Stanhope / Thanks for the day off, but what are we celebrating?

“A fleeting review of the ACT government’s response and attitude to indigenous disadvantage will confirm why the situation of so many Aboriginal people living in Canberra is so dire,” writes JON STANHOPE

THE ACT government has decided, with significant fanfare, to rename an existing public holiday Reconciliation Day. The holiday will be held for the first time on Monday, May 28.

Jon Stanhope

Jon Stanhope.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said, in a press release announcing Reconciliation Day as a public holiday, that “Canberrans should be proud to be part of a community where we can all come together to recognise and celebrate the important place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history in our city and nation.”

She has also undertaken to work with the community to consider “the best way to celebrate” Reconciliation Day.

The decision to dedicate a day as a public holiday is, of course, a very significant thing to do. It seems moot, therefore, that we ensure that those of us who will take advantage of the holiday understand why it is an issue deserving of such recognition.

In this regard Reconciliation Australia, the national body charged with facilitating Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia has developed a framework for measuring progress towards its achievement. The framework identifies five critical dimensions to Aboriginal reconciliation. These five dimensions provide a convenient definition of reconciliation. One which we can use to measure how far along the path to reconciliation Canberra has travelled.

The five elements of reconciliation identified by Reconciliation Australia are:

  • There is a positive two-way relationship built on trust and respect between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-indigenous Australians throughout society;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians participate equally and equitably in all areas of life – i.e. we have closed the gap in life outcomes;
  • All political, business and community institutions actively support all dimensions of reconciliation;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and rights are a valued and recognised part of a shared national identity and as a result there is national unity;
  • There is widespread acceptance of our nation’s history and agreement that the wrongs of the past will never be repeated – there is truth, justice, healing and historical acceptance.

It would not be surprising if most Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people in Canberra felt that none of these critical requirements for achieving reconciliation is anywhere near being met in the ACT.

Such scepticism would, unfortunately, be justified by even the most cursory glance at any of the voluminous data on the circumstances of Aboriginal people living in Canberra. A fleeting review of the government’s response and attitude to indigenous disadvantage in the ACT will also confirm why the situation of so many Aboriginal people living in Canberra is so dire.

A brief summary of just a few of the more startling and distressing outcomes of the ACT government’s stewardship of indigenous affairs in Canberra is:

  • The second highest rate of Aboriginal children in care and protection in Australia nevertheless the ACT government has excluded the Aboriginal community from an active role in the care and protection of Aboriginal children;
  • The second highest rate of Aboriginal incarceration in Australia and the ACT government defunded the Aboriginal Justice Centre;
  • An Aboriginal child at school in the ACT is on average two years behind a non-Aboriginal child in educational attainment. The gap in educational outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children in the ACT, as measured by NAPLAN, has widened over the last eight years;
  • Approximately 35 per cent, or about 700, Aboriginal children living in the ACT live in households below or at the poverty line. The ACT government has regardless rejected repeated requests for an inquiry into poverty;
  • The ACT does not have an indigenous housing policy even though an Aboriginal person is twice as likely as a non-Aboriginal person to live in rental accommodation. The ACT government has rejected repeated requests for an indigenous housing policy;
  • 46 per cent of Aboriginal males and 39 per cent of Aboriginal females over the age of 15 used an illicit substance in the last 12 months. The ACT government has built an $11 million indigenous specific residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre but it is being used instead for non-therapeutic day programs.

Reconciliation in the ACT will not, on the basis of the Reconciliation Australia formulation of reconciliation, be achieved until the disparity in outcomes listed above, as well of course as a myriad of others, are addressed. On almost all of the measures listed above the ACT is actually going backwards.

Which raises the rather awkward question: What exactly are we “celebrating” on Reconciliation Day in the ACT?


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