Reading 16. Australian Dialogue Decolonising the Country

An Australian Dialogue: Decolonising the Country

Patrick Dodson and Darryl Cronin Introduction

There has been a long history of oppressive and domineering Indigenous policy in this country. Such policies are anchored in the ideology of superiority where the coloniser portrayed Indigenous people as having no civilised customs, societies and government. Derived from the myth of terra nullius (land belonging to no-one), it has created a distinctive form of Settler-Colonialism in Australia where the recognition of Indigenous rights - and, for that matter, respect for Indigenous people - was considered unnecessary. Indigenous policy-making today is largely a product of Settler-Colonial ideas, attitudes and institutions that have operated to deny Indigenous rights. The 2007 Commonwealth Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) to Indigenous communities is an example of colonial policy-making. The federal government's 2008 review of the NTER found there was a failure to engage constructively with Indigenous people. The current ideological and authoritarian approach of Indigenous affairs policy-making underscores the need for a process of dialogue to find a new frame of reference to build relationships and bridge differences between Indigenous peoples and the Australian nation state.

The formal reconciliation process provided a pathway to establishing a foundation for a new relationship with Indigenous people, but its demise has left Australia floundering with issues it is not prepared to confront. Without an innovative way forward, Australia will continue in a cycle of colonisation. A process is needed to help the nation move to a space where there is mutual respect, a common understanding, valuing of our cultures and histories and openness to the need to change. Dialogue between Indigenous people and the Australian nation is a first step in decolonising the colonial relationship between Indigenous people and the nation state. Dialogue is an inclusive process aimed at solving complex issues, bringing stakeholders together to foster understanding and identify new consensual options and shared visions (Mayne 2008: 3). Dialogue is not an adversarial process. It creates safe and positive interaction, bringing people together to discuss difficult issues. It can build mutual understanding and a consensus around how the nation might proceed with a process of genuine reconciliation.

In this chapter, we examine the ongoing implications of the myth of terra nullius; specifically, the distinctive form of Settler-Colonialism in Australia that has formed the backbone of Indigenous-Settler rela¬tions in this country. Dialogue is then presented as a way of bringing together governments, Indigenous people and also other sectors of Australian society to address the problems of Indigenous policy and to empower the country for change and transformation. Genuine reconciliation with Indigenous people will present a significant challenge to the Australian people because it will involve recognis¬ing Indigenous rights, rectifying the illegitimacy of the Australian Constitution and reinterpreting the national identity. In that regard, the issue of a settlement with Indigenous people must be elevated as a nation-building project.

Unsettling the Settler State
Creativity and Resistance in Indigenous Settler-State Governance
Editos Sarah Maddison and Morgan Brigg
The Federation Press 2011

 

Dialogue to empower the country

The idea of an Australian Dialogue came about after a meeting in September 2008. A number of prominent people, including Patrick Dodson, Lieutenant-General John Sanderson and Noel Pearson, met on the Murrumbidgee River near Gundagai to craft a vision and a framework for a new relationship between Indigenous and other Australians. A national framework for an Australian Dialogue was proposed where a new relationship with Indigenous Australians would be developed through a number of strategic conversations. The new relationship is to be based on principles of equality, power and love and where closing the socio-economic gap is based on principles of equality of opportunity and the capacity of Indigenous people to negotiate on terms that sustain their cultural identity and engender greater national acceptance and pride (Global Foundation and The Lingiari Foundation 2008: 3-5).

The Australian Dialogue was established soon after the Gundagai meeting by Patrick Dodson and Lieutenant-General John Sanderson. Through a range of transformative activities, including structured dialogue, at both the national and regional levels throughout Australian society, the Australian Dialogue aims to effect a national paradigm shift in the attitudes, values, norms and practices of main¬stream Australia and in doing so:

  • build a new relationship between Indigenous people and the Australian nation,
  • empower the country to close the socio-economic gap through the transformation of the philosophical and policy framework,
  • recognise the legitimate sovereign authority, institutions and standing of Indigenous people,
  • address historical deficits, including a national identity that is fully inclusive of Indigenous people, history and culture,
  • establish Indigenous lore and culture as central to national herit¬age and recognised in national institutions, • recognise Indigenous rights and the status of Australia's First Peoples in the Australian Constitution,
  • heal the nation and find peace within ourselves.

The Australian Dialogue proposes a range of conversations that will lead to a wider understanding of the need to recognise Indigenous rights, culture and values as central to Australian identity and nationhood. But many Australians see the assertion of Indigenous rights as a fundamental challenge to their identity and have shied away from embracing pluralism towards a largely monocultural value system. Indigenous people are allowed entry into this political community but must give up their cultural and political distinctive¬ness (Bradfield 2004: 168). Donald Horne, the Australian writer and social critic, said there cannot be one true national identity, some essence of being Australian, but that it is a discussion from which there can be no agreed conclusion. He opined that national identity has become so shallow. According to Horne, national identity is not fixed; it is an evolving thesis that takes into account a number of different pointers in the nation's journey (2001: 237-8).

