Sorry – Again!
Thursday, 15th February 2018 at 8:39 am
Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie reflects on the Australian Reconciliation Convention in 1997, and the progress, or lack thereof, that has been made since to close the gap.
This week, the circus in our national parliament has been all about office affairs, jobs for the girls and associated political opportunism.
Down sideshow alley the latest Closing the Gap report pulled a small crowd for a short time. Most of the same crowd moved on to attend events commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the national apology to the Stolen Generation.
We can all take some heart that we have apologised as a nation for ill-conceived policies that tore children from their families and communities and culture. We can also welcome the fact that three of the indicators of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and well-being are heading in the right direction – child mortality rates are improving, enrolment in pre-school is increasing as is Year 12 retention. Unfortunately, we continue to fail Indigenous people on school attendance, numeracy, literacy, employment and life expectancy. What is even more disappointing is that much of the commentary around the lack of progress betrays a level of resignation to failure in addressing these fundamental issues.
At CCA we are acutely aware that whenever we talk about how charities are working to create the kind of Australia we want to live in, we often end up talking about Indigenous disadvantage. Whether we are talking about homelessness, suicide, lack of educational attainment, unemployment, sickness and poor health, etc. Indigenous statistics are multiple times worse than non-Indigenous. Many of these indicators are not improving. Some are getting worse.
Of most concern is that the number of Indigenous children in out of home care has doubled to over 17,000 – more than 35 per cent of all children in care – in the decade since the apology was made by Kevin Rudd in 2008. We are now creating a new stolen generation of Indigenous children.
The emotional undertow of these statistics drags me back over 20 years to May 1997 when I attended the Australian Reconciliation Convention on the traditional land of the Kulin peoples in Melbourne. I was lucky enough to be invited by a group of Indigenous people who I had been working with to develop national alcohol and drug strategies (I was CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council at the time). There were many unforgettable moments at that convention which was the culmination of over seven years work by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. It was the most powerful convention I have ever attended.
Then Prime Minister John Howard was one of the opening speakers. I know from discussions I had with him some time later that he regrets some of the things he said and the way he said them. On that morning in May he told us all that while he was personally sorry for the pain experienced by Aboriginal people at the hands of European settlers, he would not offer an apology to Indigenous people as a leader of our government. He suggested we should respect each other, Indigenous people should not engage in extremism, stop trying to make people feel ashamed of our Australian history, and all get on board with the 10-point plan his government was offering on land entitlement following the Wik court case findings.
As the prime minister’s voice grew louder and seemingly angrier (he told me he was just trying to be heard), one by one the crowd rose and turned their back on him. I wasn’t sure what I should do, but as my Indigenous colleagues silently stood up and turned around, I joined them.
Later that first morning, musician Paul Kelly walked to centre stage alone with his guitar, explained that he had co-written a song with Kev Carmody about Aboriginal man Vincent Lingiara, and played what is now one of his most memorable anthems – “From little things big things grow”. The unpretentious stripped back raw performance reverberated through the audience. This was our story.
The Stolen Generations Report (Bringing Them Home) was tabled on the first day of the convention by two of the authors – human rights and equal opportunity commissioners Mick Dodson and Sir Ronald Wilson. It was Sir Ronald who emphasised that the reasons for removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities may or may not have been well motivated, but the outcome was, beyond question, a form of genocide, an attempt to destroy a culture and a people.
My highlight of the convention came when Father Frank Brennan spoke directly to the minority of non-Indigenous people in the room and provided an opportunity for all of us to quietly express our own personal apology to an Indigenous person, a personal apology for the harms our forebears had inflicted on Indigenous people across Australia. I was sitting with Coralie Ober, an amazing Indigenous woman. We stood and faced one another. I said I was sorry. She held me in a big bear hug as I sobbed, and the tears ran down my cheek. I have often wished all Australians could share that rare opportunity to acknowledge their own intergenerational shame, accept some responsibility and be forgiven.
This week I really wanted to hear success stories. I wanted to hear how we could build on our achievements over the past 10 and 20 years to strengthen Indigenous families and communities. I wanted to hear our politicians commit to doing more, to working with Indigenous people and their communities, backing programs we know work and letting go of all those programs we know are achieving nothing more than containment and control.
I wanted to read more case studies; like how Jack Manning and the team at Australian Indigenous Mentoring Program have achieved incredible retention rates amongst Indigenous students – higher than comparative non-Indigenous students – using over 2,000 university mentors working with over 6,000 Indigenous students across 300 schools and 18 universities.
I wanted to hear how organisations like Save the Children are significantly reducing Indigenous incarceration rates amongst young people around Australia. I wanted to hear how collaborative and innovative health, education, employment, housing, and cultural enrichment programs are making a difference.
This week I wanted to feel less shame, less need to apologise again.
This week was disappointing.
- For the history buffs – here is the transcript of the PMs speech that day in May 1997:
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.