The Guardian 13 July, 2005

NAIDOC: still a long way to go

Bob Briton

NAIDOC week came and went again last week. The annual celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survival and achievement focused the country's attention once more on the doubtful progress being made towards the ill-defined goal of "reconciliation". This year, as in previous years, there were official celebrations, protests, sporting events and projects undertaken by school children. A scan of the week's papers turns up a range of good news and bad news stories.

Among the good was the news that former test back-rower Bryan Fletcher had stood down as captain of South Sydney, been suspended for one match and fined $10,000 for using despicable and racist language against Parramatta's Dean Widders. The money will go to an Aboriginal charity of Widders' choice and Fletcher will work alongside the Parramatta player in the Aboriginal community.

Most commentators are pleased with Souths' quick action on the matter. Fletcher says he is disgusted by his own behaviour and Widders is satisfied with the outcome: "I think he can be a more positive role model even than myself because he did the wrong thing, he knows the effect it can have. And he can relay that message to young kids to think before you say things. You don't really mean them, but they can dig a little bit deep and hurt people."

A slur of the sort that would once have gone unnoticed in the NRL is now a serious matter with serious consequences. That is progress, without doubt.

However, not all the "reconciliation" stories have been indicative of progress. Another news item reveals Forestry Tasmania, the authority that has overseen the destruction of much of Tasmania environmental heritage, has attached a "reconciliation plaque" at its Forest Eco Centre in Scottsdale.

The NAIDOC week gesture was performed because "For­estry Tasmania has embarked on an important journey with the Aboriginal community towards a stronger and respectful relationship". That's according to managing director Evan Roley.

Aboriginal spokesman Michael Mansell sees it differently: "In its struggle with environmentalists, Forestry Tasmania is taking advantage of Aboriginal people". He also said that, if Forestry Tasmania was so keen to patch things up with Indigenous Tasmanians, it should return vacant crown land to the original owners. A very vocal protest in Launceston backed up the call for compensation for the stolen generations, justice and land rights.

Meanwhile, some official voices did not even feel the need for gloss or tokenism. Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Policy Minister John Mikel used the occasion of a Brisbane NAIDOC week event to engage in the time-honoured government practice of blaming the victim.

"Disadvantage is not a passport to bad behaviour. It is not an excuse for alcohol abuse, family violence or child abuse", Mikel told his audience. "Overwhelming people with rights — in the form of entitlements, grants and welfare — but providing no direction for greater responsibility has been equally damaging to the way of life for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities."

The comments capture the very mean spirit of the times all over the country. Aboriginal services are being "mainstreamed" into other government departments. ATSIC — the elected representative body of Indigenous Australians — was wound up last month.

The demeaning dogma of "shared responsibility" is being imposed on the most disadvantaged in the community in exchange for services that should be provided as a birthright in a wealthy country. Expectations are low that improvements to on-the-ground services will be delivered.

No doubt the key to the problems besetting all Australians — Indigenous and non-indigenous — can be found in the slogan selected by Aboriginal people for this year's NAIDOC week: "Our future begins with solidarity". That is the sort of "shared responsibility" we need.

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