Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Aboriginal reconciliation is a two-way street

If it wasn't for the jersey ...
Today is the 5th anniversary of Kevin Rudd's Apology to the Stolen Generations, a point in Australia's history that is important for all of us. And so there are media stories about future moves, including the mooted recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution. Meanwhile the news stories about alcohol abuse and child abuse in remote communities continue to appear. I want to talk about my experience with Aborigines and to suggest that Reconciliation has to be a two-way street if mainstream Australia is to come on-board more generously. The Labor government has said it will not move to stage a referendum on constitutional recognition of Aborigines in this Parliament. The reason why is because it is not a big issue for most Australians. And they are turned off it because of continuing reports of social dysfunction in communities where Aborigines constitute the majority of the population.

The issue of constitutional recognition for Aborigines surfaces from time to time. For me personally I have to negotiate my relationship with Aborigines each time there is an event, such as the screening of Redfern Now by the ABC. I didn't watch it but there's a reason, one I haven't talked about here before. The event I'm referring to happened in about August 1992. It was a social evening for me. I had driven out to a friend's house in Darlington to have dinner and after the meal my friend and I decided to go down to the convenience store to buy icecream. We got in his car and drove down to Redfern, parked, and went inside. There was a group of young Aboriginal people inside the store but my friend and I merely picked up a tub of icecream, paid and left. But they followed us outside. One of them, a young man, asked me for a light for a cigarette as I walked down the pavement to the parked car. Feeling uncomfortable, I said I didn't have one. As I opened the car door, the young man, who had followed close behind me, grabbed my handbag and pulled, trying to take it away from me. It was a robbery, pure and simple. I held on and went to sit in the car, which was when he punched me in the face, breaking my nose.

My friend, who was to drive, got out of the car at this point and started to come around to the kerbside to help me. I had kept hold of my handbag and was now sitting in the car but he was now outside getting punched and generally assaulted by a group of young Aboriginal men and women. It seemed like forever before he extricated himself from the melee and got back in the car. Blood was coming from my nose. As we drove off the youths threw an empty garbage can at the accelerating car, hitting the rear windscreen, which luckily did not break.

Now let's fast-forward to 2008 and to an evening on TV with the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club, an episode that featured a book about the Myall Creek massacre. I didn't just write about it at the time, I got in the car one chilly Friday afternoon after work and drove to New England, which took about seven hours. That was 2008 and I went back to participate in the Myall Creek memorial ceremony in 2009, 2010 and 2011 as well. I had work in 2012 that prevented me from going, but I plan to go this year. I go because I think that Reconciliation is important. Nevertheless, I didn't watch Redfern Now because I always remember that night in August 1992 when I was mugged by a pack of young Aborigines. Nobody ever apologised to me for the trauma it caused. It's why when I see a young Aboriginal man in the street, I am wary. And it's unquestionably why many people simply turn off when they read about consitutional recognition of Aborigines. Added to my experience, which is not unique, there are the stories of social dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. For me, reconciliation has to be a two-way street. The street violence has to stop. The robberies have to stop. The alcohol abuse has to stop. The child abuse has to stop. It's not enough to simply rail at the mainstream. It's about personal responsibility.

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