John Bond

Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia from 1996 to 2002, wrote that reconciliation would be achieved in Australia when “the life expectancy of an Aboriginal baby is in the same realm as that of a non-Aboriginal.”1

That is a good test of reconciliation. Life expectancy is a crucial test of a society’s livability. If a person feels alienated from the society in which they live, depression sets in. They become careless and so more accident-prone, they try to lose themselves in addiction, and they give up seeking medical attention even if it is available. And so they die early.

So how will we reach Sir William’s goal?

At present we are far from it. Aboriginal Australians feel alienated from the wider Australian society. They die seventeen years younger than their non-Aboriginal compatriots.2 Their lifespan is shorter than that of the inhabitants of some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Bangladesh, despite Australia having one of the most sophisticated medical systems in the world. If we are to generalize about the condition of Aboriginal Australia, “depression” is an inadequate word. It would be more accurate to describe it as a “traumatized community.”

The causes of this trauma are not hard to find. Since Britain’s colonization of Australia began in 1788, the story of the Aboriginal people has been one of dispossession, massacre, and disease. Unlike most colonized countries, Australia’s settlers signed almost no treaties with the original inhabitants, and those that were signed were repudiated by higher authority. They took control of the continent and declared Australia terra nullius—nobody’s land. Anyone could see that this was a legal fiction, since Aborigines had lived on that land for thousands of years, but this law gave the settlers the right to push Aboriginal people off any land they wished for. Only in 1993 did Australia’s High Court acknowledge this fiction by agreeing that Aboriginal Australians had native title rights by virtue of prior occupation. The rights granted, however, were so limited that few Aboriginal Australians have been able to secure any benefit.

In other words, we non-Indigenous Australians are here because we proved ourselves militarily stronger than the original inhabitants, and then we swamped them with immigrants. It is not much of a legal basis for our occupation. We have to find other arguments to justify our marginalization of the inhabitants who we displaced, and the main argument is that we are better people—culturally more advanced, technically more proficient, agriculturally more productive, and above all, morally superior.

This last attribute is especially dubious given our treatment of the people we displaced, so we bolster the argument by a constant denigration of Aboriginal people. Australia’s best-known social researcher, Hugh Mackay, says that whereas white Australians are reasonably tolerant toward most ethnic groups, the hostility toward Aborigines is immense.3 That attitude is bred into white Australians from birth. It plays a vital role in our self-esteem. It enables us to see ourselves as a friendly people, and to maintain that self-image, we try not to look at that record. There is little enthusiasm for history in Australian schools, certainly not for Aboriginal history.

Because that record stinks. Ever since 1788, Aboriginal people have been treated as expendable whenever they threatened white interests. At first they were simply killed, and massacres took place all over the country until the 1920s.4 This, coupled with the impact of diseases such as smallpox, meant that the oldest living culture on the planet came close to extermination, and it is still under serious threat today with Aboriginal languages dying steadily. Some humane white people worked courageously to prevent the killings and cure the diseased, but the overall picture is grim.

The massacres died out in the early years of the twentieth century, but by then white Australians had perceived a new threat. As the number of full-blooded Aboriginal people decreased, the population of people of mixed Aboriginal and white parentage increased, largely due to predatory white men. (Until well into the twentieth century, Australia’s white population had a substantial gender imbalance, with a preponderance of men.) There was alarm at the growing number of mixed-race children, especially as most of them grew up with their mothers in Aboriginal communities.

The authorities looked on Aboriginal culture as worthless, and they saw mixed-race Aboriginal people as a potential source of unrest. In their view, if the children were denied access to their Aboriginal heritage, they would adopt the culture of white Australia. If they married white people, their Aboriginal features would disappear within a couple of generations. Western Australia’s so-called Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, put bluntly the view that either Australia would “have a population of one million blacks,” which he had told a national conference, or “merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia.”5 So, state governments passed laws enabling them to remove children from their Aboriginal families and place them in white institutions, often run by churches, or with white foster parents.

These laws were eventually repealed in the 1960s, though the practice of removal went on until the 1980s.6 Discrimination against Aborigines, however, did not cease. Only this year (2007) and for the first time, an Australian policeman was charged with the manslaughter of an Aboriginal prisoner. In this case, the prisoner’s liver was almost torn in half, and four of his ribs were broken. Only one person, a policeman, could have caused these injuries. Yet, when he came to trial, the jury found him not guilty either of manslaughter or of assault.

