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Practical Reconciliation and the Current Crisis in Indigenous Affairs

What we are witnessing is the (re-)adoption of empty and often unwelcome symbolism as a cover for the failure of practical policies in Indigenous affairs. And this is a direct outcome of what was one of John Howard’s most significant interventions into Indigenous affairs: his bifurcation of the “symbolic” and “practical” aspects of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, and the flow-on of this cleavage into Indigenous affairs policy-making more broadly.

In December 2015, Megan Davis opened her article for The Monthly, ‘Gesture Politics’, with the following words: ‘Despair. In a word, this is the universal sentiment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders I have spoken to about the state of Aboriginal policy in Australia’. More recently, Jon Altman has written (here and here) on the Coalition government’s 2016 budget and its damaging disregard for Indigenous affairs, alongside the continuing failures of the all-prevailing, all-pervasive policy approach of “Closing the Gap”.

Altman noted the disjuncture between Turnbull’s rhetoric, most notably the potent symbolism of Turnbull introducing his first Closing the Gap report card in the Ngunnawal language, and what he termed the ‘Great Australian Fiscal Silence’ evident in the 2016 federal budget. Davis, for her part, noted that ‘deep funding cuts and uncertainty about government plans ’ have produced a major ‘upheaval’ in Indigenous affairs, while at the same time the government persists, with bipartisan support, with its ‘taxpayer-funded campaign to bestow settler recognition on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution’, despite widespread ambivalence and even resistance on the part of the ‘purported subjects of that recognition’.

It seems to me that what we are witnessing, and what both Altman and Davis are gesturing towards, is the (re-)adoption of empty and often unwelcome symbolism as a cover for the failure of practical policies. And that this is a direct outcome of what was one of John Howard’s most significant interventions into Indigenous affairs: his bifurcation of the “symbolic” and “practical” aspects of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, and the flow-on of this cleavage into Indigenous affairs policy-making more broadly.

Howard drew this distinction in the context of attempting to justify his refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations: such symbolic acts were meaningless, Howard argued, and not only if they were unsupported by practical measures, but altogether, entirely, forevermore. This was no doubt political strategy, but it was also personal: Howard was a student of the Great Australian Silence, and its dramatic overturning in the decades leading up to the decade of reconciliation in the 1990s provoked often uncontrolled emotional responses.

In a similar manner to the way in which Howard had drawn on Geoffrey Blainey’s notion of a historical ‘balance sheet’—on which ‘heroic achievements’ and ‘blemishes’ could be tallied up, and an ‘overall story of great Australian achievement’ told—“symbolic” and “practical” approaches to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians were first separated, then counter-posed, and finally constructed as mutually exclusive, so that to dedicate energy, attention, or government funding to one, was to take it away from the other.

There are broader critiques to be made of Howard’s approach to Indigenous affairs, of course. And in the current context there are broader, and perhaps more important, critiques to be made of the prevailing policy approach Elizabeth Strakosch has recently outlined in her book on Neoliberal Indigenous Policy. My point here is to draw attention to the historical moment at which a new era in Indigenous affairs was ushered in: that which I call “practical reconciliation”.

The 2007 election of Kevin Rudd saw the return of symbolism to Indigenous affairs. Yet a close reading of Rudd’s historic apology to the Stolen Generations—the clearest, and most politically useful, distinction he could draw between himself and his predecessor in this area—reveals that this significant symbolic gesture was intended as a full-stop on the unfinished business of reconciliation. Perhaps even more importantly, it was constructed as a symbolic full-stop that very deliberately precluded the possibility that it might impose practical obligations in the form of compensation. The distinction between symbolic and practical approaches to Indigenous affairs remained very much in place, and with symbolic reconciliation now complete, the practical project could proceed unconstrained.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the explicitly practical counterpoint to the apology: the Rudd government’s endorsement of the “Close the Gap” campaign and its translation into the “Closing the Gap” approach to Indigenous affairs. I will not recount its problems, or its failures, here. But it seems to me that the current return of symbolism in the form of constitutional recognition, and of Turnbull’s deployment of Indigenous language in reporting to Parliament on the failure of the only standing commitment to Indigenous affairs (with even that now diminishing, if commitment=funding) is entirely expected, and revealing of the utter inadequacy of the either/or approach Howard so effectively insisted upon.

What is the alternative? It is plainly the case that practical and symbolic measures of redress, and approaches to meliorating the situation of Australia’s first peoples, do not constitute a zero-sum game; in fact, that each is dependent on the other. Certainly, despite all its inadequacies, prior to Howard’s original intervention reconciliation meant both. Andrew Gunstone refers to this as ‘substantive reconciliation’. We might question the extent to which substantive reconciliation, or policy-making, has ever actually been tried in Australia, and it is perfectly valid to criticise the reconciliation agenda as both implying a pre-existing relationship that does not yet exist, and as a strategy employed by the Hawke ALP government to justify its own failures in Indigenous affairs, in abandoning the promise of a treaty in particular. And yet it seems self-evident at this point—at the end of an era of practical policy-making that has manifestly failed, and in the context of the return to a symbolism empty of all practical application or purpose—that a substantive response to legitimate Indigenous claims—for substantive self-determination, for a negotiated settlement, whether in the form of a treaty or otherwise—is what is required. Perhaps this is the first gap that needs to be closed, if others are to follow.

– Dan Tout