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Giving Back the Bike: Reconciliation's Promise

The year 2000 marks the culmination of the ten year long process whose purpose was the achievement of a true and lasting reconciliation between Aborigines and non-Aborigines in Australia. Orchestrated by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the goal of the process has been a united Australia that celebrates its indigenous heritage and provides justice and equity for all. The question is: Has this goal been achieved?

A well known anecdote from Father Mxolisi Mapanbani of South Africa gets to the heart of the matter. His tale of Tom and Bernard has become a touchstone for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process and is relevant to the Australian situation.

Once there were two boys, Tom and Bernard. Tom lived opposite Bernard. One day, Tom stole Bernard's bicycle and every day Bernard saw Tom cycling to school on it. After a year, Tom went up to Bernard, stretched out his hand and said, "Let us reconcile and put the past behind us." Bernard looked at Tom's hand and said, "And what about the bicycle?" "No," said Tom, "I'm not talking about the bicycle, I'm talking about reconciliation.(1)

Such a story enables us to consider the real motives behind reconciliatory posturing. If Tom doesn't give back the bike, what is his excuse? Tom might say that the bike was never Bernard's in the first place, or that he was not using it frequently enough to justify ownership, or that so many improvements had been made to the bike that it bears no resemblance to the original. Tom might also say that no case of theft can be brought due to a statute of limitations, or that Bernard wasn't going to school and therefore did not need the bike. Perhaps if Bernard had put up more of a fight they could have shared it. Or perhaps Tom will offer to sell it back to Bernard on easy terms, or offer to teach Bernard how to ride, at a fixed rate.

Co-authored by a prominent anthropologist and a former high-ranking public official, and published by Australia's Institute for Public Affairs at a pivotal period in Australia's quest for reconciliation, the title of the booklet under review promises answers to those important questions that the interested reader brings to the table. Individuals can be reconciled through apologies and goodwill gestures, as can nation states through cultural exchanges and treaties. But what about colonizers and the colonized? What does the word reconciliation mean in such a setting? Certainly an end to atrocities and programs of social engineering, but perhaps not the retreat of the invader or the assimilation of one group into another. What about acknowledging that land rights and compensation are not welfare issues, but rather a matter of social justice? And when will we know we are reconciled? Is it merely a matter of a review of economic indicators providing evidence of declining Aboriginal disadvantage in employment, housing, health and education? Or, like peace, is reconciliation a process that must continually be worked at?

There are many, many questions, and the text under review fails to enlighten the reader on any of these fronts. For example, the authors do not define reconciliation, but nevertheless suggest that Aborigines and non-Aborigines are already reconciled; they blame the victims for their situation and then oppose their claim to victim status; and, finally, they fail to satisfactorily address the reasons why the Australian Prime Minister, speaking on behalf of the nation, refuses to apologize to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders -- even though one might consider this an essential plank in the reconciliation process.

The issues raised by the authors deserve detailed comment because they claim to be a mouthpiece for the views of the average Australian, and aim to showcase essential flaws in the reconciliation process. One of the authors, Gary Johns, was associated with a Labor Government which significantly advanced the cause of Aborigines. Anthropologist Ron Brunton is a high profile critic of the Aboriginal quest for sovereign rights and his work warrants examination. My review will examine this booklet with respect to three principal issues: 1. Definitions, 2. Gestures, and 3. Outcomes.

Going back thirty years, alternate federal governments have wavered between giving back the bike, offering something of the bike, or defiantly saying, "No bike for you." Brunton and Johns' view is that there is no surviving pan-Aboriginal collective with which non-Aborigines could reconcile. Rather, there exists only a motley collection of scattered tribes and individuals, few of whom are traditionally oriented or even deserving of temporary assistance. The rest have been well and truly compensated for their loss and need now to go out and get a new bike of their own. To the authors, the enhanced Aboriginal Land Fund and the enormous number of instruments and programs in place to benefit Aborigines and Islanders indicate that non-Aborigines have fulfilled their responsibilities to the beleaguered indigenous population. Their text is a scathing indictment of alternative agendas for reconciliation. They go so far as to say that anyone who challenges their views does so from a false motive of political correctness. Those with a desire to address historical, as opposed to contemporary, wrongs are more than sadly misguided in Brunton and Johns' view: they do a disservice not only to Aborigines and Islanders, but to the nation as a whole.