It is impossible to imagine such a verdict had the victim been white. From the earliest times of white settlement, Aboriginal people have been treated as a conquered people, and the Australian authorities have still not made the transition to recognizing them as full citizens, entitled to all the benefits available to other citizens.

Comparable countries such as Canada and New Zealand have made this transition. This does not mean that all is well in those countries, but their Indigenous people are treated with a respect far in advance of anything seen in Australia, and—to return to Sir William’s test—their life expectancy reflects this. Whereas Indigenous Australians die seventeen years younger than the wider Australian population, Canada and New Zealand have reduced this gap to about seven years, and it is still improving.7

How can Australia be encouraged to make this transition?

It may be that we have to be pushed into it. Sooner or later, if Aboriginal people continue to be humiliated, they will turn their anger toward white society. Think of the destructive impact of an angry Aboriginal person with a box of matches on any hot and windy day. If change comes in this way, it will be preceded by a long and bitter struggle, and it will leave a legacy of hatred like that of Northern Ireland. This will be our fate if we continue to close our eyes to the terrible injustice that Aboriginal people face, which makes them feel like outcasts in their own land. At present, short-sighted government policies are leading us to that situation, and there is a desperate need for wiser policies.

What are the forces that will prompt us to choose wiser policies? In my view, the most powerful force is the conscience of ordinary Australians, many of whom feel uneasy that they live in comfort at the expense of the suffering of the continent’s original inhabitants. Usually this unease is unspoken. Few questioned the policy of removing children from their families while these policies were in force. They were removed from wretched conditions, successive governments said, to be given all the benefits of Western society, and they should be grateful. Do not worry about the mothers, they were told, as “[t]hey soon forget their offspring.”8. Retrieved 24 September 2007 from]

Yet, in their hearts, many Australians knew that this was far from the truth. In 1997, when a national inquiry reported on the extent of tragedy caused by these policies, and the government tried to ignore the inquiry’s report, there was an outpouring of feeling. More than half a million people signed Sorry Books.9 The call for an official apology became a national issue and an embarrassment to a prime minister who refused to apologize. Three years later, more than a quarter of a million people walked across bridges in all major Australian cities and many towns to demonstrate their longing for a new relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.10 Many of them carried placards calling for an official apology.

When one-quarter million Australians care enough about an issue to get out of bed on a cold Sunday morning and join a city-centre walk, there must be many millions more who feel similarly. Those walks demonstrate that a significant proportion of Australians want to end discrimination against Aboriginal people. Now we need national leaders who will seize that mandate and turn it into reality.

How can our national leaders be encouraged to seize that mandate? And how can the leaders persuade the Australian electorate that reconciliation is worth the price? Because the price will be large.

It would be a setback to the process if the government were to try to substitute itself for the grassroots movement for reconciliation. If reconciliation is seen as principally a government program, this would provoke two responses: those who dislike the government are lukewarm since they see support for reconciliation as strengthening the government and the rest think that the government has it all in hand, so there is no need for the community to do much about it.

In fact, there is a vital role for every individual. Reconciliation is only a creative force if it works at the grassroots level, for example, if it means that a non-Indigenous housewife lends her Aboriginal neighbour a bottle of milk just as she would her non-Indigenous neighbour. If a person is to flourish, he or she must feel the support of those around them. The unspoken hostility, which many Aboriginal people feel in white neighbourhoods, is immensely destructive to their morale, and low morale leads directly to tragic consequences such as addiction.

On the positive side, the grassroots movement for reconciliation in Australia has shown that the community can play a role in healing trauma. Professional counsellors sometimes underestimate the role that untrained people can play, and there is no doubt that professional training is a tremendous asset. But where trauma is widespread, as among Aboriginal Australians, many who suffer may not receive any help unless the wider community is enlisted. The Australian experience shows that in many people there is an innate understanding of the steps needed to promote healing. When encouraged to get involved, they have known how to help by caring for the person in practical ways, giving them the opportunity to tell their story should they wish to do so, and making them feel welcome in their locality. Through this involvement, they have been given the opportunity to see their society through Aboriginal eyes.

