What are the major impediments?
How might they be overcome?

by Roslyn Roberts 

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love" Mother Theresa


We, the Indigenous owners and occupiers of Australia, call on the Australian Government and people to recognise our rights:

We call on the Commonwealth to pass laws providing: We call on the Australian Government to support Aborigines in the development of an international declaration of principles for indigenous rights, leading to an international covenant. And we call on the Commonwealth Parliament to negotiate with us a Treaty recognising our prior ownership, continued occupation and sovereignty and affirming our human rights and freedom. Australian Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation


Few issues evoke such divisiveness in Australian culture as that of reconciliation.

My concept of reconciliation is the recognition of the same God-like spirit in everyone. However, the use of the word "God" conjures up secularistic images in many subscribers to faiths other than christianity due to the wars, religious arrogance, and closed minded attitudes which have been executed in "God's" name. For the purposes of most of this exercise, I prefer to replace the word "God" with "love", as I believe the two are one and the same yet the word "love" seems to hold a more universal acceptance and does not carry the same dogma.

At this point however, the word "love" needs to be more defined. My interpretation of love is best defined by M. Scott Peck, in the Road Less Travelled who states "Love is the will to extend one's self for one's own or another's spiritual growth"

Peck goes on to define the opposite of love or evil as "the unwillingness to extend one's self. Laziness is love's opposite and the force of entropy as it manifests itself in the lives of all of us." He explains that in debating the wisdom of a proposed course of action, human beings routinely fail to obtain God's side of the issue. They fail to consult or listen to the God within then, the knowledge of rightness which inherently resides within the minds of all mankind. We make this failure because we are lazy. We choose not to look at different perspectives, which may require one to exercise the effort of thinking and being open to new views.

The changing of our opinions requires a certain level of discomfort. It requires us to take a situation and discipline ourselves to think and consider that we may be wrong, or that another person's "truth" may be different to our own. Human beings, by nature, avoid discomfort in any way possible. The time and effort required in considering viewpoints that may conflict with our own and possibly redefine our own opinions requires effort. The fact remains that one question may have a myriad of answers all being "correct"

With this in mind we look toward the major impediments to reconciliation in Australia.

Reconciliation is also about truth-telling. In order for forgiveness to be effected, the truth must be allowed to be told and acknowledged.

Robert Schreiter on ABC National Radio Sunday 15th August, 1999, stated the following:

"reconciliation is more a spirituality than a strategy. It creates the space for truth-telling, a truth-telling that can overcome the lies of the past. It creates the hunger for a justice that is not just revenge (revenge against the wrongdoers) but a justice, which will really bring about change in society. It creates a healing that transforms our memory so that it can be a basis for a better future and not simply forgetting or ignoring the past. Often victims receive as part of their experience of reconciliation a call to be healers and peacemakers themselves, leading the rest of us into the future. They are able to do this because this grace of reconciliation gives them a vision and a perspective that the rest of us simply do not have.

Jose Zalaquett, a Chilean lawyer who was imprisoned during the Pinochet years and later came to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in that country. And he defines social reconciliation in this way: "Social reconciliation is the social reconstruction of the moral order of a society so that the wrong-doing of the past can never happen again".

However it is difficult to reconcile without an acknowledgement of a wrongdoing. The Government of the day may hold the belief that an apology will result in restorative compensation, however this policy makes the issues of reconciliation difficult to overcome. Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks of the almost magical properties of the simple words: "I'm sorry."

Two thirds of Australians (at AC Nielsen's last count) are already convinced there should be a formal parliamentary apology to the stolen generations.

Hugh Mackay of The Age states in his editorial "Pay the price of custodianship. Say Sorry" The Age Saturday 12th February 2000 that

"The office-holders of government are mere custodians of their office and of the institution itself. They inherit precedent, and they must deal with the overhang of previous administrations' policies."

Mackay asserts that custodianship is a seamless, continuous process, which is different from ownership (though many Australians - including the High Court - have come to the view that Aborigines effectively owned this land before there was European settlement).

Mackay also succinctly points out

"You might squirm with embarrassment or cry with rage over your institution's past mistakes but, as its present custodian, you must address and deal with them just as if the institution had made them while it was in your care.

You must act, in other words, as if you accept responsibility for what your institution did, even before you became its custodian."