Australia is no longer a predominantly Anglo-Celtic nation because the country's cultural mix has changed, so has its national identity and as a result the myths and legends associated with a white Australia no longer resonate with many Australians (Soutphommasane 2009: 62-76). Further, during the past three decades, the demands by Indigenous peoples across the world have led to an emergence of a common body of opinion in regard to their rights on the basis of international human rights law and policy. The Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the most important of these developments (Anaya 2008: 6). The declaration has moral and legal significance and is a standard that 'sets out ambitions for a new partnership and relationship between Indigenous people and Government, based on the principle of self-determination' (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner 2008c: 31, 35).

The realities of the country have changed. Reinterpreting our national identity in light of contemporary realities does not weaken our sense of what it means to be Australian; rather, it strengthens it. Membership of a national culture is expressed by participating in debates about a shared identity, not by adhering to one authoritarian interpretation of it. Citizens who question aspects of the national culture or identity do so because they are committed to the nation and care about the country living up to what it should be and that issues of history, tradition and culture should be debated without the fear of being labelled un-Australian (Soutphommasane 2009: 68).

Unsettling the Settler State
Creativity and Resistance in Indigenous Settler-State Governance
Editos Sarah Maddison and Morgan Brigg
The Federation Press 2011

A conversation between all Australians

Sir William Deane, former Governor-General of Australia, said that true reconciliation is not achievable without the nation acknowledging the wrongfulness of past dispossession, oppression and degradation of Indigenous peoples (1997: 21-2). This does not mean that individual Australians should feel personal guilt. National shame along with national pride should be a part of the national identity. Guilt, shame, anger and resentment need to be explored in the context of changing the future and dialogue can provide an opportunity for such discussion. Acknowledging the injustices of the past is an act of atonement. It would contribute to a process of repudiating the ideology of Settler Colonialism that has become ingrained into the practices and attitudes of Australians.

An Australian Dialogue is not just a conversation between Indigenous and Anglo-Celtic Australians; it is a conversation between all Australians. An Australian Dialogue aims to put Australians in touch with a deeper appreciation of Indigenous people, their values, protocols, practices and stories that sustained their survival on this continent. It is also about building an inclusive community within the complexity of diverse cultures that today make up Australia. Immigrants to this country must also be able to feel attachment to an inclusive national identity. They have also been pushed to the margins of the national story - a story that primarily revolves around the identity of Anglo-Celtic Australians. Sir William Deane set out some' signposts' for reconciliation (1997). These signposts or principles still ring true. In many ways, they provide a starting point for discussion when undertaking a collective dialogue. They include:

• acknowledgement by the nation of the wrongfulness of past dispossession, oppression and degradation of Indigenous peoples;

• mutual recognition of the need for some national redress of past injustice and oppression; • clear common rejection of any policy of complete assimilation and acceptance of the Indigenous right of choice to pursue their culture and lifestyle or assimilate within the ordinary community;

• that the heart of reconciliation is a consensus that Indigenous peoples and Australians would go forward as friends and equals; • that consensus will require representation of both sides; that is, it concerns who can speak and act for the Australian nation and Indigenous people;

• that reconciliation can be achieved notwithstanding that much remains undone - it would suffice if the continuing effects of past oppression and injustice are effectively addressed to the extent of engendering mutual trust necessary for true consensus for the future;

• that there will be no reconciliation unless a general consensus is reached about the minimum that must be done to redress past oppression and injustice and present problems;

• the importance of a formal ceremony of reconciliation to celebrate or formalise the consensus.

The hope for Indigenous people is that governments will enter into a serious dialogue about their status in the nation and for the Constitution to recognise the first Australians, but there has never been an agreement about how this fundamental dilemma might be progressed (Dodson 2000: 15). The issue of a settlement with Indigenous people must be elevated as a national priority, starting with a national dialogue on developing a new relationship with Indigenous peoples. It should be a nation-building project.

Unsettling the Settler State
Creativity and Resistance in Indigenous Settler-State Governance
Editos Sarah Maddison and Morgan Brigg
The Federation Press 2011

 

Conclusion

The reports of Captain Cook and Joseph Banks were major contribut¬ing factors in dooming Indigenous people to a particularly oppressive brand of British imperialism. Their reports had much to do with the designation of Australia as an empty land (Russell 2006: 69-70).

We cannot wind the clock back, but we can change the oppressive brand of colonialism inherited from the British and we can rectify the accumulated and ongoing injustices. We can begin with a process of dialogue to change the Indigenous policy framework. There is an urgent need for such a process, because the last decade of ideological and authoritarian Indigenous policy has polarised the country, creating difficulties for reconciliation. Dialogue can advance Indigenous-Settler relations because it is able to deal with difficult issues through a non-adversarial and non-threatening process. It can deal with guilt, shame, anger and resentment. It can be an empowering process, setting the framework for discussions about difficult issues, including national transformation in this country. Dialogue is also participatory and inclusive because it is a conversation between all Australians, not just Indigenous and Anglo-Celtic Australians.

Unsettling the Settler State
Creativity and Resistance in Indigenous Settler-State Governance
Editos Sarah Maddison and Morgan Brigg
The Federation Press 2011