The Languages of Reconciliation

Recently in the Northern Territory a young white doctor spoke up. He pointed to the shocking situation in the medical care of Aboriginal people in the territory. But this story was not about children with eye disorders, about low life expectancies, high rates of malnutrition, disturbing statistics of alcohol and drug abuse.

This doctor’s story highlighted another element of the state of Aboriginal health. He spoke of an alarming incident where an eighteen-year-old Aboriginal woman had been sterilised without her informed consent. It was not just that she had been treated with neglectful disdain and given no information, but that the medical staff and the patient did not even speak each other’s language. Thus the woman was taken into surgery not understanding that afterwards she would never be able to bear a child. The doctor went on to say that this was not an isolated case – he told of Aboriginal women being delivered by Caesarian section, and afterwards not understanding that the crying baby was theirs.

This incident received almost no media coverage, and quickly disappeared from public scrutiny. It seems to me that this denial of basic human rights in such critical circumstances is indicative of the shallowness of the dominant approach to reconciliation in Australia. The lack of willingness to accept fully the necessity, the desire and the right of Aboriginal peoples to speak their own languages is indicative of the attitudes which stand in the way of Indigenous rights receiving the public attention and policy direction they deserve. For Aboriginal peoples this would include active support of their right, and responsibility, to pursue two cultures at the same time – Indigenous and modern.

In the Northern Territory there are seventeen government-funded translators, yet not one Aboriginal-language translator. The most the government could do was set up a register to provide a list of those able to translate. Reading the NT parliamentary debates on this issue is incredibly disturbing. The Chief Minister, Mr Denis Burke, responded in Parliament on 24 November 1999 with outrage that Aboriginal people could have educational opportunities provided for them over a considerable number of years and still not be able to speak English – the Australian language:

It’s a simple fact that it is a disgrace in my mind that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory who have been exposed to ten years of schooling, the opportunity of ten years of schooling, are in a situation in the Northern Territory and other parts of Australia where an interpreter service is still required.

This attitude of blaming the victim rides on the back of the recently released report, Learning Lessons, on the state of education in the Northern Territory. It documents the very low educational outcomes of Aboriginal children and particularly targets the extremely low attendance rate of Aboriginal children at school. In commenting on the release of the report, the Education Minister in NT Parliament on 23 November 1999 commented:

Adding to that challenge, the majority of Aboriginal Territorians live in rural and remote communities where Aboriginal language, culture and ceremony continues to play an important and predominant role in everyday community life. This government remains committed to the position that Indigenous languages and culture will continue to play a vital part in Indigenous education in remote areas. Learning Lessons has helped clarify the current Indigenous education issues needing to be addressed.

While on the surface such a statement appears commendable we can only assume that the Minister believes the rescinding of the Bilingual Language Program in schools as recently as 1998 has been already forgotten. In Arena Magazine no. 40 Christine Nicholls argued that this NT government decision, which was supported by the federal government, was an ill-conceived and discriminatory decision. The Learning Lessons report seems to have done little more than shift the responsibility for the low attendance rate to parents, suggesting that the problem is simply one of lack of parental discipline.

The question of language is so much more than a question of education. It is an issue which points us toward the racism embedded in our society. What we are faced with, then, is a kind of reconciliation which, rather than being a ‘celebration’ of difference, results in its homogenisation. The NT Chief Minister, adding to the debate about Aboriginal education, provides an example of the attitudes which stand as obstacles to the achievement of reconciliation of all Australians, Aborigines, settlers, refugees or migrants alike.

You simply cannot legislate motivation. You can’t impose it and you can’t plan and program for it from Canberra or Darwin. It must come from the communities themselves. They must find the motivation to seek an education that will make them capable of operating in a world outside of their own world.

This is not about whether learning English is beneficial. All people who speak English as a second language would undoubtedly admit that they have attained benefits from speaking the world’s dominant language. No, it is about the dominant language – and culture – being forced upon others; about a powerful people disallowing the existence of another way of living. It represents a pressure to exist only in the way in which the dominant culture exists, to live only in this world, on these terms. It is this thinking which reduces deep reconciliation.

The right-wing appropriation of the rhetoric of reconciliation can be illustrated by the way in which they have taken up the ubiquitous and rarely criticised use of the word ‘tolerance’. The aim, it is said, is for the dominant white race in Australia to be tolerant of its original inhabitants and those recent migrant settlers. This implicitly carries the logic of white supremacism. ‘Australianness’ becomes a belief that all others who are different from the dominant culture can only, at most, be tolerated.

The empty rhetoric of reconciliation in effect denies fundamental bi-cultural difference and places it within the broader realm of multicultural pageantry. This is exemplified by the enthusiasm displayed for spectacles such as Aboriginal tribal and ceremonial dances and displays being promoted for the opening of the Olympic Games. The media spectacle will be beamed across the world, while the reality is that the policies and practices do not support the difference in ways of living. For Aboriginal people to live in the way of their own choosing is beyond the acceptable limits of reconciliation as conceived by the current government. It is the same for migrants arriving in Australia. Those who live according to the dominant culture will be accepted, those who persist in retaining their own ideals and social practices will be treated as an aesthetic adornment when convenient and ostracised when challenging the shallowness of multiculturalism.

This issue of Arena Magazine carries a number of articles addressing reconciliation. The articles address the policy issues and legislative frameworks with an emphasis on showing the developments and advances which have been achieved in other countries. The article by Peter Jull which introduces this section points out the lessons that Australia must learn. He also comments on the significance of the question of language. He documents the Prime Minister of Norway recounting the Education Act which provides for Sami children and young people to have instruction in and about their language in order to re-acquire, and retain, their own language. This seems incredible, when contrasted with the actions of our own government. As Australians we have watched the closing of bilingual teaching programs, and have rarely, if ever, entered into debates about any language sharing. Most of the world speaks more than one language and the majority of Australians speak only English. Would it not be possible to extend the teaching of Indigenous languages into white schools? In New Zealand the Maori language is extending into schools and into the public service. Such initiatives provide exciting ideas.

Language is one of the areas to which most Indigenous peoples refer in demands for self-determination. Pat Dodson, in the recent Vincent Lingiari lecture which is excerpted in this issue, states:

Aboriginal peoples have the right to our languages, histories, stories, oral traditions and names for people and places. This includes the right to be heard and receive information in our own languages.

This is unquestionably a basic human right of all people. And yet, in practice, it is one which is largely being denied to the Indigenous peoples of Australia.

If there is one message we can take from the group of articles in this issue it is that reconciliation is not impossible. Following the precedents of a number of overseas examples can lead us to a society which can accept and support more than one cultural form. In this millennium, human rights should be the priority of both the Australian people and the Australian government. With approaches such as those taken towards the young Aboriginal woman referred to at the beginning of this article, it may seem impossible to get it right; but it is certainly possible to get it better.

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