Community support to end discrimination is not a recent phenomenon. In the late 1950s, a group of Aboriginal and white Australians came together and formed the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI)11 to work toward this aim. They decided to focus on changing two clauses in the Australian Constitution that encouraged official discrimination against Aboriginal people.

The FCAATSI leadership did not find it easy to persuade their followers to focus on an issue that seems far removed from immediate needs, such as decrepit housing and non-existent health services, but they gradually won support and set to work to convince the government to hold a referendum and to convince the non-Indigenous community to support this. When it took place in 1967, it was supported by an overwhelming ninety-one per cent of the Australian people.

This degree of support played an important role in the advances in the following decade, during which large areas of land were handed back to Aboriginal people. Today, this amounts to thirty-two per cent of the total Northern Territory.12 Legislation was passed giving Aboriginal councils control over much that took place on this land, including mining ventures. However, little money was allocated to making the communities economically viable, and far too little was done to improve the overcrowded and crumbling housing or even to ensure adequate primary health care.

During the 1960s, the government decided that Aboriginal people should be paid the same wage as their non-Indigenous counterparts and should receive the same unemployment benefits.13 These measures were a brave attempt to end a glaring injustice and, for Aboriginal people living in urban areas, were an important step forward.

In the rural areas, however, where many Aboriginal people were employed on cattle stations and lived with their families on these stations, it was a different matter. The new measures were introduced with no thought for the station owners suddenly faced with a vast increase in their wages bill. Thousands of Aboriginal workers were laid off, forcing them and their families to move to nearby towns and settlements where the lack of housing meant they had to live in shanties on the town’s outskirts. Able to claim unemployment benefits with no rent to pay, they suddenly had access to large amounts of cash. Cast out from their known world into depressing circumstances, the lure of addiction often proved too strong for these Aboriginal workers to resist, and alcoholism became rampant in many areas. This has too often been the pattern in Aboriginal policy. Ideologically driven policies, from both sides of politics, have proven to be destructive to Aboriginal people.

In 1989, the federal government established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, with an Indigenous chair and elected commissioners, a budget of several hundred million dollars, and authority over a network of regional Indigenous councils. Attempts were made to develop a treaty with Aboriginal people. In the end, however, fear of an electoral backlash meant that this attempt was abandoned and, instead, in 1991, the government established a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation composed of eminent Australians from both the Indigenous and the wider communities. It was headed by an articulate Aboriginal person, Patrick Dodson, a former priest from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The council was given a substantial budget and offices in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

During the following years, the council made a remarkable impact on Australian attitudes. Their strategy was to bring together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in small discussions all over the country. They produced material for groups to organize their own study circles and publicized these widely. There was a large response: universities, colleges, churches, and libraries invited their clientele to take part in a course of weekly meetings. Hundreds of study circles met over the following five or six years. Usually, they were a group of ten or twenty non-Indigenous Australians meeting with three or four members of the local Aboriginal community. For many thousands of non-Indigenous Australians, this was the first time they had sat down with Aboriginal people in an atmosphere conducive to genuine discussion.

The council arranged similar encounters at an official level. In towns and city suburbs throughout the country, all-day seminars were held, bringing together the civic officials, magistrates, police, and business representatives with local Aboriginal leaders. Again, for many who take on leadership in their towns and suburbs, this was the first time they had participated in a serious discussion with Aboriginal people. Imperceptibly, attitudes began to change.

In 1987, the government launched a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody,14 which investigated why so many Aboriginal people took their own lives while in custody. This commission explored the lives of ninety-nine such people, and found that forty-three of those who had died had been removed from their families as children under the forced removal policies.

This brought government attention to the need to respond to the requests for an inquiry into the removal policies. The Aboriginal child care agencies, voluntary bodies that had grown in the absence of government support for child care, had been agitating for this for years. They had endured a long and often heartbreaking struggle. At last, in 1995, the federal government agreed and chose a former High Court judge, Sir Ronald Wilson, to chair the inquiry. During the next two years, the inquiry heard from, or received submissions from, 777 people and organizations, of which 535 were Indigenous people who told of their experiences of forcible removal.

