Reconciliation week is an opportunity to take stock on how the national reconciliation journey is progressing. It is not the only opportunity. Each year the Prime Minister of the day reports on progress or not in closing the gap. Each year the outcome is depressingly similar. A bit of progress here and there and a bit of slipping back. What we all hope for, the big breakthrough in righting the social statistics, eludes us.
But a longer view is more reassuring. Over the two generations I have followed these issues and engaged in them a new and better Australia has been created. We can never lose sight of current areas of failure most starkly demonstrated by horrifying rates of imprisonment but nor should we overlook the high level participation by Aboriginal Australians in every aspect of our national life. In culture and the arts, sport, the professions, business, politics and our national debates the Aboriginal presence is always evident. It was not like that in the past.
The legal recognition of Aboriginal and Islander collective or tribal identities was won by them in the Mabo case. It brings them to the table with business and governments as stakeholders not as supplicants. This is still new to many Australians to whom the idea of layers of identity is a puzzle. Yet the idea that Indigenous identity is secure is central to a faster closing of the gap.
The Prime Minister's closing the gap speech in Parliament earlier this year contained a consistent mantra repeated throughout the text. We must do things WITH Aboriginal people not TO them. This is a key message in line with every expert view on the subject. The irony is that we know it but have yet to learn how to do it. We still persist with centrally designed policies and worse still centrally controlled administration when place based decentralised solutions are much more likely to work. Difficult social issues do not admit to centralised bureaucratic solutions. Until we implement the approach suggested by the Prime Minister rather than just talk about it we will continue the painfully slow progress of the past.
Disempowering Aboriginal people does not make them responsible for their own futures, it infantilises them. Working on them instead of with them reduces them to despair. This is the next big adjustment we have to make, learning to work with, and it requires different mindsets and different skills. Post election perhaps we can start to work seriously on that.
Fred Chaney AO
2014 Senior Australian of the Year