There are often cultural ignorances, which allow one group to think they should exercise influence over another because "they know best". This has been exemplified by the Stolen Generation issue. Whilst there is the benefit of hindsight to see what our predecessors have done, the issues of injustices are still continuing.

There also needs to be an embracement of the culture rather than an "autonomy or assimilation" approach.

This has been an issue for nearly all indigenous races throughout the world. American Indians were subject to the Dawes Act of 1887 which hoped to assimilate Native Americans by coaxing them or coercing them to abandon their traditional tribal ways.

Children were sent to distant government church run schools often thousands of miles from the "detrimental influences of their home reservations.

In 1934 The Indian Reorganisation Act was implemented into US policy which acknowledged the continuing force and value of Native American Tribal Existence. Indians were encouraged to organise their own governments, and this went part way toward establishing some independent self rule for Indigenous Americans. This was still insufficient as they were left totally to their own devices, and not given any real support or restorative compensation. However indigenous natives remain largely one of the poorest and most socially disadvantaged groups within the community.

Ignorance still continues with misnomers about Aboriginals being given extra privileges within the community. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mandatory sentencing debate is a prime example. The death of a 15 year old Wurramarrba boy in February has been met with debate on both sides of the coin. The fact is that the boy was sentenced to detention upon his second offence. The mandatory sentencing laws applies to juveniles on their second offences. The boy was removed to the Don Dale detention centre in Darwin which was 800 km from his family home, Angurugu which is a small Aboriginal town on Groote Eylandt.

Marcus Einfeld, UNICEF's Ambassador for Children and a Federal Court judge in The Sydney Morning Herald 15th February 2000 deplores the Mandatory sentencing saying

"Mandatory sentencing laws insult the standards of justice and morality that Australians believe in. This includes a belief that it is for judges and magistrates, hearing evidence, not politicians protecting their own positions, to exercise discretion in sentencing."

Einfeld goes on to say

"Of course, crime is a real and proper concern of society. But when people speak of the cost to society of petty juvenile crime, they might also think of the cost to the community of unnecessary, excessive and too early exposure of young people to hardened criminals in prison."

His editorial also asserts that at the end of 1996, one year after the legislation was introduced in the Northern Territory, the proportion of persons aged 10-17 in juvenile corrective institutions there was 68.8 per 1,000, compared with 14.9 in Victoria with no corresponding and proportionate decline in crime levels.

The same report states that young people who cross the wrong side of the law should be encouraged to become active and productive members of society.

"We must create constructive opportunities for them. We must find them work, activities and someone to love and care for them.
As the stolen children report recognised, there is a direct link between social justice and over-representation of indigenous young people in the legal system. And these mandatory sentencing laws, whatever their intent and however generally expressed, undoubtedly discriminate against black kids."

The 1997 Unicef Report "Progress of nations" states that Australian children are incarcerated at 18 times the rate of non-indigenous children, even though they comprise only 2.6% of the national youth population.

The figures also show that throughout Australia, indigenous youth are less likely to be cautioned or warned and more likely to be charged than their non-indigenous counterparts. They are more likely to be arrested on the spot and then detained, rather than proceeded against by way of a summons. They are less likely to receive bail or a community service order, thus prolonging the period of detention.

Einfeld goes on to say:

"In other words, at all stages of contact with the juvenile justice system, black children are treated less favourably than their white counterparts. This failure to ensure equality before the law is in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism, and Australia's own Racial Discrimination Act.

To this impressive list of unlawful conduct must be added that our country is also in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that detention must be used only as a measure of last resort, and among other things also requires that children not be separated from their families except where separation is necessary for the best interests of the child."

This is not the only example of our continued ignorance to existing racial discrimination at a legal level. On 9th February 2000, 8 police officers and a dog squad raided morning parade at The Murri school and dragged off two year eight children based on flimsy evidence and whom they later found to be innocent. These children were taken away without the school's permission and without contacting their parents. (ATSIC Media Release)

With these ongoing and continual issues, it is difficult for the indigenous community to believe that the rest of the nation is willing to make restoration for the transgressions of the past; "The White Australia" policy, The "Stolen Children", Black Deaths in custody, Aborigines have had distinction as a citizen barely thirty five years.

The indigenous community needs to see truth being recognised. And truth must be at the basis of any effort if justice is to be attained. There has been more than 30 Truth and Reconciliation commissions set up in countries around the world in the last decade. These truth commissions are a catharsis for those that have suffered and can go part way in establishing types of justices required. Schreiter said

"Justice is a much more complex thing to achieve and, given our finite world, will always be incomplete. However, justice must be sought. Seeking that justice is the second dimension of reconciliation."

