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Aborigines - Healing the wounds of the past

by Stane Hiscock

At 7.30 p.m. on 25 September 2000, the whole of Australia held its breath as Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman took to the starting blocks for the 400 metres final at the Olympic Games in Sydney. Crowded into the stadium or glued to the television, an entire nation was united behind its favourite athlete. Cathy flew out of her starting blocks and won the race with 10 metres to spare. The crowd went wild, and Cathy started her lap of honour draped in two flags - the Australian flag and the Aboriginal flag. It was much more than a gold medal Cathy won for Australia that night. In less than a minute, this Aboriginal athlete had become the symbol of reconciliation between her people and white Australians.

In Australia, sport is practically the only vehicle for expression of nationalist sentiment. Moreover, its inhabitants still see no need to cut their ties once and for all with Britain.

Australian politicians from all sides were unanimous in their description of this race as “the 400 metres of national reconciliation.” By reconciliation, Australia means improvement in relations between blacks and whites, acknowledgement of the racist policies of the past, and organisation of frameworks for dialogue between the two communities.

Not just a question of sport

The reason why Cathy Freeman's success has so often been quoted as an example is that, for the majority of her Aboriginal brothers and sisters, life is far less rosy. A few statistics make this very clear. Life expectancy among the Aboriginal people is 15 to 20 years shorter than among the rest of the population. Only 33% of Aboriginal children finish their schooling, compared with 77% of other children. When it comes to the employment market, the inequalities persist. 38% of blacks are unemployed, in contrast to the national average of eight per cent; as for those in prison, members of the Aboriginal community are nearly 20 times more likely to be arrested than whites.

Tourists visiting the Australian bush in their 4x4s often come back feeling distinctly uneasy. In the few towns which they come across, the poverty of the so-called natives is only too obvious.

Thirst for justice

In response to protests by a host of Aboriginal organisations, successive governments have been trying to improve this situation over the last 10 years or so. In 1997, a damning report was submitted to the federal parliament. Australians learned for the first time of the existence of a “stolen generation of Aboriginal children” -children taken from their families by force and placed in assimilation centres, where they were taught to behave as whites and to forget their “primitive” culture.

This parliamentary report estimates that, from 1910 to 1970, between 10% and 30% of children from a single generation were taken into institutions in this way.

Thanks to lessons in ironing, cooking and washing-up, these children went on to become servants in the houses of “good families.” They were living proof that it was possible to civilise Aborigines.

Most Australians claimed to be shocked by the report, and yet the current government, led by John Howard, still refuses to issue a formal apology to the generation of stolen children. There is a very good reason for this: all these Aborigines might well claim financial compensation through the courts.

The labour parliamentary opposition accuses the government of burying its head in the sand with regard to the whole Aboriginal issue. There is, in fact, a minister for Aboriginal Affairs, but he is viewed as the enemy by most native organisations. The minister in question, Philip Ruddock, is prone to making startling announcements. At the beginning of the year, he refused to acknowledge the existence of the stolen generation of children, arguing on the basis of numbers. He believes it is inaccurate to speak of a generation if only 10% of children were taken from their families....

Words which the members of the generation in question considered insulting.

Recently, the minister spoke to the French newspaper Le Monde. He spoke as an anthropologist, explaining that “the social disadvantages of the Aboriginal people were due to the tardiness of their contact with European civilisation, and the fact that, unlike American Indians, the Aborigines did not farm and had not even discovered the wheel.”

Cathy Freeman, symbol of reconciliation in Australia

Death of a leading Australian Aboriginal activist

Charles Perkins, a leading figure in Aboriginal activism, died in Sydney on 18 October 2000 at the age of 64, after a long illness. In 1966, he became the first black Australian to obtain a university diploma, and his radical views were often very controversial. If personalities like Cathy Freeman are to enter the political arena, as black leader Ruby Langford Ginibi believes they should, they will undoubtedly be inspired by the example of the first champion of the Aboriginal cause. In the 1960s, with a few comrades, Perkins laid the foundations for a movement fighting for the rights of Australia's earliest inhabitants. Before that, the only people discussing the situation of the indigenous Australians were a few intellectuals in London. Perkins and his comrades travelled the length and breadth of the country in a bus, denouncing the racism and inequalities endemic in their country.

