The Guardian 8 June, 2005

Arrogance on display

Bob Briton

Eight years after Aboriginal leaders were moved to turn their backs to John Howard at the first reconciliation conference in Melbourne, the Howard government's arrogance towards Indigenous Australians was on display again in Canberra last week. On the second day of the Reconciliation Australia conference held in the Old Parliament House, Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone imposed on the organisers to reorder the agenda so that she could leave early to attend a Liberal party-room meeting.

On the first day, while promising to maintain native title and land rights into the future, the PM alluded once more to new forms of ownership that would " add opportunities for families and communities to build economic independence and wealth through use of their communal land assets". At the conference and during Reconciliation Week (May 27-June 3) Howard, Vanstone and their supporters took every opportunity to talk down and set aside "symbolism" such as a government apology to the Aboriginal people. Instead they promoted their own brand of "practical reconciliation", notably the controversial Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs).

At the beginning of her address last week Vanstone apologised to WA Governor Lieutenant- General John Sanderson for the change in the agenda but not to Aboriginal elder Lowitja O'Donoghue who had already risen to speak as arranged. Amanda Vanstone's gaff was emblematic. Having overseen the destruction of the elected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and "mainstreamed" its programs into several public service departments, her lack of consideration for Aboriginal elders at the conference added insult to injury.

Two younger members of the audience turned their backs to the minister while four others, including former ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark, walked out. Adriana Taylor of Achieving Reconciliation Tasmania stood and expressed her embarrassment at the Minister's behaviour to Vanstone herself before she had managed to leave the room. Lowitja O'Donoghue admitted to having "felt totally put down at what has happened just now".

While some participants and observers were pleased at the PM's less provocative language, there was no change in the disempowering policy direction of the federal government. Howard pledged to "meet the Indigenous people more than halfway if necessary" in a reference to the Shared Responsibility Agreements now attached to certain state and federal spending. There are now 52 agreements covering 43 communities around Australia. The first was signed last year and involved funding for the installation of petrol bowsers at the remote WA community of Mulan in exchange for an undertaking to shower the community's children and wash their faces every day.

Wayne Gibbons, secretary of the Office of Indigenous Policy Co-ordination, said the SRA "reforms" will improve program delivery. "The government's approach now is not to leave the money at the front door in a paper bag and say 'over to you', but to sit down and negotiate what it is we are going to do for them", he told the media last week.

However, not everyone is so sure the top-down "petrol-for-hygiene" and "no-school-no-pool" approach will cope with the myriad problems besetting impoverished Aboriginal communities. Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway pointed out that at the current rate it will take 25 years to sign SRAs for some of the basic requirements of the 1200 communities nationwide. He also pointed out that most of the work associated in a publicity kit to the much-vaunted SRAs had already been done as part of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) process.

In foreshadowing proposals for changes to current land tenure arrangements, Howard said, "We recognise that communal interest in, and spiritual attachment to, land is fundamental to Indigenous culture." However, he again raised the issue of encouraging individual home ownership and other "new forms of tenure on communal land" that will not, according to the PM, cut across or extinguish communal title. He could well be speaking of "preserving" Native Title and hopes for land rights in the same way he speaks of the new industrial relations legislation "preserving" awards and the functions of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission that are useful to workers.

Pat Dodson summed up the current political crisis facing Indigenous people in his contribution to last week's reconciliation conference:

"The governments of today have unilaterally decided that we are to be mainstreamed and assimilated into a society that elevates the individual above traditions and values forged over more than 50,000 years around community and belonging in extended family relations centred on kinship rules and responsibilities."

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