To support this stance, Brunton and Johns draw upon polls commissioned by the Reconciliation Council which show that while 70 percent of Australians consider reconciliation to be important, 60 percent of these believe that in a reconciled nation everyone should be equal, and that Aborigines should not have any special or extra rights. In other words, Aborigines are to be reconciled to their colonized status, and should not have any unreal expectations of improvement other than through their own toil like other Australians living in a western capitalistic economy. They must be reconciled with themselves, with their past, and with the system that oppresses them.


That the authors do not define reconciliation is surprising given the booklet's name. Instead, they draw on the work of distinguished historian Charles Rowley on Aboriginal recovery, and suggest that reconciliation is about:

1. Aboriginal readjustment from a long period of suffering, and the building of a new life out of the ruins of dispossession.

2. Providing Aborigines with a measured degree of autonomy suitable for the purposes of recovery.

3. Allowing large-scale economic development on Aboriginal lands for the greater common good.

4. Facilitating the movement of Aborigines from their remote homelands and making it clear that their desired lifestyle in remote locales is uneconomic and unsustainable.

In other words, according to the authors, the bottom line is that non-Aborigines will be reconciled with Aborigines only when Aborigines shake off their victim status and cast off those leaders who, say Brunton and Johns, owe their positions and influence to their ability to maintain a sense of resentment within their own constituencies by making demands on the system that they know will be rejected.

My criticism of this framework for considering a reconciliatory process is wide-ranging, with four principal points. First, no evidence is presented to indicate an appreciation of existing Aboriginal agendas for recovery, or what reconciliation might mean to the indigenous populations. Second, is this framework to be imposed upon the first Australians or are there grounds for negotiation? Third, the basic premise that Aborigines must change as a precondition of reconciliation is problematic. Does the precondition apply to non-Aborigines as well? Fourth, the authors fail to acknowledge that forgiveness can only be granted by the victims. It is not for the wrongdoer to dictate the terms of another's pardon. Then again, Brunton and Johns do not view Aborigines as victims at all, but instead as manipulators of a guilt-ridden, naive, and identity-seeking public.


We live in an era of forgiveness. Whether apologizing is a diplomatic tactic designed to stave off long overdue litigation, or whether there are genuine feelings of remorse and a desire to set the record straight and make amends through reparations, is uncertain. In the mid-1990s, North American Protestant denominations issued statements of repentance for supporting slavery and segregation, for their anti-Jewish tendencies and for complicity in Indian massacres. In Australia, the churches have also apologized for their role in the Stolen Generation, for their treatment of Aborigines in the mission era, and for depriving Aborigines of their patrimony. Just recently, Pope John Paul II has apologized for the Catholic Church's religious intolerance and injustice toward Jews, women, and Indigenous Peoples. His motivation? A new evalgelization in the third millennium can only take place after a church-wide "purification of memory." It is not only in religious institutions that reconciliation has become a subject of paramount importance, however. Governments, banks -- even service providers -- are asking for forgiveness for the sins committed by their predecessors.

Even though the voice of the Australian government imparts the message that non-Aborigines should not feel guilt for the atrocities committed by their ancestors, a majority of Australians believe, within this global momentum for reform, that it is time to make amends.

According to Brunton and Johns, however, reconciliation is being offered to non-Aborigines on the condition that they forgo any real sense of pride in their own complex heritage. They contend that the cost of this duplicity will be a permanently dependent, sick, illiterate, and unemployable Aboriginal caste at the bottom of Australian society -- a caste that wantonly destroys whatever infrastructure is placed in its hands.

With such a statement, Brunton and Johns reveal their ethnocentrism, i.e., they are unable to grasp the other's point of view, to realize the other's vision of the world, or to observe themselves from the other's viewpoint.

For example, they allude to a division of non-Aborigines and Aborigines into "good" and "bad" camps. Aborigines are "bad" because they continue to "guilt trip" the gullible mainstream, and non-Aborigines are "good" because of the richness of their culture and economy. They say that Aborigines should be thankful that the English colonizers did not have a genocidal bent like the Spanish in the Americas.

