Did the Olympics help reconciliation?


Did the Olympics help reconciliation


According to Sir Gustav Nossal, chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the Olympic Games have done more for Aboriginal reconciliation in two weeks than months of negotiation. Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Howard — still smarting from Midnight Oil's “Sorry” suit statement at the closing ceremony — claimed that the Olympics had demonstrated that Australia was “probably a lot more reconciled than some people had allowed for”.

A few days later, reality knocked on the door. As one wit quipped in the Sydney Morning Herald letters column, “How far has reconciliation come? Four hundred metres.”

So what's the truth? How far did the Olympic Games advance Aboriginal reconciliation?

The PM and his minister for reconciliation, Philip Ruddock, are still making Pauline Hanson redundant.

The federal government is preparing new attacks on the historic Northern Territory Land Rights Act. Racist mandatory sentencing laws still keep the jails disproportionately full of Aboriginal youth; indigenous people are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than the rest of the population. And the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody has risen to 147 since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reached its findings in 1991, while in the 10 years before the royal commission there were 99 such deaths.

There is a federal election next year, but Labor, which began the whittling back of native title, offers little different.

The Olympic Games did not turn the racist tide in Australian government.

Pauline Hanson's racist One Nation party continues to implode, but pollsters and election analysts predict that the nearly 1 million who voted for One Nation in 1998 will remain an influential factor in the next election. That's why Howard and Ruddock still play to a racist audience. That hard-core racist section of the population has made its presence felt in the letters pages of the press right through and after the Olympics.

The Olympics were politicised to a degree around the issue of reconciliation. The overwhelmingly positive public response to the opening and closing ceremonies and the wild adulation of Cathy Freeman underlined the fact, before the world, that a large and growing section of the Australian population acknowledges that something has to be done about racism in this country. Picture

The positive public response to the symbolic political statements by Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett and others did show that there is still widespread dissent to Howard's racism; and Howard's face became a scoreboard that flashed “Bullseye!”

The world's media, assembled in Sydney for the games, did not really have to be told that the federal government is increasingly unpopular on Aboriginal affairs. They knew it already and had started to tell the story from the time of the huge Corroboree 2000 marches in May and June.

Those marches, or “walks” as their moderate organisers dubbed them, were meant to be apolitical. But that was rendered impossible by the Howard government's intransigence on the stolen generations issue.

Too passive

However, the many Australians who do disagree with Howard's treatment of Aboriginal affairs could have done more than applauded Freeman and the ceremonies imbued with Aboriginal motifs. This response was reassuring (especially to indigenous Australians), but far too passive to make a serious political impact.

They could have made a more active, mass, independent political statement in the streets — like those made earlier this year at the huge marches for reconciliation. These need not have disrupted the Olympics in any way, but would have made big steps towards genuine reconciliation.

Tens of thousands of people would have come out if there was a strong and united call from indigenous leaders. But there wasn't such a call, probably because most indigenous leaders agreed with ATSIC chairperson Geoff Clark when he said the closing ceremony was “better than any protest we could manufacture”.

It is an understandable but mistaken view. The ceremonies put together by Ric Birch, with the help of Stephen Page and Rhoda Roberts, did project indigenous culture and identity, which white Australia has stifled and denied for centuries. But being acknowledged in Olympic ceremonies is not enough to turn the racist tide in Australian government. It was not even the best we could have done.

Clark's hope that “our own political leaders should now pay heed” will remain just that — a hope.

The point is that these are not “our leaders” and no amount of pleading, screaming or embarrassing them in front of the world media is going to change that fact. Most people have long realised that the Coalition and its traditional alternative in government are fundamentally representatives of a corporate rich which does not want to pay the overheads of land rights or compensate the stolen generations or redress the gross social conditions of most indigenous communities.

Calling for “vision” from these politicians is an utter waste of time. Howard and Beazley have a vision: one of ever-fatter mega-profits for the corporate monopolies they serve. Most people know that, but you wouldn't tell that from the scribblings of the nation's liberal intelligentsia.

Reconciliation and national identity

Public discussion about racism in Australia has for some years become confused with a debate about national identity. Fundamentally, this reflects the great discomfit that a large section of the intelligentsia have with the social conservatism of the Howard government.

These intellectuals are embarrassed by the racist image Howard, Ruddock and Hanson may be projecting of them to the outside world. The “reconciliation” debate is about their image and their identity, not, fundamentally, about addressing the gross injustices still faced by the victims of racism in Australia.

For instance, Robert Manne, a conservative writer who in recent years has often been the first to publicly criticise the Howard government's racist attacks, revealed his obsession with identity in his Olympic wrap-up.

“Concerning the Games, I felt only two twinges of regret. It was wonderful that Cathy Freeman was chosen to light the cauldron, that she won her race with such authority and style, and that no-one cavilled when she draped herself in both the Australian and Aboriginal flags. The age of Bruce Ruxton and Arthur Tunstall is, it appears, at long last at an end.

