Black and White Corroboree
Many people will feel really good about themselves after walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge next Sunday, as part of the weekend's Corroboree 2000 events.
The walk, and Saturday's formal launch of the 'Declaration Towards Reconciliation' at the Sydney Opera House, are supposed to be the pinnacle of the decade-long reconciliation process. Participants will be making a symbolic statement that they are committed to the vision of 'a united Australia that respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; and provides justice and equity for all'.
For nothing more than the cost of their travel to the Harbour Bridge and their time, they will be telling the world that they are caring and righteous people. Not like all those other Australians, such as heartless John Howard and his legion of redneck supporters, who refuse to apologise to the 'stolen generations' and reject the idea of indigenous rights and Aboriginal self-determination.
And that points to the key problem with the whole reconciliation process. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is not about healing, or about celebrating the common humanity which binds Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Rather, it has become a highly political exercise designed to pressure governments and people into supporting an unpopular agenda which is much more likely to bring increased divisiveness and resentment than unity.
An overwhelming number of Australians now acknowledge that serious wrongs were done to Aborigines in the past, sometimes through contempt or animosity, sometimes through indifference, and sometimes as a result of good intentions that were badly misguided. But it is also clear that the majority of Australians are deeply troubled by calls for special indigenous rights and other separatist measures.
These Australians may not have the academics' detailed grasp of every outrage committed over the past two centuries, and some may well be blasÃ© about the extent of the humiliation and suffering that many Aborigines experienced. But they possess a compensating quality that most of our pious intellectuals and clerics lack---a common sense which alerts them to the dangers of currently fashionable ideas about indigenous affairs.
We could even say that these Australians have a better grasp of the real lesson to be learnt from the depressing history of relations between black and white in this country. The root cause of all the problems has been the belief that Aborigines are a different sort of human being from other Australians, with different kinds of rights and civil obligations. But the inappropriately named 'Declaration Towards Reconciliation' has not addressed this destructive belief.
Indeed, with its talk of the 'unique status' of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, its sly reference to a 'treaty', its call for what can only be a racially based 'self-determination', and its failure to recognise that it is advocating an impossible jumble of inconsistencies, the declaration will only perpetuate this kind of thinking.
It takes a particular kind of mind-set to believe that the follies we are being offered in the name of reconciliation will create a more harmonious nation, or that they will help to reduce the deplorable levels of social and economic disadvantage that blight large parts of Aboriginal Australia. It is a mind-set which values conspicuous displays of moral fervour over carefully considered and honestly presented solutions to national problems.
But don't get me wrong. It is possible that some good may still come out of next Sunday's walk across the bridge in Sydney. Invigorated by bracing harbour breezes and the marvellous vistas of a great city, some of the participants may be moved to reflect on the reasons why ten years of reconciliation seem to have produced so little of lasting benefit.
Even better, they may find that they have far more in common with the Aboriginal person walking next to them than they had ever been led to believe, and so begin the kind of friendship on which true reconciliation is based.