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Now to the story...

Forum boosts support for apology

Extract from The Melbourne Age, on February 19th 2001.
Story by: Kerry Taylor

Two out of three Australians who participated in a special reconciliation forum believed the Federal Government should officially apologise to Aborigines, and more than half supported a treaty between blacks and whites.

Nearly 350 people selected at random from around Australia took part in the two-day forum on reconciliation at Old Parliament House over the weekend.

Participants were asked their views on the reconciliation debate before proceedings began and again at the end of the weekend, after they had questioned experts and advocates and opponents of the reconciliation process.

Preliminary results of the poll released last night showed a dramatic increase in support for an official apology from governments to Aborigines, rising from 45 to 69 per cent.

The results also showed total opposition to a formal apology fell from 48 to 19 per cent after the polling process.

Democrats senator Aden Ridgeway said a formal apology was required and that the statement of deep and sincere regret from the Federal Government in 1999 was not sufficient.

Support for a treaty between black and white Australia rose by 7 percentage points from 46 to 53 per cent. Opposition to a treaty decreased by 1 point, with the increase in support coming from those who were undecided about the issue at the beginning of the forum.

The Federal Government yesterday remained firm in its opposition to a formal apology and treaty. A spokesman for Mr Ruddock said the government would not change its views as a result of one poll. He said the results did not show whether people would accept culpability if an apology was given.

In one of his first official engagements as Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Philip Ruddock yesterday told participants in the poll that an apology might imply personal culpability for past wrongs. A treaty was only something used between nations and may divide Australians rather than unite them, he said.

Mr Ruddock was challenged by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chairman Geoff Clark, who said the 10-year reconciliation process would die if an agreement between black and white Australia was not achieved.

"You talk about a treaty meaning division ... A treaty is about agreement ... the mandate for that change has been brought about by reconciliation," Mr Clark told the forum.

Participants asked politicians, academics and indigenous leaders a wide range of questions over the weekend, ranging from Aboriginal representation in parliaments to whether compensation would be paid if an apology was made to indigenous Australians.

Senator Ridgeway said there should be temporary quotas for indigenous seats in parliaments. "I don't see them as a permanent fixture on the political landscape," he said.

Mr Ruddock said special seats for indigenous Australians would provoke claims of tokenism.

Mr Clark challenged the major parties to run indigenous candidates in winnable seats at the next federal election.

The dramatic change in people's opinions on reconciliation mirror the results of the last deliberative poll, which was held on the republic issue. Support for a yes vote increased by 20 per cent after the poll in October, 1999.



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