By the time the inquiry reported in 1997, an election had brought in a new federal government. Their view was that Aboriginal interests had won too many concessions, thanks to an undue sense of guilt among white Australians, and they took steps to “swing the pendulum back,” as the new Prime Minister expressed it. Then Wilson’s report, Bringing Them Home, landed on their desk. Its 680 pages told in heart-rending detail of the agony endured by Aboriginal people as a result of the removal policies.15

This was precisely what the government did not want to hear. For eight months it made no response except to say that there would be no apology and no compensation would be paid. Several government ministers attempted to discredit the report.

The public reaction was totally different. Bringing Them Home sold in far greater numbers than any comparable report, and the tone of letters to the newspapers showed that many people were horrified by their government’s cold-hearted response. Most may not have understood much about Aboriginal people, but everyone could understand the pain of a mother whose child has been forcibly removed. Speaking a few weeks after the release of the report, Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Mick Dodson told an Aboriginal conference:

We have seen a most extraordinary turn of events in this country. Day after day and week after week the newspapers and airwaves have been jammed with talk about our families and children. Day after day the letter pages in the papers are filled with the reactions of ordinary Australians who are horrified at the truth that they never knew. Never before have so many Australians turned their attention to our families. Never before has Australia really known or cared about our children, children taken from the arms of their mothers, taken from their culture.16

At that stage, the government had shown every sign of ignoring the report, but as community concern welled up, the tone of official pronouncements softened. Eventually, the government announced that it would put sixty-three million dollars toward adopting a few of the report’s recommendations. Link-up services, which bring together Aboriginal families separated by the removal policies, received government funding, as did counselling services for the Stolen Generations.17

However, the sums invested were totally inadequate to meet the need. Where Canada, faced with a similar situation, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its Healing Strategy to address the legacy of the residential school system, Australia has invested only tens of millions. Few Stolen Generations people are able to receive help from health professionals.

Some of the Stolen Generations sought redress through the courts. The government paid expensive lawyers to oppose them. The best-known case in which two members of the Stolen Generations sued the government for wrongful treatment cost over ten million dollars. In his judgment in August 2000, Justice O’Loughlin accepted that both had been abused in the institutions to which they had been taken, but he could not find that the government bore any responsibility for this abuse, even though government officers had removed the children to the institution, and the case was dismissed.18

Perhaps it was this intransigence that galvanized so many Australians. Stolen Generations people live in every town and in most suburbs of our cities. Many non-Indigenous Australians would have encountered them at some stage—at school, in clinics, or in welfare offices. Alienated as they are by traumatic experiences in childhood, they are often unable to make friends with their neighbours. Their neighbours, having no concept of what they have endured, are unable to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding. Often, the Stolen Generations’ only friends are those they grew up with in their institution. Since the report appeared, however, many of these neighbours have reached out to the Stolen Generations, building bridges across the gulf.

The person principally responsible for focusing national attention onto the report was Sir Ronald Wilson. He had been profoundly affected by the inquiry.

This Inquiry was like no other I have undertaken. Others were intellectual exercises, a matter of collating information and making recommendations. But for these people to reveal what had happened to them took immense courage and every emotional stimulus they could muster.

At each session, the tape would be turned on and we would wait… I would look into the face of the person who was to speak to us. I would see the muscles straining to hold back the tears. But tears would stream down, still no words being spoken. And then, hesitantly, words would come.

We sat there as long as it took. We heard the story, told with that person’s whole being, reliving experiences which had been buried deep, sometimes for decades. They weren’t speaking with their minds, they were speaking with their hearts. And my heart had to open if I was to understand them.19

This affected him deeply. “I came to this inquiry as a man over the hill at 73, with fifty years behind me as a hardboiled lawyer, mixing it with all sorts of antagonists,” he told an overflow audience in Canberra, the national capital, “and yet this inquiry changed me. And if it can change me, it can change our nation.”

That was no rhetorical statement. From then on he spoke publicly in forum after forum, drawing crowds in their hundreds:

Children were removed because the Aboriginal race was seen as an embarrassment to white Australia. The aim was to strip the children of their Aboriginality and accustom them to live in a white Australia. The tragedy was compounded when the children, as they grew up, encountered the racism which shaped the policy, and found themselves rejected by the very society for which they were being prepared.20

He asked for apologies from Australian governments, churches, the police, and all who had been involved in implementing the removal policies and led the way himself. “I was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Western Australia at the time we ran Sister Kate’s Home, where ‘stolen children grew up,’” he said. “‘I was proud of the home, with its system of cottage families. Imagine my pain when I discovered, during this Inquiry, that children were sexually abused in those cottages.”21 He and the Presbyterian Church apologized wholeheartedly to the Aboriginal people.

