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Now to the story...

Forget apology from the PM, a treaty is the way to go

Extract from the Sydney Morning Herald, on May 25th 2001.
Story by: Rod Towney, Chairman of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council

Calls for an apology have got nowhere. Rod Towney says it is time to move on and take a more effective step towards reconciliation.

Like so many other Australians, I walked for reconciliation across the Harbour Bridge this time last year and joined the chorus urging John Howard to apologise for the stolen generations. As we approach Monday's first anniversary of the march, the issue hasn't gone away and, no doubt, those pleas will be repeated.

But today I call on decent Australians, be they Aboriginal or not, to abandon those demands for an apology from the Prime Minister in the name of reconciliation. Too much time and energy have been wasted on a political endgame which offers little true benefit for Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal people can ill afford the politicisation of their own unhappy history by those who are too naive or too afraid to face a future where reconciliation is indeed possible.

In the year since tens of thousands marched across the bridge, what have we achieved for Aboriginal people short of a media debate on the rights and wrongs of the Prime Minister's personal beliefs? Too little in terms of reversing the tide of inequality suffered by Aboriginal people, be it social, economic or physical.

It made for heartwarming vision on the evening news, a feel-good exercise for which we gave ourselves a collective pat on the back. But despite the demands of last year's bridge walkers, Howard still refuses to offer a formal apology. As a proud people, as Australia's first people, we won't beg for one.

While the media and commentators remain spellbound by semantics - were they stolen or removed, was it really a generation? - the removal of Aboriginal children by welfare agencies continues. Nationally, removal rates have risen by more than a third since the stolen generations report. In NSW, a black child is eight times more likely to be taken away by authorities than a white child.

There are those who would argue a year is not a long time. But what has changed in the 10 years since the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody? Aboriginal incarceration and black deaths continue to rise at an alarming rate. And what real gains have we made in health and social welfare in the many decades more that we've been working for change in those areas?

Howard talks of "practical" reconciliation, but what has been achieved by a policy so wafer-thin it barely disguises a deep and lasting contempt for the wellbeing of Aboriginal people?

Ordinary Australians have apologised in a way that no prime minister or government could ever hope to emulate and to again call on Howard to say sorry does a great injustice to those who have dealt with this issue and want to move on. Aboriginal people have all the apology they need from those who really mean it.

Our job this Reconciliation Week, which starts on Sunday, is to forget Howard and to work together to bring real change and hope to Aboriginal communities.

The latest proposal for a treaty or compact between black and white may go some way to that. At present Aboriginal communities across NSW are engaged in a comprehensive discussion about how a treaty might work, and how it might deliver the Prime Minister's so- called "practical" reconciliation through better health care, education, housing and the like.

Next week, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council will hold its State conference in Nowra with the treaty issue high on the agenda. Delegates from 118 local land councils will exchange views.

Predictably, Howard won't even come to the table to talk about an agreement between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia. What has he to fear? Surely a treaty goes to the heart of the very principle he so proudly trumpets of a "fair go" for all.

Certainly, it is true that the community, not the Prime Minister, has ultimate responsibility for reconciliation, and it is ordinary Australians who have taken the issue as their own and have shown that they will walk where this Government fears to tread.

So, as we did when we walked together across the Harbour Bridge for reconciliation, now we must take up the issue of a treaty. When our leaders refuse to lead we must drag them along with us or leave them behind.

As we approach a Federal election, let's make it clear to Howard that practical reconciliation is not merely a media tag, but a core promise to which he and his Government will be held accountable by the electorate.



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