SYDNEY — On its way from Greece to the Sydney Olympics 2000, the Olympic flame this week passed by Uluru, a huge rock rearing up out of the vast emptiness of the “dead heart” of Australia. Watching it were Aborigines, this country’s inhabitants for the past 50,000 years, to whom Uluru is sacred.
The first televised images of the upcoming Olympic ceremonies — and, for most of the world, of the Aborigines — featured Australia’s only indigenous Olympic gold medalist, sprinter Nova Peris-Kneebone, carrying the torch past the spectacular monolith.
But the thousands of visitors coming for the big international event in September will see few Aborigines. In fact, few of the general community here ever see the 386,000 indigenes, let alone meet and talk with them. Largely outback dwellers, they may as well be invisible.
Increasingly angry, vocal Aboriginal leaders will, however, take advantage of Australia’s two weeks of sporting glory to make the world aware of the injustices to our original people. Aborigines in native dress will picket the multibillion-dollar Sydney Olympics venue. With their newfound pride, they will confront international viewers with 200 years of grievances against white Australia.
Charles Perkins, the first Aboriginal activist to shock and shame the white community, has arranged quite a few culture shocks to divert the self-absorbed minds of sports-mad athletes and their cheer squads. Peaceful shocks, but a lesson nonetheless.
Motor-mouth Perkins, a university graduate, was the first Aboriginal to rally white sympathizers against the primitive living conditions then common in apartheid-like settlements outside country towns. A new generation of activists now continues his battle, but Perkins can still grab headlines by calling Prime Minister John Howard a hypocrite.
Howard is taking a hammering these days. Critics say the veteran conservative leader is failing to heed a groundswell of public opinion in favor of Aboriginal rights. Canberra pundits are even describing Howard as so out of step that this could be his last leadership term. Like U.S. President Bill Clinton, he still has the economy going for him. But unlike Clinton, he is not about to go quietly.
“Say sorry,” the protesters’ placards demanded as 200,000 people marched across Sydney Harbor Bridge last weekend. The scene was the biggest rally yet in favor of Aboriginal rights. The protesters, white as well as black, demanded a confession by Howard of the country’s collective sins.
Every big name from Opposition Leader Kim Beazley on down crossed the bridge that day. But not Howard. A veteran at the numbers game, he clearly senses that a majority of voters are still wary of making concessions on a key political issue with unknown social and economic consequences.
“I’ve said sorry personally many times,” Howard protests. “I speak for the entire government on this. We don’t think it’s appropriate for the current generation to apologize for the injustices committed by past generations.”
Nor is the Labor-led federal opposition anxious to go too far with what has become almost public hysteria for a treaty between whites and blacks. “It’s not easy to organize,” equivocates Beazley. “With whom should it be and what should be the content?”
Beazley has a point. These ancient people never formed an entity, one with whom the early British settlers might have signed a national treaty. Split into tribes, their numbers are estimated to have stood at more than 1 million when Captain James Cook sailed up the east coast in 1770. Now, full-blood numbers are down to a small proportion of Australia’s 20 million people.
National Reconciliation Week exploded onto this scene recently. Crowned by Corroboree 2000 (“corroboree” is an Aboriginal word meaning get-together), it seems to have divided more than it reconciled. Called by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the talk fest marked the anniversary of a referendum in 1967 that voted to give Canberra the power to make laws on behalf of Aborigines, a welcome advance on the apathy of state governments. But as activist Pat Dodson complained, “You could march the whole of Australia across that bridge and the government still wouldn’t budge.”
“Stop the denial,” demanded Geoff Clark, chairman of the widely representative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. “We are here. What are we if were not separate peoples? For 200 years it was thought there was no one here originally. Now, by a High Court decision, we have recognition that we do have a form of rights.”
A Howard apology is only the starting point, though few will admit it. Behind the demands for native-title land rights, redress for the “stolen generation” of mixed-blood children fostered by white families, and expanded social welfare, lies the political and legal hurdle of a treaty.
A spokesman for the Aboriginal Provisional Government spoke frankly on what Howard supporters fear will be a the outcome of any treaty: two Australias. Michael Mansell, a lawyer and secretary of APG, claimed that Australia is and always has been two nations. Many Aborigines did not consider themselves part of Australia, he said, because the country was “forcibly and illegally taken.”
The treaty debate is heating up as the lawyers “clarify” the issue. There are plenty of precedents of treaties between nation-states and indigenous peoples, says University of New South Wales law lecturer Sarah Pritchard, citing Canada, the United States and New Zealand. The United Nations also recognizes such “constructive arrangements.”
None but the most bigoted racist denies that Aborigines have suffered unjustly and deserve better. Even in these “enlightened” times, though, the odds are stacked. Fewer than 20 percent of indigenous pupils meet reading standards, 30 percent for writing. No Aborigines sit in the House of Representatives and there are no Aboriginal High Court judges. The list goes on.
Almost two-thirds of Australians polled say Aborigines get too much in government handouts. But statistics show that for every dollar spent per head on white health, for example, only $1.08 goes to indigenous health. Yet aversion to more welfare payments persists and, with it, resentment against the giving of other benefits.
This is the reason behind Howard’s wariness of a treaty. Opponents hint darkly at followup demands — an explosion of native land-title and welfare claims plus compensation of infinite proportions for anyone claiming to be even remotely Aboriginal.
While the now-popular buzzword “reconciliation” still causes anger, the two sides have quietly acknowledged a truce in the wake of Corroboree 2000. It’s temporary, of course. Come Olympics 2000, the boomerang throwers of all shades will be at it again.
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