His actions struck a chord. In the following months, most of Australia’s state parliaments and churches held formal ceremonies to hear from representatives of the Stolen Generations and to apologize for their role in this tragedy. These were profoundly moving events, which sent a burst of hope through the Aboriginal community that perhaps a new day was dawning.

A bigger ceremony was yet to come. One recommendation of the Bringing Them Home report was that a Sorry Day be held annually to commemorate the tragedy. This had been proposed by several of those who gave evidence to the inquiry when asked what could help the healing process.

Sorry is a potent word. Sir Ronald Wilson understood the longing of Aboriginal people to hear the word sorry. As a result of the Inquiry, he had realized that, to Aboriginal people, “sorry” holds far more emotional power than “apology.” When Aboriginal people come together to grieve after a death, they describe this as “sorry business.” Sitting together, they help each other come to terms with a painful loss and find strength to go on. Few non-Aboriginal Australians understand this depth of meaning, but they understand the need to apologize for cruel and misguided policies. And to many, “apology” also has emotional depth. As Sir Ronald pointed out, “apology means understanding, a willingness to enter into the suffering, and implies a commitment to do more.”22 So, even though perceptions differ, a Sorry Day would be meaningful to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

The federal government was not interested. Could a Sorry Day be held on a community basis? Sir Ronald consulted spokespeople for the Stolen Generations, and they jointly invited thirty people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to meet and consider this question. At that meeting, in January 1998, the participants decided to try. They chose May 26th as the day, since the report had been tabled in the federal Parliament on 26 May 1997 and elected two co-chairs, one Aboriginal and one non-Aboriginal. In a statement, the committee described Sorry Day as

a day when all Australians can express their sorrow for the whole tragic episode, and celebrate the beginning of a new understanding?… Indigenous people will participate in a Day dedicated to the memory of loved ones who never came home, or who are still finding their way home?… It can help restore the dignity stripped from those affected by removal; and it offers those who carried out the policy—and their successors—a chance to move beyond denial and guilt. It could shape a far more creative partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with immense benefit to both.23

A former Governor-General of Australia, Sir Zelman Cowen, accepted their invitation to be a patron. Then in March, the idea was launched to the nation through the media.

The response exceeded all expectations. The Sorry Day Committee was merely a group of people with almost no money and no ability to organize events across the nation. This did not matter because people organized their own events. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians met to plan: artists painted, musicians composed, and writers and playwrights wrote. A well-known actor created Sorry Books—manuscript books in which people could express their apology. More and more books were produced as demand grew from schools, public libraries, and town councils. Soon, several thousand books were in circulation, and more than half a million people wrote messages, many of them telling of personal experiences that prompted them to contribute.

When the day arrived, it was commemorated by a great number of events. There were theatrical presentations, cultural displays, and town barbecues. Universities, government departments, local councils, and churches held gatherings to hear from Stolen Generations people. At many of them, the Sorry Books were ceremoniously handed to local Aboriginal elders. Over half of the 30-minute national TV news that evening was devoted to Sorry Day events and to the heartfelt response of Australia’s best-known Aboriginal leaders.

Why did Sorry Day touch such a chord? One of the deepest human pains is that of a mother who loses her child or a child its mother. Yet the gulf between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians was simply too immense for even this pain to flow across it. Bringing Them Home exposed this gulf, and many Australians were shocked. Sorry Day was a chance to accept blame and to do something about it. As one person expressed it:

I thought back to my primary school classroom. I can name every person in that class except the four Aboriginal boys who sat at the back of the class, never asked a question, stuck with each other in the playground, never played with the rest of us. I looked on them as incredibly dull. When I read Bringing Them Home, I began to understand what they had probably endured, and why they acted as they did. And I felt ashamed.24

The federal government was taken aback by the strength of the Day. They had no idea how to respond to a campaign that included many people active on their side of the politics, so they stayed silent and aloof.