“Yet how even more wonderful it might have been if her pivotal Olympic role had been able to symbolise the act of reconciliation, the apology to the Aborigines, that as a nation we still await.”

Manne marvelled at the “extent to which creative Australians are now reliant on motifs borrowed from Aboriginal culture for their sense of what makes this country distinctive”.

Well whoopee-doo, let's have more Aborigines dancing, singing, running and jumping “for Australia”. But let's also note that in the United States — where African-Americans comprise most of the sporting heroes, singers and dancers — institutionalised racism still shows through in the prison population and poverty statistics.

Manne couldn't resist seeing the Olympic torch relay as “a powerful symbol of national unity”. “Its arrival in particular neighbourhoods or towns reawakened in many a sense of the value of community, which they felt was being lost in our hyper-individualistic age.”

Then he slipped into hyper-fantasy: “The relay became, too, an exercise in grassroots democracy — a way of honouring those who had served their communities selflessly and of cutting local tall poppies down to size”.

National unity is a lie in Australia. This society has been class-divided since European colonisation and is well on the path to becoming a society as sharply class-divided as the US, where the average chief executive officer now earns 475 times that of their average employee. We can sing Waltzing Matilda till the cows come home and it won't change that fact.

The rise of racism and the “Hansonisation of Howard” are side-effects of this deepening class divide in Australia. The politicians of the corporate rich need racism in Australia to divide and rule.

Sure, people love to cheer for our side in a sporting event. But how many people believe the Murdoch editorial which screamed that Cathy Freeman showed “Australians are better than anybody else” when she won the women's 400 metres?

But Freeman's potency as a popular hero is built on her defiant victory lap with the Aboriginal flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. Her status was magnified when she shot down the Howard government's denial of the existence of the stolen generations by simply announcing that her maternal grandmother was a member of the stolen generations.

Her popularity shows the reach of a new mood of rebellion in Australia after a decade and a half of attacks by the corporate ruling class.

New leadership

The call for “reconciliation” rests on the desire of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Australians for some sort of settlement of the racial conflict at the heart of modern Australian society.

This is positive, but it is simply not enough. Most of these people agree that reconciliation requires a just settlement to the legacy of decades of racism, violence and dispossession. But this is not an organised movement that has begun a serious, democratic discussion of how reconciliation is to be achieved.

There is a blockage. The “reconciliation movement” is led by a far too conservative crew to get anywhere. It's a bureaucratised, top-down movement led by people with a big stake in keeping society the way it is. That is why this “movement” has so far passively accepted, and even applauded, months of fruitless but costly “negotiations”.

The reconciliation movement accepts the liberal illusion that change will come by persuading the powers that be of the merits of its arguments. It generally avoids mass mobilisations, preferring small meetings, photo opportunities or performances by artists, performers and “prominent Australians”.

Seas of colourful plastic hands have been dutifully planted in parks all over the country, but organising a march was not on; until the famous reconciliation walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and its sequels in other cities.

Those marches were a mistake in the eyes of some of the leaders of the “reconciliation movement”. But it was a beautiful mistake that heralded the possibility of a new mass movement against the racist offensive in Australia.

This movement united around a single demand — an apology for the stolen generations. But if it is to go further, it needs a broader platform of anti-racist demands.

Howard has locked his government into a particularly conservative social stance, partly to fight the challenge from its right flank that One Nation was beginning to pose. But a new federal Labor government, or even a future Costello-led Coalition government, could easily decide to issue a token apology and be done with it. Most state parliaments have done this with little but symbolic gain for Aborigines.

Look to the youth

The Olympics didn't bring reconciliation. We had a celebration of the symbols of reconciliation but, as Clark conceded, we still need to “pursue substance and not mere symbolism”.

But where will the leaders of a new anti-racist movement come from? Basically from a new generation of youth rebels, black and white.

In terms of the political future, the three days of protest in Melbourne outside the World Economic Forum meeting in September (S11) were far more significant than the Olympics-generated messages of reconciliation.

Anti-racist activists of the younger generation had the courage to take to the streets when One Nation reared its ugly head, while an older generation of “progressives” wrung their hands at how the Australian identity might be tarnished.

This younger generation of activists has tasted the power of independent political action at S11 and is free of many of the ideological hangups of older generations of Australians. Race and nationality are not as important to younger Australians as they are to their parents' generation.

The legacy of the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s and the multiculturalisation of Australia has pushed back the idea that people of one race or nationality might be superior to another. It is hard to believe that this idea was pervasive in Australia just four decades ago.

This younger generation also accepts, not just cultural diversity, but that we live in a class-divided society, that there is conflict in Australia and that “reconciliation” will remain elusive while the corporate rich continue to run society for their profit. It will be from them that hope comes.

[Peter Boyle is a member of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Party.]