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Even the positive recognition of the right to equal wages was undercut by its practical application. The right to equal pay was not protected by a corresponding right to equality of employment. The collateral damage caused by the decision and the impact of consequential unemployment was viewed only from the vantagepoint of furthering government policy. While relieved from the specific paternalism of payment under the Wards' Ordinance the wider effect of the decision was considered within a broader paternalism of what others thought to be in the best interests of Aboriginal people.

The actual implementation of the decision was assessed primarily from the perspective of its impact on the interests of pastoralists. The exercise and enjoyment of the human rights of Indigenous Australians remained a sub-set of government policy and the vested interests of others. The story of Daguragu illustrates another factor which continues to exert a powerful influence over the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Symphony of Soil

There is a direct connection between past events and the present. Justice today requires specific redress for the continuing effects of past discriminatory treatment. This is not merely a point about divergent historical perspectives: what has been the experience of Indigenous people and what has been the experience of other Australians. An account of Australian history to include fully the reality of Indigenous experience is essential to a common understanding of the Australian story.

Yet the further point we need to absorb about the past and the present is much sharper and more tangible.

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Past events directly affect rights today. If, therefore, as a result of our decision substantial numbers of Aboriginals moved to settlements or missions As anticipated, throughout the Northern Territory substantial numbers of unemployed Aboriginal workers, their families and entire communities were moved or turned off their traditional lands. This dislocation was only one episode in the historical dispossession of Indigenous Australians throughout the country.

It was effected in a range of ways: sheer force; the removal of children from their families; the withdrawal of 'permissive occupancy' because titles to traditional lands had been granted to others and Aboriginal people no longer provided a useful pool of cheap labour; in many cases people were induced to move 'voluntarily' to settlements and missions simply to gain access to food and basic services as competing land use destroyed the resource base of traditional life. All these factors combined to dislocate, erode, and in many cases destroy, traditional connection to country.

In consequence today, where native title has survived formal extinguishment, many Indigenous people will be unable to establish their rights through an inability to demonstrate their maintenance of connection with their land in accordance with traditional laws and customs. The assimilation policy was specifically intended to eradicate the observance of traditional laws and customs. Proof of these traditions is now required to establish native title. The amended Native Title Act expressly requires the demonstration of a current 'traditional physical connection' for the registration of a claim.

Past laws, policies and practices have precise ramifications today. The historical denial of rights has continuing effects and past denial is compounded by the further, consequential deprivation of rights today. This compounding effect is more than bitter irony: it demands a just response, specific reparation and the maximum protection of Australia's residual native title estate.


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If we are to achieve a just and stable basis for the reconciliation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians we must become conscious of how these patterns of the past influence and recur in contemporary circumstances. We must realign the values and dynamics which have so consistently distorted and damaged our relations. Some of the most severe abuses of the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are beyond any form of reparation other than the most sincere expression of sorrow and apology based on a frank acknowledgement of history.

Equally there are concrete measures required by way of direct compensation and remedial action to relieve the contemporary effects of past discrimination. If the events surrounding Daguragu reveal issues which require resolution, then the circumstances in which a portion of Gurindji land was finally returned to the traditional owners provides us with an image of our potential for such resolution. On 16 August Vincent Lingiari accepted the return of title to land belonging to the Gurindji people. Standing on their country in the Northern Territory, the then Prime Minister addressed the Gurindji:.

On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of the Australian people - all those who honour and love this land we live in. I want to acknowledge that we Australians still have much to do to redress the injustice and the oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians Vincent Lingiari I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be in the possession of you and your children forever.

With this the Prime Minister poured a handful of soil into Vincent Lingiari's hands. He then spoke to his people, recognising how 'important White men' had come to return their land and how in the future the Gurindji could live together with white fellas as friends and equals. They took our country away from us, now they have brought it back ceremonially. This was a time before the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act , before the Aboriginal Land Rights Northern Territory Act , and almost twenty years before the Mabo decision. Aboriginal people had no recognised right to land.

The Gurindji had petitioned the Governor-General. The petition was refused. The return of their title was ultimately achieved by negotiation and agreement with direct Aboriginal participation. The Wave Hill pastoral lease was surrendered and the Commonwealth Government issued two fresh leases, one to the pastoral enterprise and the other to the traditional owners.

Negotiation and agreement remains the most positive, direct and flexible approach to the re-alignment of competing interests. The words spoken by the Prime Minister acknowledged the past, recognised that there was: 'still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians These words were accompanied by immediate action. The return of title was a tangible act of justice. It stood in earnest of a wider commitment to the future. In response to this commitment Vincent Lingiari spoke on behalf of the Gurindji.