The Stolen Generations were deeply moved. For the first time, they felt that the Australian community understood what they had gone through. An Aboriginal commissioner who carried responsibility for health issues illustrated the change. “In the past,” he said, “when I visited non-Indigenous health officials, I found a resistance to my argument that Indigenous people faced particular health issues, and health professionals needed to be trained to recognise these. Since Sorry Day I have discovered far more openness to these ideas.”25

Now, many of the Stolen Generations felt that the way was open toward healing. From across the country, many of them met together. Out of their discussions came a decision to launch a “Journey of Healing.” A prominent Stolen Generations woman, Lowitja O’Donoghue, became its patron.

The Journey of Healing’s underlying concept is that if the wounds are to be healed, both the government and the community, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, have a vital role. It offers every Australian the chance to be part of healing this deep national wound, and many have responded. Hundreds of events are arranged each year, principally on the anniversary of Sorry Day, bringing together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. In many places, radio stations invite Stolen Generations people from the neighbourhood to tell their stories. All over the country, ordinary Australians are learning what many of their Aboriginal compatriots endured, not in the abstract, but through people they bump into in the supermarket. Understanding is growing, and people who have felt alienated for years are experiencing the welcome of their local communities. In a supportive environment, they can begin to heal.

In 2001, Brian Butler was the ATSIC26 Commissioner responsible for Stolen Generations issues. “Wherever I go, I see spin-offs of the Journey of Healing,” he told a meeting of the National Sorry Day Committee that year. “The work you are doing as Committees is important, but your effect has gone far wider than that. It is developing into a widespread social movement.”27

The Executive Director of Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, after a visit to Australia, said that whereas Canada has done much more at a government level to resolve the grievances of those who were removed, Australia has done much more at a community level. “Both are needed for healing to take place,” he concluded.28

In any society, discrimination is only overcome as individual consciences become more sensitive. Sadly, the past decade has seen constant scapegoating of Aboriginal people by the federal government and a consequent dulling of the national conscience.

This has been noted in international forums, and disdain for Australia has grown in the international community. A country that was seen as moving toward remedying the cruelties of the past is now seen as perpetuating them. A country that was moving steadily away from a racist past now seems to be pandering to racism again, and there is much to justify this view. There are fewer Aboriginal people at university than there were a decade ago and fewer in the federal public service. Aboriginal people are being squeezed out of our national life.

Mahatma Gandhi said that a country could be judged by the way it treats its most disadvantaged citizens. Australia’s most disadvantaged citizens are its Aboriginal people. Government policies and inaction have seriously set back Aboriginal well-being at a time when Canada, New Zealand, and the United States are all making steady progress. If Australia becomes determined to catch up, respect will be restored in international forums, particularly in the forums of our near neighbours in Asia and the Pacific, whose experience of colonialism has left them with a strong aversion to white domination.

That is why government has moved through the past decade to privatize reconciliation—moving it out of the Prime Minister’s Department, then out of government responsibility altogether—which is short-sighted. Reconciliation is vital to the future of Australia, and it can be achieved. When denial of the ugly side of our history is overcome and the guilt that accompanies this denial, it will be a freeing experience for all Australians. If we can learn to accept the truth about our history, it will engender a new respect for Aboriginal people. This is vital. This fragile continent faces grave ecological challenges in the next few years, and scientists have stated that these challenges will only be met through the application of both Aboriginal experience and Western expertise.

The federal election in November 2007 brought a change of government and, with it, the hope that this trend will be reversed. The new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has committed himself to apologize to the Indigenous community for the policies that removed their children from their families. This could mark a turning point in government commitment to Indigenous well-being. Coming after years of prevarication on the subject, a wholehearted apology would make clear that scapegoating is coming to an end, as long as it includes measures for healing and reparation.

