of the importance of this topic to all Australians, but particularly to gays as victims of discrimination ourselves. The panel’s talks were frequently punctuated with ovations of “hear, hear” and much clapping.
The relation of the pastoralists to the Aboriginal situation
John: Their connection to the land has some comparison with Aboriginal connection to land. But, I think, we would all agree that colonisation, particularly this century, has been one of the great vehicles of the human race propelled by a doctrine that believed that some people were more intelligent than others or better than others in some way, simply because of their racial origins. I believe that all right-thinking people know that we all have the same human rights. And human rights aren’t given to us. They are something we all have because we are people. Those in the community that sympathise know what discrimination feels like. Gays know first hand what discrimination is like so whatever we do, don’t ever inflict it on anyone else.
Sue: I’d like to let people know that I’m only a recent convert to reconciliation. I used to say that reconciliation was a “wreck, a con, and a silly notion”. But what changed my mind about it was looking at the ordinary Australian people who were in there supporting it. People who were just as confused as us as to what was meant by it. What were we going to lose? I just thought that reconciliation meant that we had to reconcile ourselves to the loss of our land and stay basically where we were. But then I look around and see the good will that ordinary, everyday people show-people that think we have as much right to a decent life as they do, that we have a place in this country, a special place that’s recognised. I don’t need governments or politicians to tell me where we should go or how we should do it. Because I don’t think the government is listening to the voice of the people. I think reconciliation is about all of us.
Steve: I’m always a bit suspicious about the word “reconciliation”. I don’t think black fellas have anything to reconcile, quite frankly. But for me also, I think there’s a connotation of “guilt” on one side. Aboriginal people aren’t interested in conjuring up guilt. It’s something that’s not productive and we don’t want it. And we don’t want anyone else to feel it. The critical point is that Aboriginal people are constantly marginalised. Black people in a lot of Aboriginal communities have young people working for the dole and getting a rate of pay much lower than that they would normally get if they were actually employed. You hear terms like “tax payers and Aborigines” and “pastoralists and Aborigines”. There are black pastoralists, and black people pay taxes too. There is this constant marginalisation through every sphere of Aboriginal life. I think that’s something that has to end. People talk about including Aboriginal people within society and making them want to feel included yet constantly marginalise us. I think that is an important thing that has to be gotten over.
John: Re reconciliation, I think it’s about us, on a community level, getting on better too. And I don’t think it’ll work if we leave it to politicians.
Greg Barter: Can I personally apologise for the things that the white man has done, apologise to Aboriginals. It’s purely a personal thing. There’s been discussion about the word “reconciliation” and its connotations. Would it not be better that the appropriate concept be “maccerata”, which is what Nugget Coombs came up with. In other words, it’s a treaty between all people of Australia, regardless of race, regardless of sexual orientation, and regardless of ethnicity. It should be that we are one people. And would you prefer the concept of “maccerata” rather than the concept of “reconciliation”?
John: A good question. I am aware of the concept of a “maccerata”. It was proposed in the eighties. and was certainly supported by people like Pat Dodson, the Chair of the Reconciliation Council, and Mick Dodson, the Social Justice Commissioner. I think there is a need for a treaty. One of the things that makes it hard is that Aboriginal people really are tied to place-to specific places. It would almost need lots of little macceratas perhaps. But, what I stress is, and I think Sue touched on it by saying it’s not about guilt. I think Australians run around thinking that Aborigines want us to feel guilty about things that happened in the past. We don’t want anyone to feel guilty about anything. A lot of people have never been involved in racism or participated in racist processes. Guilt is a negative thing and I don’t think very much comes out of it. Although having been brought up a Catholic, I know that the Catholic church is very good at using guilt. We’ll leave that to the Catholics. But the reason that we should all try to get on well together, the reason that we should all aspire to have a good quality of life in this country is because it makes us better people to do that, not because anyone should feel guilty about the past. Striving to be better and to get on better and to have a good quality of life makes us all better people and that’s why we should always try and improve things in this country.
Bryan: Is it a fact that Australia has become a very secular society and in terms of your sacred issues that itself is a major issue?
John: At the moment it’s very important for Aboriginal people. We’re pushing law reform to make sure that Aboriginal beliefs and customs and cultures are protected to the same extent that everybody else is. For instance, Aboriginal people have a collective knowledge that is given to people as an obligation and they have to look after it. It’s not something that’s freely given away. And, in general, there’s no protection for oral culture-when our stories are passed on orally there’s no protection for them. So, I suppose, one of the things that we’re striving for is for law reform to make sure that all of our cultures are equally protected. A lot of people don’t understand that, because they seem to think “the law’s there. It protects everybody the same way.” But the law impacts on Aboriginal people very differently from how it impacts on non-Aboriginal people. And there are some things in Aboriginal society that haven’t been thought of in the Western legal system so they have never been protected. Yeah, so I think you’re probably quite right. And I think if we really do desire to be multicultural in nature and not just by name, maybe all of our bureaucracies and our literatures need to encompass the whole range of people that live in Australia and not just expect everybody to be, if you’ll excuse the expression, a “middle-class white person”. Because I think our bureaucracies and power structures marginalise anybody who doesn’t fit into the mainstream and that includes gays, that includes Aboriginal people, non-English speaking people, people with disabilities and, of course, some of us who cross all of these areas. Disadvantage doesn’t fall into neat boxes either. We have friends who are gay, Aboriginal men with disabilities. We do have a few of those.