Perkins's foundation, Student Action for Aboriginals, scored its first victory with the majority Yes vote in the famous referendum of 1967. Australians decided that the time had come to grant them the status of citizens.

Perkins went on to become a key figure on the political stage and in 1984 was appointed Secretary of State for Aboriginal Affairs, a post he held until 1988, when he was forced to resign in the face of criticism for his failure to take action against corruption in the various land-rights commissions. This was not, however, the last we heard of this militant Australian equivalent of Martin Luther King. Just a few months ago, prior to the Sydney Olympic Games, he was again venting his anger at the government's treatment of his fellow Aboriginals. He interrupted a speech by Prime Minister John Howard on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, shouting “Say sorry!” Charles Perkins is no longer with us, and John Howard has still not apologised to the stolen generation of Aboriginal children. Today, Australia must put its faith in powerful symbols such as Cathy Freeman to advance along the road to reconciliation.

From a legal perspective

Another sensitive issue, over which much ink has been spilled, is the legal system which, according to ATSIC (the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Commission), discriminates against the Aboriginal community. In the Northern Territory and in Western Australia, where most Aboriginals are to be found, the courts take a hard line when it comes to petty crime. A law imposing custodial sentences on repeat offenders has been in existence for several years, resulting in hundreds of teenagers being locked up for stealing tins of food, pens or sweets. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has decided to look into the devastating effects of this law.

According to UN special reporter Dato Param Cumaraswamy of Malaysia, this law should quite simply be repealed. The international NGO Oxfam goes even further in its criticism. In the opinion of Hedy D'Ancona, Australian laws amount to discrimination against the Aboriginal minority and are reminiscent of the apartheid system in South Africa.

Back in Canberra, the federal government still refuses to listen. It has also just decided to suspend its participation in the various UN commissions. Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, believes that the United Nations pays too much attention to pressure groups and not enough to governments.

The victory of Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympic Games is undeniably a positive step for the Aboriginal community. It is a victory for a nation which is still searching for an identity and which would dearly love to heal the wounds of the past.

Australians are not renowned as great political activists except, perhaps, when it comes to the environment. Yet on 28 March this year, almost 250,000 people gathered in Sydney for a march organised by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Hand in hand, blacks and whites walked together across the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. In the sky, the word SORRY could be read, a message written in the trail of an aeroplane.

Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders

Australia is a multicultural society. The lifestyle of its inhabitants reflects the essentially western origins of the nation. The first Aborigines arrived on the continent of Australia 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.

At the last census, taken in 1995, there were approximately 300,000 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, i.e. roughly 1.5% of the total population of Australia. About 66% of Aboriginals live in the towns, but a large number of them live in isolated, rural areas, and some have held on to a traditional way of life.

The Australian government has sought through legislation and policy to right the wrongs suffered as a community by the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Its policy rests on recognition of the right of the indigenous population to determine its own future - a policy of self-determination, the cornerstone of which is economic independence.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), set up in March 1990, is an instrument giving Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders the power to make decisions in the context of programmes relating to health, education, employment, housing and other issues which concern them.

Land rights

At the end of 1993, the Australian government presented a law to Parliament to enforce its policy regarding Aboriginal rights of land ownership. The legislation aims to allow for the consequences of a ruling made by the High Court of Australia in June 1992, in what is commonly referred to as the Mabo decision.

The ruling of the High Court rejected the theory of terra nullius (which held that the continent of Australia was uninhabited when European colonisation began) and, for the first time, it was accepted by a court that the Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait Islanders could still have native title to land by virtue of their traditional law, on condition that this entitlement had not been abolished by the Crown or the traditional connection to the land lost.


The Aboriginal community on the internet:

ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission):

Council for Reconciliation

Aboriginalaustralia: information on various aspects of the Aboriginal people.

FAIRA: The Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action

Official website of FAIRA, a foundation trying to protect the traditions of the indigenous people of Australia

Aboriginal writers: An impressive list of Australian Aboriginal writers

Australian government

A description of Australia's governmental system. Includes the federal government, the state government and local government. and

Information on the government administration, political divisions, on national holidays, independence and constitution days, and description of the legal system.