If the new government genuinely intends to achieve reconciliation, it will take several steps. Firstly, it will provide adequate and culturally appropriate primary health care to Aboriginal people across the country. At present, this is grossly underfunded, and it will need to increase by several hundred million dollars per year. Australian health professionals are united in their conviction that with an input of this dimension, they could reduce the Aboriginal death rate by a third within a decade. We would then be on the way to achieving Sir William Deane’s target. Among other steps, they will need to:

  • improve Aboriginal housing. Fifteen people in a three-bedroom house is a recipe for disease, and this is the situation in many Aboriginal communities;

  • consult Aboriginal people across the country to develop an adequate structure for national Aboriginal representation;

  • meet with representatives of the Stolen Generations and with others who have been grievously wounded by misguided past policies to reach agreement on reparations. The removal policies grew out of the white authorities’ determination to control almost every aspect of the lives of Aboriginal people. Healing depends on abandoning this control by fully involving the victims of those policies in measures toward healing;

  • use their media access to change the image of Aboriginal people among the wider Australian community. Government media statements have focused on Aboriginal failures on such things as sexual abuse, addiction, and domestic violence in Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal achievement is rarely mentioned. The result is that Aboriginal people are seen as incapable, dysfunctional, and immoral. It is a grossly unjust picture;

  • improve access to education in Aboriginal communities. This will entail a major program of school-building and of improving existing schools;

  • implement rural development programs in remote Aboriginal communities and provide the infrastructure and training necessary to ensure that these communities become viable economic entities. There is immense expertise in rural development in countries such as India from which Australia could learn;

  • give substantial support to reconciliation groups without attempting to dictate to them. Reconciliation initiatives will differ from region to region, and local groups must be given the authority to develop their own initiatives within an agreed upon framework for funding support. The study circles should be revived and encouraged; and

  • develop voluntary programs that enable people with expertise needed in Aboriginal communities, urban and rural, to spend several months in that community to share their expertise. Among the million people who walked for reconciliation in 2000 will be a substantial number who will wish to take part in such a scheme, including medical professionals, tradesmen, and educators. They can be an immense asset, as they will not only share their expertise, but will build friendships leading to further visits and interchanges. This will help break through the ignorance that allows many Aboriginal communities to remain poverty-stricken despite Australia’s prosperity.

Fortunately, Australia’s minerals are in demand around the world, and the economy is strong. If the political will is there, the funds can be made available for these urgent tasks.

Implementing these measures will initiate a major change in Australian society. This is needed for our very survival as a society. The Aboriginal population of Australia is increasing faster than the rest of the population, and the proportion of Aboriginal people in some of Australia’s areas of vital ecological importance is increasing. In the years ahead, we will more and more depend on Aboriginal people to maintain a sustainable environment with healthy waterways and pollution-free foodstuffs.

Take the huge basin of the Murray and Darling rivers, for instance, where much of Australia’s food is grown. The Aboriginal population in that basin is increasing, and the non-Indigenous population is decreasing. More and more we will depend on Aboriginal people to ensure those rivers are free of salt and other poisons. They will not put their energies into such tasks if they are despised by the wider community. Only if respect for them grows will they do what Australian society asks of them.

The challenge before the new government will be to persuade the Australian community that large sums must go into Aboriginal well-being. There is clearly a substantial portion of the population that will give this support. With positive government leadership, there is every prospect that an imaginative plan would attract the support of most Australians.

When Aboriginal people see that the government is serious about meeting the immediate needs, this will help to create a climate of trust in which the more difficult task can be undertaken—the development of a treaty between the government and Aboriginal Australians. When this has been achieved, no longer will it be possible to accuse Australians of treating the Aboriginal community as a conquered people. They will be able to take their place as full citizens, both in law and in practice. Only then will Australia have taken a major step toward full maturity as a just, democratic nation.


John Bond is a writer and editor living in Canberra, Australia. Since 1969 he has served with Initiatives of Change, an NGO working to build trust across the world’s divides.?Ten years in Africa opened his eyes to the impact of colonialism and to the attitudes of racial superiority still prevalent today. On his return to Australia he worked to overcome discrimination against Aboriginal Australians. When the Bringing Them Home report brought to light the tragic impact of the policies that removed tens of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families, he helped focus national attention on this report. In 1998, he was elected Secretary of the National Sorry Day Committee and served in this capacity?until 2006. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the Australian community through this committee’s work. He is?now a member of the Stolen Generations Alliance: Australians for Healing, Truth and Justice.

John’s contribution to this collection, Reconciliation: A Non-Indigenous Australian ­Perspective, provides an overview of Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people and the country’s efforts at reconciliation. Interestingly, the federal government has lagged far behind the Australian public in reaching out to those Aboriginal people who, as children, were torn from their families and placed into institutions and foster homes. While the federal government has never apologized for the removals, more than half a million Australians signed Sorry Books. John proposes that life expectancy be used as a test of reconciliation. In addition to a formal apology, he calls for a range of socio-economic programs, including the provision of adequate, culturally appropriate health care and improved housing. While this article specifically addresses issues surrounding reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia, the author’s observations proffer lessons for Canada as we move into a formal reconciliation process of our own.