David: When you talk of gay Aboriginals, I met a gay Aboriginal a couple of years ago at a conference who was descended from Governor King. Governor King had a dispute with my great-great-grandfather who was a tavern keeper at Toongabbie. He had been chief of police. The governor wanted him to go back to being chief of police but my great-great-grandfather didn’t want to, so Governor King sent around his men. They pushed him aside at the tavern and pulled his knickers down into the gutter. He decided it was time to go home and tried to go back to England. But that’s a long story…
Craig mentioned treaties. I didn’t see the programme but I understand that Pat Dodson on the Press Club, last Wednesday, raised the question of a treaty. Do you know what kind of terror this exacerbates in the Anglos? They live in rising fear of their hegemony being split. A treaty to them implies that there has been a war and a war implies that there are two nations fighting. The implication is that two nations are being established and confirmed in this country. There are treaties in Canada and the USA, there are treaties in New Zealand where it has been admitted there was a war. It’s never been admitted that there was war here…
DJ: Probably John’s better at commenting on this than I am, but there are international treaties. They are agreements and responsibilities and obligations to one another between nation states. They may come about as a result of war. But often not-I mean we’re a signatory to a number of humane treaties including racial discrimination, the rights of the child etc. etc. I think you have a narrow definition of treaty in the first place. But if you take a dry legal interpretation it’s really about the grievance between nation states. In America, Canada and most notably in New Zealand, the government representing the nation state has entered into treaties. But, in order to do that, they’ve had to recognise the indigenous peoples as being nations within a nation. I don’t think that’ll happen in Australia under our present systems of law. But if we just treat the word “treaty” as a bit of a structure, what it really is about is an agreement between peoples. Now, one of the objects of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has been, from the start, a Document of Reconciliation by the year 2000. That’s a long way off now. But, it’s one of the reasons Pat Dodson resigned from the Reconciliation Council. It’s because he couldn’t see that this was going to be achieved. A Document of Reconciliation is an agreement outlining mutual rights and obligations between two peoples. But it’s interesting, the question before, about maccaratas. What I’d be in favour of-and I think the Reconciliation Council is in favour of-is not strictly a treaty but more along the lines of a Bill of Rights entrenched in our constitution. There are pro and con arguments, you’re right. But what a Bill specifies is rights and responsibilities as human beings-it doesn’t specify race, it protects sexual orientation, it protects the aged and women. It brings everybody under a uniform umbrella of rights. I think that’s what the guy before was trying to get at. But, I mean “treaty” in its dry, legal sense is an agreement between nation states. But if we just go with the word “agreement” and try to work something around that, then we can hang towards a Document of Reconciliation and a Bill of Rights.
Richard Buckdale: As mature aged gays, how can we help the reconciliation process best?
John: I suppose you’ve already done a lot. You came along tonight and you’ve listened. I don’t know if we’ve changed your mind but at least you’ll go away with more information. So you can make up your minds yourselves. So, you have already done the first step. I know Malcolm X was once asked by a white woman what she could do to help and he said “Nothing. You’ve already done everything just by being on our side.” Things are getting very nasty in the Government with the Wik business going on at the moment. Quite frankly, an uncle of mine, said “in any audience you speak to, half’ll be for you and half will be against you. With the half that are against you, if you give them the facts, hopefully half of them will come around to your side. I suppose, if we wind up with an election on the race issue, then it’s up to Australians to make their own choice. And I have enough faith in Australians to believe that people will make the right decision. I think that some people probably voted in the 1967 election, which saw Aboriginal people recognised as citizens in this country. So I think that just make sure you’re informed, and do not promote racist myths. If you hear these outrageous things that Aborigines get free taxis or free houses or whatever-I’d love to get some of these things-it’s not true, don’t promote myths. Try to find out what the truth is. Don’t let other people promote things that are not true and will promote racial hatred. When you hear these, speak out against them. Because Aboriginal people in this country are less than 3% of the population-there’s less than 370,000 people of Aboriginal descent here. And we can’t possibly make very much difference unless we have most of non-Aboriginal Australia on our side. The ideas that Aborigines want to destroy the nation or rip it apart or create apartheid are not true-they simply are not true! So, I just ask you to keep an open mind, to listen to both sides of the debate and to listen to your heart and to do the right thing when it comes to the crunch. I won’t tell you what that is, you’ll decide that for yourselves.
Sue: I’d like to thank you all on behalf of myself and my three brothers that are here for coming in and listening to us tonight. We hope that we shared something with you that you saw and that you’ll be able to take with you into the wide world out there.
Steve: I’d like to add to something that John said before. I think that Paul Keating coined the phrase “the noble exceptions”when he apologised in 1993. And what he meant by that were those people who actively campaigned for Aboriginal people and weren’t Aboriginal. To become a noble exception is what everybody should aim for and that’s how you can help us. If you hear a racist joke or hear misinformation, correct them. There has to be a process, I think, of resocialisation.
DJ: I just want to show you the Stolen Generation report. They’ve been sold out for a little while now. You can get them from the ABC shop-the report is called “Bringing Them Home”. We will leave this, a condensed version, a summary, of what’s in the report. Also a video called “Walking Together” from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Also we’re leaving a little book called “Face the Facts”. Sue, John and Steve were talking about negating the myths around the place. This outlines some of these myths and tells you a bit about the truth. And that’s also available through the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.