Referendums and Reconciliation Marches: What Bridges Are We Crossing?

By Casey, Maryrose | Journal of Australian Studies, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Referendums and Reconciliation Marches: What Bridges Are We Crossing?


Casey, Maryrose, Journal of Australian Studies


Shortly after the 'People's walk for reconciliation' in May 2000, the Age reported:

   Since the 1967 referendum that gave the Commonwealth power to
   legislate on indigenous affairs, and especially since the High
   Court's Mabo judgment in 1992, relations between Indigenous and
   other Australians have been a central question of national politics.
   In Sydney a week ago, the events of Corroboree 2000 may have
   provided a third great milestone. The hope and goodwill generated by
   the Walk for Reconciliation, when more than 150,000, perhaps a
   quarter of a million, Australians crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge
   together, seem to demonstrate a groundswell of support for
   reconciliation. Given the antagonisms that have been generated by
   particular issues such as native title, an apology for the stolen
   generations and mandatory sentencing, that groundswell is no small
   achievement. (1)

The year 2000 was one of major public events where Australians performed their 'values' and identity on national and international stages. The two main bases for these performances were the completion of the tasks of the Council for Reconciliation, culminating in Corroboree 2000, and the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The walks for reconciliation that were a feature of Corroboree 2000, like the 1967 referendum, continue to be celebrated as significant statements of support for positive change in Australian race relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Writers such as Gail Jones and many others have examined the positive potential of the reconciliation process overall, revealing the rich potential for change and shifts in perspective that these walks represent. (2) Others such as Andrew Gunstone, Angela Pratt, Catriona Elder, Cath Ellis and Colin Tatz have highlighted and examined problematic aspects of the process in terms of its nation building elements and the positioning of Indigenous people and Indigenous sovereignty within the process. (3)

This article examines the walks as public events that hold a powerful place in the social imaginary through the translation of the events into the social memory as performative acts. My intention is to interrogate these performances of public sentiment and their role as performative acts, or actions, as cross cultural negotiations within the reconciliation process. To do so, I draw primarily on popular media accounts preceding and following the 'walks for reconciliation' as examples of documented shifts in the meaning and understanding of the walks and as active participants in the process of developing and framing this meaning and understanding. (4) In the first section I outline the political context of the establishment of the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation and its work in the 1990s. I then examine popular press narratives about the 'people's walks for reconciliation', and the framing of the walks as performative of cross-cultural healing and reconciliation. In the final section I consider the function and outcome of the walks and the competing performative narratives in relation to the 1967 referendum and its outcomes. This examination reveals that in practice rather than acting as support for change or a tangible achievement, the repeated focus on the specific events as performative acts in themselves (as if the performativity they represented actually enacted change) has in effect worked against positive or active changes in cross cultural relations.

The Council for Reconciliation

From events around the establishment of the Council of Reconciliation in 1991 to the year 2000, the politics surrounding relations with, and policies towards, Indigenous Australians engendered competing performative protests and actions across many levels of society, including those Stuart Hall identifies as the recognised 'legitimate "gate-keepers" of the political domain', the agents or representatives of government control and the mass media. …

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