  1. Cited in: Kinnear, Audrey Ngingali and Johnj Brown (2001). The next step on the road towards reconciliation. The Canberra Times, 11 January 2001. Retrieved 24 September 2007 from: .asp?story_id=14253
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005). The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2005. Retrieved 26 November 2007 from:
  3. Hugh Mackay made this point in a lecture, Australia at a Turning Point, at the National Library, Canberra, on 18 May 2002 in response to a question from me. He has made similar points frequently. Here are two instances immediately found on the internet. In the 20 June 2005 edition of The Age (the main Melbourne broadsheet newspaper) he wrote, “It’s Australian to?… reserve our nastiest prejudices for indigenous people” (see: 1119119722702.html). Mackay has also said that many Australians carry a “huge but unadmitted collective guilt” about Aborigines that is reflected in the “most appalling racist humor reserved for Aborigines” (see:
  4. Mesher, David (2007). The Spectrum of Spectral Colonisation in John Scott’s Warra Warra. Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Special Issue: 130–139.
  5. Speech at Commonwealth-State Native Welfare Conference, Canberra, 1937, as cited in: Knightley, Phillip (2001:para. 3). Longtime Australian Policy: Kidnapping Children from Families. The Center for Public Integrity, online investigative journal. Retrieved 6 December 2007 from:
  6. From the report Bringing them Home and can be read at:
  7. Australian Government (2006). Department of Health and Ageing Factbook 2006: Life expectancy and mortality (retrieved 25 September 2007 from:; Statistics New Zealand (2007). Demographic Trends 2006 (retrieved 26 September 2007 from:; Canadian Institutes of Health Research (no date). Aboriginal Health (retrieved 25 September 2007 from:
  8. “I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief may be at the time. They soon forget their offspring.” James Isdell, Travelling Protector, Western Australia, 1909. Cited in Manne, Robert (2006). The Stolen Generations: A Documentary Collection [unpublished
  9. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) (2004). ‘Sorry Books’ registered as historic documents. UNISIST Newsletter 32(2):4. Retrieved 23 November 2007 from
  10. Tenenbaum, Linda (2000). A quarter of a million march in support of Australia’s Aborigines – But who are the beneficiaries of “reconciliation”? World socialist Web Site: News & Analysis: Australia & South Pacific. Retrieved 23 November 2007 from:
  11. The organization was originally created in 1958 as the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement and then changed its name in 1964 to Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders.
  12. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2007). Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2006. Retrieved 26 November 2007 from:
  13. Sandall, Roger (1973). Aboriginal People and the Cattle Industry. Retrieved 23 November 2007 from:
  14. The full report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody can be found online at:
  15. The full report can be read at
  16. Dodson, Michael (1997). An Indigenous home for Indigenous children. Speech by Michael Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Social Justice Commissioner at the SNAICC National Conference, Townsville, June 1997. Retrieved 14 September 2007 from:
  17. Information about the Government response can be read at
  18. The transcript and conclusions of this court case can be read at
  19. Cited in: Bond, John (1998:para. 11). Time to Say Sorry to ‘Stolen Generations.’ For A Change Magazine 11(1). Retrieved 25 September 2007 from:
  20. Cited in: O’Brien, Peter (2002:9). Journey of Healing: Are We Helping Them Home Yet? Retrieved 25 September 2007 from:
  21. Cited in: Bond, John (1998:para. 11).
  22. Cited in: Bond, John (1998:para. 13).
  23. Sorry Day Committee (no date:para. 4, 5, 7). A National Sorry Day. Retrieved 14 September 2007 from: http//
  24. Cited in Bond (2005:5–6).
  25. Commissioner for Health, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, speaking at meeting of ATSIC Board with representatives of the National Sorry Day Committee, 1999. The ATSIC was later abolished in 2005.
  26. ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission).
  27. Minutes, NSDC national conference, 2003.
  28. Tony Reynolds, Executive Director (1993–1996), Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991–1996) interview with John Bond, 2001.