Saturday 24 January 1998
In 1988 the talk was of a treaty between black and white Australia. Times have changed. Shane Green reports.
TEN YEARS ago, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and other Aboriginal tribesmen sat with Bob Hawke on the sand at Barunga in the Northern Territory and talked of a treaty. In the year of the bicentenary, the meeting was powerfully symbolic.
Yunupingu, the chairman of the Northern Land Council, recalls the day a prime minister came to a home of indigenous Australia as part of a seminal year for relations between black and white Australia. Everybody, he says, was trying to make the relationship more believable.
"I believe we got a practical commitment from Bob Hawke and his Government in 1988. It marked the turning point towards better relations, to unite this nation as one and to kill off discrimination."
While the treaty plan eventually evaporated through lack of political will, the year was the springboard for the formation of the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991. By the end of 1988, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its interim findings.
A decade on, Yunupingu sees a dramatic change in the way the national government is approaching his people. Since the election of the Howard Government, he talks about a lack of commitment and an absence of real leadership.
"We have lost faith in the false promises, bad faith and discriminatory law of a Government which acts against indigenous rights," he says.
"We no longer feel that we are able to negotiate with this Government. It has undermined our respect for the Parliament of this country."
If there is a certainty in the prime ministership of John Howard, it is that he will never have a Barunga. A decade after the bicentenary, as white Australia prepares to celebrate Australia Day, relations between the Federal Government and Aboriginal Australia are at a 30-year low.
Cuts to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and new controls on its funding; the Government's 10-point native title plan that may end up as the trigger for the next election; the emergence of the Hanson movement and the refusal to apologise to the stolen children - these have combined to produce this outcome.
But just as significantly, Howard - in sharp contrast to his Labor predecessor - has failed to connect with the Aboriginal leadership, to develop a rapport or demonstrate an understanding.
The assessment of Yunupingu echoes among Aboriginal leaders and activists who were there in 1988, and have seen the progress of reconcilation through Hawke and then Paul Keating (whose commitment to the issue certainly cost him votes).
At the start of 1988, there was an expectation or hope that the year could be significant. Almost 10 years ago to the day, the New South Wales magistrate and former head of the NSW Aboriginal Affairs Department, Pat O'Shane, reflected on what the year might end up meaning.
"Whatever happens after the bicentennial, things can never be as bad as they were before," she said.
O'Shane today still believes that to be the case, but argues strongly that the position has slipped since the election of the coalition and the prime ministership of Howard, who she savagely criticises.
"There is no empathy in the man, there is no sympathy in the man. He just has nothing. He is really quite lacking in any kind of skills whatsoever in regard to those kinds of issues."
But O'Shane believes that regardless of what has happened under the coalition, the situation is not as bad as pre-1967 - the year of the landmark referendum that saw a vote of more than 90 per cent approve changes which gave the Commonwealth power to make laws for Aborigines.
"That is the reality of the situation. Things change forever. That is it. Howard might not have liked some of the changes that we've seen in the past 40 years but the fact of the matter is, there have been those changes and they will not go away."
The antagonism towards Howard is as intense as the previous goodwill towards Keating. Dr Faith Bandler, who was at the forefront of the decade-long referendum campaign, is also a powerful critic of Howard - a prime minister, she says, without a vision.
"I had a lot to do with ministers of the Menzies Government during the campaign for the '67 referendum . . .," says Bandler, who last month was awarded the 1997 Human Rights Medal.
"There was a different approach then to what there is now. There wasn't the fear to go forward.
"I can remember even (Black Jack) McEwen saying: 'We have to the change the situation, we can't go on like this.' But no one hears anything like this today from the present Government, mainly because it is in fact taking away some of those very hard earned advances."
There is a consensus that the relationship is at a contemporary low-point. But some Aboriginal activists go further. A long-time campaigner who was at Barunga in 1988, Professor Marcia Langton, describes the current atmopshere as appalling.
"It's probably the worst it's ever been," she says. "I don't think there's ever been such ill-will about the administration and policy development in Aboriginal affairs ever in the 20th century, having due regard to previous historic periods and different ways of thinking. I mean, these blokes are reinventing the 19th century."
In 1988, Charles Perkins was at the centre of the Aboriginal bureaucracy, occupying the most senior public service position ever held by an Aborigine, as a controversial secretary of the federal Aboriginal Affairs Department. Since then, he says he has seen improvements in Aboriginal health, education and housing, but believes the past 18 months have been disastrous.
"I think we've slipped back, at least 10 years, in terms of race relations (and) the psychology of Aboriginal people in terms of looking at themslves and their own position in Australian society," he says.
Perkins also believes Aboriginal Australia is running out of options and may have to return to direct protests. "I think that we're moving towards taking to the streets again, which is a bit sad," he says. "Why should we have to do that again?"
A decade ago, Tasmanian Aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell was giving new meaning to the word activist, enjoying notoriety for leading Aboriginal delegations to Libya. His first trip in 1987 even upset sections of the Aboriginal community. Mansell was either a black champion or a dangerous radical.
Mansell says today he did not share the same optimism in 1988 as many other Aboriginal activists and leaders. But at the same time, he says there was a mutual respect between indigenous Australia and, particularly, the Keating Government.
"With this new Government, I think it's the opposite," he says. "There's hardly any sign of respect for Aboriginal people at all, let alone people are trying to represent Aboriginal people. On top of that, they don't give anything."
Mansell argues there is a need for a return to black radicalism, and particularly looks towards the 2000 Sydney Olympics on the issue of native title.
"If the same old tactics of going in and using flowery language doesn't work, then you've got to do things that focus on issues that are harmful, that strike a raw nerve with the Government."
In terms of the Olympics, he believes the only effective protest would be the boycotting of the Games by other countries.
"It's a big move, because there's no doubt that one of the consequences of harming the 2000 Olympics is that you will lose a lot of your supporters who would ordinarily stick with you," he says.
But he believes the stakes are high enough to warrant such action. "The Olympic Games will still go ahead. It's a question of if you're very successful in your campaign, how many countries will participate, and what will the quality of those Games."
Galarrwuy Yunupingu, meanwhile, is searching for more lasting solutions that will reflect the spirit and commitment of 1988. He argues for the protection of Aboriginal interests in a way that can't be altered by governments of the day, by enshrining rights - including native title - in the Constitution.
"We need something in whitefella law which is strong and lasting and faithful to our law. The closest whitefella law which can do this is the Constitution."