Academic journal article British and American Studies

Multicultural Australia. Narratives of Conflict, Narratives of Reconciliation: From Politicians' Speeches to Stolen Generations Narratives

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Multicultural Australia. Narratives of Conflict, Narratives of Reconciliation: From Politicians' Speeches to Stolen Generations Narratives

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The general crisis of the humanities, history in particular, stemming from the instability of meaning and the treatment of history as a narration of past events from a contemporary perspective, makes virtually impossible any serious debate on establishing a set of unifying national values and beliefs in most Western democracies in the world. The problem is far more complex in multicultural nations like Australia, which, to a large extent, do not share a common history or even if they do, it is predominately a history of conflicts. At the turn of the century, however, a renewed salience of Australian native history was observed in the public sphere, resulting, among other things, in the historic 1992 Mabo decision by Australia's High Court, which recognised the Aboriginal people's native title to land.

Therefore, one of the most fundamental problems multicultural Australia has to face in the 2010s is the problem of genuine reconciliation between the native inhabitants of the island and the descendants of white settler population, alongside the more and more disconcerting issue of increasing number of illicit migrants trying to enter the country as "boat people".

This paper, then, attempts to reconstruct some of the narratives of conflict and reconciliation between various late 20th-century Australian governments and Aboriginal people, starting from Paul Keating (1991-1996) and his introduction of land rights for Aboriginal people to the early 21st century Kevin Rudd's famous apology of February 2008.

2. The native title

In order to trace back the long way Australia travelled from the colonial to contemporary time in regards to Aboriginal rights to their land, one has to go back to the 19th-century prevailing views of the rights of the Aboriginal people. At the inaugural meeting of the Aborigines Protection Society in October 1838, Richard Windeyer, a lawyer born in England, proclaimed, with the Bible in his hand, that:

I cannot look upon the natives as the exclusive proprietors of the soil; nor can I entertain the ridiculous notion that we have no right to be here. I view colonisation on the basis of the broad principle laid down by the first and great Legislator in the command He issued to man "to multiply and replenish the Earth." The hunting propensities of the natives cause them to occupy a much larger portion of land than would be necessary to their support if it were under cultivation. And the only way to make them cultivate it is to deprive them of a considerable portion of it. The natives have no right to the land. The land, in fact, belongs to him who cultivates it first. (qtd. in Dale 2010: 101)

The decisive statement that the "natives have no right to the land" stands in sharp opposition to what Australia's High Court declared a century and half later - they have the right to land, thus paving a way to a genuine reconciliation between the former colonisers and the former colonised. But it took time and a plethora of victims.

Paul Keating, prime minister from 1992 to 1996, launching the Year of the World's Indigenous People at Redfern Park, Sydney, 10 December 1992, presented a vision of prosperous multicultural Australia that was supposed to seek reconciliation with the native inhabitants who had terribly suffered from the hands of the white settlers:

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask: How would I feel if this were done to me?

As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us [...]. And if we have a sense of justice, as well as common sense, we will forge a new partnership. …

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