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Reconciliation and national unification

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Brad Webb

Only by a true recognition of indigenous Australians' rights and grievances will Australia be able to become a fully unified nation, says Brad Webb.


IN MANY WAYS, aboriginality challenges the notion of a unified national identity. Although the word Aboriginal means from the beginning it has taken white Australia hundreds of years to come to terms with its actual definition. A unified national identity characterises us as a nation of equals. Up until Kevin Rudd's national apology in parliament to the Stolen Generation in 2008, previous government policy appeared to be one of denial when it came to addressing the past wrongs directed towards our indigenous Australians. While the major political parties have committed to holding a referendum on whether the Constitution's preamble should be changed to recognise indigenous people, both the government and opposition have failed to advance any policy agenda on constitutional reform since 2007 when the idea was first floated.

Before the British invasion, Aboriginal society based their economies on hunting and gathering, characterised by strong territorial claims and complex social and religious institutions. The British set the indigenous people clearly apart from themselves, designating them collectively as a category of very different and markedly inferior beings. They judged their lifestyle, with no houses, herds, agriculture, chiefs, or churches, as nomadic, shiftless and parasitic. In many frontier situations, colonists equated Aborigines as vermin, to be driven off the land or exterminated. This designation stayed with the Aboriginal people well into the twentieth century. Although organised Aboriginal protests about injustices and calls for collective action date from the 1930s, it was not until the 1960s, after a national referendum, that they were officially recognised as Australian citizens.

Prominent indigenous leader and intellectual, Noel Pearson

Their culture finally acknowledged, Aborigines began a process of claiming back land lost to the European invasion. Western lifestyle and ideals were based on the acquisition of land. The great Australian dream was owning your own home, yet if Aborigines were to be seen as equals, they too needed to become landowners. Enmeshed in the politics of big city living, urban-based Aborigines, with their knowledge of the dominant society, led the call for land-rights.

The historic 1992 Mabo decision of the Australian High Court affirmed the existence of native title to land. The Labor government of the time was quick to enact the Native Title Act (1993), which established an opportunity for Aboriginals to claim native title, albeit in a somewhat restricted circumstance. The 1996 Wik judgement upheld the view that pastoral leases did not automatically extinguish native title. Although the case was cause for celebration within the Aboriginal movement, and for their supporters, it aroused consternation among members of the Coalition.

In 1996, when the Liberal National Party came to power, they sought ways to restrict native title claims. Coupled with the Coalition’s lack to enthusiasm in recognising past wrongs directed towards the Aboriginal people, namely ‘the stolen generation’, many Australians regard the inactions of the Howard government as anti-Aboriginal. 1997 saw the most extreme conservative position recommend a return to assimilation, whereby Aboriginals would remain entirely without special privilege. The extreme indigenous position called for an independent Aboriginal state. Despite the rhetoric displayed at the recent Sydney Olympics, what these positions highlighted was that Aboriginal reconciliation still has a long way to go before Australia can truly call itself a unified national community.

The self-identifying Aboriginal population is close to 300,000, or 1.5 percent of the Australian population yet Aborigines continue to suffer high arrest rates, high infant mortality and low life expectancy. It is also interesting to note that in 1788 there were more than 500 Aboriginal languages. Today only 20 are still actively transmitted.

For many Aborigines in remote parts of Australia, local identities remain primary. However, improved communications and organisations have helped increase awareness of a pan-Aboriginal movement. This increased awareness has contributed to an expanded political consciousness, encompassing the greater Australian population. The tens of thousands who walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge supporting reconciliation highlight the average Australian’s eagerness to resolve issues impeding the notion of a unified national community.

Aboriginality will continue to challenge the notion of a unified national identity until such times their main issues are acknowledged and rectified. Our politicians cannot continue to deny Aboriginal rights and obligations by placing them in the ‘too hard basket’ while countries such as Canada and New Zealand have managed to address indigenous issues in a mature manner, and to a mutually agreeable conclusion.


  • Bruce Breslin, Exterminate with Pride, James Cook University, Townsville 1992

  • Gillian Whitlock and David Carter, Images of Australia, UQP, Brisbane 1992

  • Henry Reynolds, Race Relations in North Queensland, James Cook University, Townsville 1993

  • Henry Reynolds, Why Weren’t We Told?, Penguin Books, Melbourne 2000

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