GLW: Did the Olympics help reconciliation? (with story)

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at
Mon Oct 9 21:22:32 MDT 2000

The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (,
Australia's radical newspaper.


Australia: 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

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.

  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

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

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

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

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. Vist the DSP web site at ]



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