Considering the history of that country, the physical violence of the frontier period, the taking of Gurindji children from their community and the conditions of exploitation that sparked the walk off, there is a considerable grace and generosity in the acceptance of a future relationship founded on equality and friendship. The gesture of pouring the soil of the country into Vincent Lingiari's hands has a depth of symbolism which satisfies the common human need for ceremony to mark out significant events.


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  • The richness of Indigenous cultures in ceremonial activity is clear. The ceremonial components of Anglo-Australian culture are frequently overlooked, undervalued or regarded sceptically. In the specific circumstances of Australia it should be recalled that the claim of possession and the assertion of sovereign power over this land was done with the ceremonial raising of the British flag: a symbolic assertion of sovereign power.

    The subsequent dispossession of Indigenous people was effected through the exercise of that power. It is fitting that some ceremonial acknowledgement accompanied the return of title. Interestingly the pouring of the actual soil of the land has a resonance with an ancient common law ritual performed when title to land was received. The owner would be 'seized of possession' and would immediately exercise the right of ownership by breaking the branch of a tree growing on the land or by turning the soil. Within the cultures of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians common ceremonial gestures may be found or fresh symbols created.

    Without substance behind them, such things are sterile. But the burial of grievance and the birth of a new relationship require expression in a form which can lift us beyond immediate circumstances, to express our resolve and to give vision to our common future. The underlying purpose of assimilation retains an appeal to some Australians. The reality of its practice, translated into human terms, is less attractive.

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    The issues and general patterns which I have sought to draw from the events surrounding the Wave Hill Station walk-off and the eventual return of a portion of Gurindji land, have direct relevance to the removal of Indigenous children for their assimilation into the white Australian community. They are also relevant to our contemporary responses to this practice. The primary purpose of this Report is to present various responses to Bringing Them Home. This is not done to re-open the substance of the Inquiry, its findings or the basis of its recommendations.

    The objective is to record the diverse range of responses and the perspectives they illustrate. The ensuing public debate was sustained and intense. It stimulated the expression of views reflecting contemporary attitudes and values which directly and indirectly affect the circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. These views range over the past, the present and look to the future. Because of the deeply emotional and intimate nature of the subject matter of the Report, many people who may not often express their opinions publicly were moved to write to newspapers or find some other way of making their views known, frequently with a great deal of passion and candour.

    Politicians at all levels of government and commentators in all forms of the media made statements, published editorials and opinion pieces. These responses warrant some more permanent publication. Bringing Them Home was not limited to an examination of history, but it did examine a disturbing aspect of our past, and the responses to its findings have, in their own right, become part of the historical record of Australia.

    This report is divided into various chapters presenting the broad reactions of Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people and the Churches. These chapters do not pretend to be exhaustive or definitive, they sample and attempt to illustrate the wide variety of responses generated by Bringing Them Home. It is their personal experience, dependent on a willingness to open the most intimate details of their childhood, which informed the Report in a way that historical records and abstract research could never do. Courage was required to participate in the Inquiry and the vulnerability entailed in the process certainly did not end there.

    The publication of Bringing Them Home brought their stories within the public arena. The range of reactions to the Report obviously had immediate implications for individual Indigenous people and their communities.

    As a non-Indigenous person temporarily acting in the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I considered it particularly important to ensure that the views of Indigenous people entered directly into this Report. Consultations conducted in different parts of the country provided some opportunity for this to occur. Chapter 1, The Aftermath for Indigenous People , is based on our consultations. I regret that resources severely limited the extent of our coverage and, as with other chapters, the perspectives presented are indicative than comprehensive.

    Naturally, various views were expressed. A substantial degree of comment was directed to the responses and comprehension of the wider community to experiences that are unique to Indigenous Australians.

    Please Note!

    Chapter 2 Non-Indigenous Community Responses canvasses the diverse opinions expressed publicly in reaction to the Report's findings and the subsequent debate concerning the stolen generations. The Australian community's contemporary responsibility and the significance of apology are thematic in these responses. Christian Churches played a particular institutional role in the practice of removing Indigenous children. Chapter 3 Church Responses , records the apologies and statements made by different denominations, together with their further commitments to reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

    The final chapter presents the responses of Australian governments to the recommendations of Bringing Them Home.

    Everything is real

    It reports on action taken to implement those recommendations. Chapter 4 is the product of a specific Follow Up Project to the Inquiry. Its provenance and methodology are described in the chapter itself. The responses to the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families deserve consideration, not merely as reflections on the past, but as indicators of the future.

    The wider objective of this introductory chapter is to consider the implications of the various responses for the reconciliation process. Genuine reconciliation between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities of Australia has deep potential to enhance the exercise and enjoyment of human rights by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It has the further potential to give new outlook and energy to the entire nation.