The priest who turned back the clock on reconciliation
Aboriginal reconciliation hit the headlines again this week with an extraordinary call for all non-indigenous Australians to make restitution for the crimes of theft and genocide – or leave the country.
Dr Peter Adam said that atoning for the sins of the past required such a radical solution.
‘‘No recompense could ever be satisfactory because what was done was so vile, so immense, so universal, so pervasive, so destructive, so devastating and so irreparable,’’ Dr Adam said in a speech to the NSW Baptist Union.
‘‘It would, in fact, be possible, even if very difficult and complicated, for Europeans and others to leave Australia. I am not sure where we would go, but that would be our problem.”
The principal of Ridley College - the main Anglican theological college in Victoria - said churches shared responsibility because the land and wealth of churches came from land stolen from indigenous people.
‘‘The prosperity of our churches has come from the proceeds of crime. Our houses, our churches, our colleges, our shops, our sport grounds, our parks, our courts, our parliaments, our prisons, our hospitals, our roads, our reservoirs are stolen property.’‘
I don’t think there would be many Australians who would dispute that indigenous Australians were treated terribly when Australia whites first arrived – or that settlers moved in and just took the land they found.
Neither would they dispute that indigenous Australians continue to lag the rest of the country on almost every social yardstick: life expectancy, health, education, infant mortality, to name a few. Nor would they deny that we need to do all we can to help gain equality.
But there is one thing for sure. There would be a dispute about the need for current generations to sell up and get out to make restitution for events that began in 1788.
You wouldn’t need to be a genius to predict that the number of Australians flogging the family home and giving the proceeds of the sale to the traditional owners of their suburb before moving to an uninhabited coral atoll in the Pacific would number precisely zero. In fact, Dr Adam made no mention of where he would be relocating.
So from the standpoint of practical reconciliation, Dr Adam’s contribution, while gathering headlines, contributed nothing.
Interestingly, in sharp contrast to the theological posturing of Dr Adam, another minister was contributing to the debate about ways to improve life and social outcomes for indigenous people.
While Dr Adam was preparing his John Saunders Lecture, NT indigenous affairs minister Alison Anderson was preparing to quit her portfolio and the ALP to focus attention on the dire state of housing for indigenous Australians in the Top End.
By taking such action, she shifted the balance of power in the Territory assembly and shone a national spotlight on her concerns that the Henderson government was failing to deliver on promises to help her people.
It was an act of political courage and contributed far more to the real outcomes of her people than any hand wringing speech.
From this perspective, Anderson fits far more into the mould of indigenous leader Noel Pearson, who is seeking to end the blame game, take responsibility and show leadership.
Pearson has become a circuit breaker in the bid for reconciliation. He has challenged the orthodoxy of the welfare state “restitution” and has embarked on an ambitious series of measures to encourage discipline and personal responsibility in indigenous communities.
He wants government to end handouts, which he has labelled as a “scourge” that has kept aboriginal people locked in a cycle of dependency.
Several years ago, I had the good fortune of accompanying Pearson through a number of Cape York communities, where he was putting his theories to the test.
He was encouraging an end to the grog and setting up programs to help people stay in school, to stay in a job, to save for the future, to take control of their own destinies. And it was working.
Among the people taking ownership for improving their lives, there was no blaming, no demands for restitution from whites Australia and certainly no demands for Europeans and others to leave.
Perhaps one of the most memorable incidents for me came in a meeting in Aurukun where - among other requests - an indigenous elder called for the church to return. It had been the church that had taught her to read and write, skills that had for the most part vanished after the church left.
In a town where the petrol bowser was locked in a cage away from sniffers, where incest, rape and violence were commonplace, where children ran unchecked away from school, hers was a practical cry from the heart.
Dr Adam would do well to heed that plea, to take part in the debate about what the church can do now to help, rather than offer impractical solutions based on guilt from the past.
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