Counter-Productive Council

Article excerpt

THE Government was probably relieved that the threatened resignations of a number of members of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation did not eventuate at the Council's August meeting. Certainly, mass resignations would have caused serious political problems, at least in the short-term. Nevertheless, they also would have provided an ideal opportunity for the Government to reconstruct the reconciliation process and so increase the prospect of improving relations between Aborigines and other Australians.

The present Council's vision of reconciliation is entirely appropriate: "A united Australia which respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage, and provides justice and equity for all." But, as is so often the case in indigenous matters, the public pronouncement offers a poor guide to what is actually occurring. The Council's approach to its task is misguided, and more likely to increase division than reduce it. Instead of acknowledging the failures of the dominant philosophy of the past two decades, it is basically arguing for more of the same.

COMPROMISE: The setting up of the reconciliation process by the Hawke Government involved a compromise. Hawke and many of his ministers wanted to see a 'treaty' or 'compact' between Aborigines and other Australians, but this was strongly opposed by the Coalition parties. 'Reconciliation', with the establishing legislation leaving open the question of a formal document, was an acceptable alternative, and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Bill 1991 was passed unanimously by both Houses of Parliament.

The legislation requires that the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation consists of at least 15 but no more than 25 members, at least 12 of whom must be Aborigines and two Torres Strait Islanders. The Government, the Opposition, and any independent party with more than five seats in Parliament each nominate a member, and the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of ATSIC are automatically members.

These requirements leave some scope for choosing people with wisdom who could command the respect of a broad range of Australians, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. But such an approach would not have fitted with Labor's corporatist philosophy. The non-Aboriginal members were thus chosen as the supposed representatives of special interests - business, unions, mining, agriculture, ethnics, media.

It is harder to identify the basis on which the Aboriginal members were selected. While some of them are fine people, others are Labor mates, who may not have nearly as much support from their own people as non-Aborigines believe. For instance, when the Council's Chairperson Pat Dodson stood for election to ATSIC in his home area of La Grange in Western Australia in 1990, he received only 19 votes, coming 17th in a field of 39 candidateS. And Esme Saunders, a member of the first Council from 1991 till 1994, obtained only two votes in the 1990 ATSIC elections.

INFIMMATORY REMARKS: Nor does sound judgement seem to be a prerequisite for membership. In recent months, a number of Council members have made offensive and highly political public statements which have damaged the credibility of the Council as a whole. For instance, Pat Dodson claimed that some members of the Government were "probably lamenting the fact that they missed out on the nigger hunts" and Deputy Chairperson Ian Viner made the silly suggestion that attempts to reform ATSIC, "could leave the Government open to allegations of racism".

Some aspects of the relationship between Aborigines and other Australians, such as native title claims, will inevitably cause conflict in parts of the country. But a wise Council would do everything possible to avoid politically contentious issues, in order to ensure that it could appeal to mainstream Australia on matters that will really determine the success of the reconciliation process. The present situation, where individuals and groups can threaten to derail reconciliation unless they get their own way - even if they represent minority views among Aborigines, let alone the non-Aboriginal population - is totally counter-productive. …