Schreiter describes the three kinds of justice which need to be sought. Punitive justice where wrongdoers are punished as a way of saying society will not tolerate such behaviour again. In many cases, not all perpetrators can be punished; they may be long since deceased, but survivors need to see that an effort has been made to effect punitive justice.

Restitutional justice seeks to provide some kinds of compensation. Though it can never undo what has been done, it can try to make amends by dealing with the consequences of past actions.

Structural justice seeks to address the inequities in society that fostered violence in the first place. It addresses the imbalances, economic and social that led to the division and conflict over time. Structural justice is rarely, if ever, entirely achieved but the very process of social reconstruction which working for structural justice entails is a pledge to come as close to that new society as is humanly possible.

Ewen goes on to state:

"There has to be structural change in the society, otherwise you're going to just keep on repeating what is going on all the time. Whether it's the economic injustices that are maintained, and they are maintained, or if it's the education systems that aren't changed or the judiciary that is not changed or the police act which is not changed you are going to repeat the problems or mistakes of the past. It is going to happen, unless there is real economic change. One of my concerns in South Africa is that the rate of change is too slow. The oppressed majority are still the oppressed majority. They still don't have running water in their houses. They still don't have toilets. They still suffer from violence in their townships because they live in tin sheds. Until there's social economic change, deep and meaningful change, then I think we will repeat what's happened. And I think the same thing will happen here. Until there's change in the way the education system operates, and the way people perceive Aboriginal people and Aboriginal identity in this country, there will be repetition of what's gone on before."

In summary, the impediments to reconciliation rest with a number of individual and social blocks. Schreiter feels that Individual reconciliation focuses upon the restoration of the damaged humanity of individuals. Social reconciliation focuses on the social reconstruction of the moral order. He believes that social reconciliation depends ultimately for its success upon a cadre of reconciled individuals who guide the social reconciliation process, because they have the vision to create a new society, which is in continuity to the past but not beholden to the evil that has been perpetrated.

There is the Christian concept of forgive and forget. Forgetting however is a matter of denying what has occurred. This in itself is "non-learning" and mistakes or injustices can occur again as a result of that ignorance.

The process of reconciliation starts in the community. It begins with the changes of attitudes of people. Those that are willing to look at the world from a new perspective and take the time to think and ponder the acts of our ancestors. In this reflection, rather than become deny our predecessors' culpability we acknowledge the truth of the past. It is the recognition of the spirit of "Love" in others and a higher goal to reach through social, political and ethnic barriers to connect with that same spirit in our fellow man.

Ewen summarises this best

"forgiveness is not easy. Reconciliation is not easy. But the times that it does happen makes it that much more special. And on the issue of forgetting, rather than talk about it as a forgetting of the past, I like the analogy of saying well we're in the process, some more than others, reading the chapters of the past, not so that we can forget those chapters, but so that we can absorb and incorporate them into who we are. And then put them on the shelf so they don't haunt us all the time. But if we need to go and look back at them, they're there. They have been read. They have been dealt with. Not to be forgotten, but to be incorporated."


  1. Peck M. Scott, 1978, The Road Less Travelled p 85, p 290
  2. Robert Schreiter & Shawn Ewen ABC National Radio "Truth & Reconciliation" Sunday 15th August, 1999
  3. Hugh Mackay, "Pay the price of custodianship. Say Sorry" The Age Saturday 12th February 2000
  4. Microsoft Encarta - Native Americans
  5. Marcus Einfeld, UNICEF's Ambassador for Children and a Federal Court judge, The Sydney Morning Herald, Johnno's death shames us all, 15th February 2000 (Please note: ATSIC released the following statement to the media that same morning: "Family is distressed with usage of the boys first name. It is OK to refer to him as the Wurramarrba boy as this refers to his clanage. They're also unhappy that he's been referred to as an 'orphan' as under Aboriginal law he has family who are responsible for him.")
  6. ATSIC Release from AAP Friday February 11, 2:59 PM, The Australian Birth to death sentence, Paul Toohey
  7. ATSIC URGENT MEDIA RELEASE Secret Police Raid on Murri School warrants urgent CJC action 10th February, 2000