There is no scope for symbolic gestures of goodwill in the position Brunton and Johns take; no possibility for a rapprochement.


At the heart of the reconciliation process is the participant's stance in relation to the bike: is it to be returned, or not, and if not, why not, and what will be offered in its stead? Brunton and Johns skirt the issue. In an article published in Brisbane's Courier Mail (1/29/00) entitled "Honorary Aboriginality for Us All," Brunton mocks the reconciliation process, asking whether the outcome of the ten year conciliatory effort will be announced from on high, with a committee of righteous worthies telling us we have finally transcended our shameful past. Or will teams of public opinion pollsters tramp across the country to get a take on whether the nation actually feels reconciled? His sarcasm is based on a belief that there is a contradiction at the heart of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's program. Brunton and Johns ask, "How can one call for a united Australia on the one hand and promote indigenous separatism on the other?" They assert that Aboriginal people are voting with their hearts for a considerable degree of integration within the broader society: 64 percent of Aboriginal couple families were between Aborigines and non-Aborigines; only 2 percent of Aborigines follow traditional Aboriginal religion, while 71.5 percent are Christian; more than 70 percent of Aborigines are not living on their homeland; and 25 percent do not even recognize any land as their home. While such statistics might be savage testimony of the ravages of colonization, Brunton and Johns argue that they tell a different story. They fly in the face of Aboriginal calls for land rights, sovereignty, and secession.

Brunton and Johns see sinister motives lying behind Aboriginal requests for atonement on any grounds. They argue that contemporary Aborigines are encouraged to see themselves as victims, and from such a standpoint successfully avoid taking personal responsibility for any of the self-destructive or anti-social behavior Australian newspapers are so quick to report. According to Brunton and Johns, the so-called guilt industry is being fueled by sympathetic non-Aborigines intent on fostering the mentality of victimhood for reasons that the authors do not speculate upon. In the aforementioned Courier Mail article, Brunton suggests parallels with "white" liberal involvement in enhancing "black" freedom in the United States. Quoting essayist Shelby Steele, Brunton says that "whites" are preoccupied with their own personal redemption; with demonstrating their moral virtue in the face of the shame they feel in being identified with America's unpleasant history of racial injustice.

There are more substantial reasons why so many non-Aboriginal Australians are unquestionably supporting the Aboriginal cause. We see evidence of these reasons in many different settings -- the recent proud display of Aboriginal art in St. Petersburg, for instance, which was instrumental in partnership-building between Australia and Russia; or the international popularity of Aboriginal rock bands like Yothu Yindi; or Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman's acclaim. Both Yothu Yindi and Cathy Freeman are vocal in their pride in being both Aboriginal and Australian. As Levi-Strauss said, "Humanity is forever involved in two conflicting currents, the one tending toward unification, and the other toward the maintenance or restoration of diversity."(2) I am unaware of any collectivity that is not thoughtfully pursuing this issue. Even the Amish are considering the threat of globalization to cultural survival in their Pennsylvania Dutch farmlands. Both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal collectives, in all their varied manifestations, are engaged in a broader process of determining their place in the global forum while at the same time protecting and promoting essential elements of their ethnic identities. When we talk of reconciliation in Australia, we are talking about the reconciliation of these emerging life plans -- these potentially competing visions of what the future might bring us.

From this perspective, reconciliation means two things: 1. Aborigines forging new bonds with the world outside of their communities and helping to create a pan-Australian identity which incorporates them as equals instead of binding them to a role as the "white man's burden"; and 2. Non-Aborigines re-ordering their priorities in order to accommodate Aborigines and achieve the newly reconciled "authentically Australian" nation. Reconciliation is about creating a new society -- with its own conventions, generalities and maxims -- a society that honors our indigenous and non-indigenous heritages and provides justice and equity for all. This is the real test of Australia's reconciliatory intentions -- and of the sincerity of the quest. Giving back the bike does not signal the end of the process. It is just the beginning.

References & further reading

(1) Martha Minow. "Memory and Hate: Are there lessons from around the world?" Gilbane Lecture, Brown University, October 19, 1999.

(2) UNESCO. (1958). Race and History. p 45.

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