This Australian reconciliation mass movement may have provided an outlet to direct white Australian anxiety about the history of the country but since the rise of the reconciliation movement all of the Aboriginal gains of the 20th century have been systematically undone with a minimum of fuss. Native title has been totally washed out, ATSIC abolished, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations ignored, Aboriginal health and poverty and housing statistics have gotten worse.
Whatever the reconciliation movement believes it has achieved, it has achieved nothing for Aboriginal Australia.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal said in 1969….
“Looking back, the only major improvement has been the 93% ‘Yes’ vote of the referendum of May 1967; but this improvement did not benefit the black Australians though it eased the guilty conscience of white Australians in this country and overseas.
It can be regarded therefore as a victory for white Australians who formed a coalition with black Australians. Black Australians must be seen as stooges for white Australians working in the interest of white Australians.’.
Whiteness and Blackness in the Koori Struggle for Self-Determination
By Gary Foley
In 1967 the Australian people voted in a referendum to count Aboriginal people in the census and empower the federal government to make policy about Aboriginal affairs.
The recognition of equality with the white person inherent in the referendum provided the momentum, and legal frameworks for Australia’s anti-discrimination laws, which guaranteed everyone including Aboriginal people all the rights of a white person.
The 1967 referendum and the anti-discrimination laws said nothing of Aboriginal rights and interests in Aboriginal sovereignty and customary law. They simply provided the legal framework for Aboriginal people to become equal subjects of Queen Elizabeth and her sovereignty over Australia, to be subject to the same laws as any white person.
It was not until 1991 when Koiki Mabo said that his block of land had belonged to his family before Captain Cook turned up, and argued his point over a ten year legal struggle to the high court who eventually agreed with him, that the institutions of Queen Elizabeth had recognised an indigenous right.
However, the high court defined Koiki’s indigenous right in terms of Queen Elizabeth’s common law and not in terms of the Sovereignty of the People of Murray Island. The high court’s ruling manifested in legislation as the native title act, which created the mechanism, under the Queen’s law, to extinguish any remaining indigenous right to land.
Although both the high court and the Australian parliament had managed to misconstrue Aboriginal land rights into the jurisdiction of the Queen and her agencies, the High Court let the cat out of the bag when it officially ruled that Terra Nullius, the doctrine that this land had no law or government prior to Cook, was a legal fiction. Terra Nullius was disproved by the evidence given by Koiki that land law existed on Murray Island before the Endeavour Voyage. This legal point, despite being both obvious and well documented in anthropology, took ten long years to prove against the opinions of the best legal teams in Australia.
Since the Mabo decision, the High court has ruled that customary law has no legal recognition under the Queen’s law, which is the only law of this country and administered equally to all citizens.
Indeed the High court’s ruling is consistent with the racial discrimination laws which would assert that any law that applies to a particular ethnic group, as Aboriginal law does to Aboriginal people, is discriminatory and illegal.
The white legal system has totally extinguished and dismissed customary law and rights inherent in Aboriginality, declaring the singular sovereignty of Elizabeth and defying the obvious and uncontrovertible conclusion that Terra Nullius is a legal fiction.
The very basis of the Queen’s sovereignty and jurisdiction in Australia is Terra Nullius. The legal system simply cannot question the legal basis of its own existence. White law has still not come to terms with the most basic of truths of history, that British law was unlawfully established in Australia.
Yet to this day, Australians have ignored the simple fact of Aboriginal sovereignty, we have congratulated ourselves for rejecting racism in the 67 referendum. We have marched across bridges in our millions proclaiming reconciliation; we have been deeply moved by Kevin Rudd’s apology. Now the new call is to “Close the Gap”,
Close the Gap, like the whole reconciliation movement has failed to address the essential causal problem of Aboriginal opression and suffereing, which is the invasion and genocide, the disposession of land and economy. It has not dealt with the issues of sovereignty and land rights.
The reconciliation movement appears to see this dispossession as a given, just the way it is, sad and there is nothing we can do about it.
The reconciliation movement seems to see salvation for Aboriginal people within the frameworks of the white mainstream and the task of reconciliation is to facilitate the movement of Aboriginal people into these mainstream paradigms of life.
Notions such as land rights and self determination have been sidelined as secondary considerations to the urgent priority of “Closing the Gap”, an inherently assimilationist campaign that identifies the cause of Aboriginal problems to be inherent in Aboriginal society itself – ill health, not in the white society that causes and perpetuates ill health. Close the Gap is just a call for good money to be thrown after bad, to prop up the dysfunctional health care system that is simply unable to tackle issues of Aboriginal health and ill-health.
“Close the Gap” applies a bandaid to the symptoms that white society sees (usually on TV) but fails in any way to address the structural factors that cause and perpetuate illness and disadvantage.
The causal factors of Aboriginal suffering today are inherent in white colonial society itself and are invisible to white colonial society, it is the background normality.
The problems lie in such things as institutional modes of health care, police and prison deterrence modes of maintaining law and order, white legal title to Aboriginal land, mining, European modes of farming, dysfunctional government policies, welfare dependence, etc. All these things that are the front line of the continued dispossession, impoverishment, ill health and deaths in custody in Aboriginal society and are taken for granted by the colonial society. They are the morally righteous agencies of democracy, market economy and the great Australian dream. These things that bring death, disease and dispossession to Aboriginal Australia bring health and prosperity to colonial society.
It is not easy to identify our own sociology and law as a causal factor in Aboriginal trauma and crisis but until white Australia can come to terms with this reality then reconciliation and government policies will just be shallow, white-washed, tokenistic commentary while things get worse and worse for Aboriginal Australia.
Without a serious recognition and respect for Aboriginal sovereignty and customary law and without a serious attempt at returning stolen property, the economic and spiritual base of Aboriginality, then the rhetoric of reconciliation is no more than an analgesic for white Australia.