THE BEAT-UP TAXI crawled down the wrong side of the road, along the dusty back streets of Cunnamulla in central-western Queensland. The driver seethed with anger as he punched an arm through his open window: "Look at what I'm telling you: black house, white house, black house, white house, white house."
The wide streets were lined with shabby fibro houses and sunburnt gardens, houses which bore the telltale signs of the hard lives that had been lived in them by council workers, farm hands and other poor town folk who called the modest dwellings home.
In recent years, Aboriginal families had moved from surrounding areas and the squalid camp on the outskirts of the town – whose name means "Watering Hole" – into new houses within walking distance of the school, the court house, the pubs and the all-purpose store that marked the civic centre of this once-thriving, now dying, increasingly black town – "Pop 1,500 (approx)".
The driver was angry that the thirty-nine houses funded by state and federal governments and owned by the Aboriginal Co-op were marginally less rundown. "Which would you rather live in? I just want a fair deal for the white fella," he said through a smoke-cloud of anger.
This encounter occurred thirty years ago, but I remember it as though it were yesterday. At the end of a week in the town, the taxi driver, who I called No. 92 when I wrote about him later, dramatically blocked my path with his car as I was crossing the main street. He leaned out his window and said with a sneer: "I hope you're going to give those black bastards heaps."
I was in Cunnamulla with an Aboriginal Legal Aid lawyer and social worker – two conscientious young men who later became the state's premier and attorney-general – to write about the conditions in a town which had become symbolic of the failure of black-white relations in country Australia.
We had been the talk of the town all week – tough, confronting talk by people who didn't like us being there and didn't welcome the return of a national spotlight, which had already resulted in government money to relocate Aboriginal families from the fringe dwellers' camp. So when No. 92 suggested that I get into his car, that he'd show me what the town was really like, I didn't feel I had a lot of choice. He was angry, and I hid my fear by appearing interested and open-minded. I scribbled furiously as he talked.
The picture he painted underlined the impression I had already gathered. Of a place where unease lingered three generations after graziers shot at Aborigines; that had failed to adjust as the pastoral industry collapsed; where a quarter of all adults – most of them black – were without work; where the incidence of scabies and ascaris worm set state records; where half the population was under twenty and, until a state health team had arrived five years earlier, up to forty babies died each year; where dozens of children were seriously malnourished; where seven pubs and two clubs each made a profit from just seven hundred adults; where No. 92 and his colleagues supplied grog to their passengers; where publicans and taxi drivers banked hundreds of welfare cheques every year; where there were at least twelve convictions a week for drunkenness – black and white; where conscientious Aboriginal leaders despaired about the impact of booze, welfare without work, the lack of pride in housing, connection to community and care for children, and more opportunistic leaders devised ways of undermining their elders and tricking white businesses; where de facto apartheid was the reality.
A place it was almost impossible to see a way out of, where policies designed to address real, long-standing injustices had failed to improve the situation, and in some cases – despite the best of intentions – made it worse.
FOR DECADES, REPORTS like this have added fuel to the embers of concern about entrenched, racially determined injustice. When I went to Cunnamulla in 1977, I was just one in a long line of journalists who won approval from reluctant editors ("Abo stories don't sell") to travel to a distant Aboriginal community to report what they saw during a flying visit. The same story was told over and over with local variations as yet another fair reporter blew into an impoverished community and came away with stories of dysfunction.
They are still dropping in; these days, tragic stories about failures in Indigenous policy routinely make front-page news. Examining the pathology of failure makes strong headlines, fuels guilt and feelings of despair. Yet such tales, powered by moral outrage and stoked with troubled certainty, by observers with a ticket out – and a good chance of winning a prize or professional recognition for their effort – just scratch the surface.
Aboriginal rights have been a cause celebre for visionary Indigenous leaders, methodical, analytical scholars, left-wing political activists, Christians and socially concerned citizens – who would now be disparaged as "doctors' wives" – for more than a century. Their activism has taken many forms, involved many people and reached a high water mark of popular support in 1967, when more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to amend the Constitution to make Indigenous issues a Commonwealth responsibility, and effectively recognise the first Australians as full and equal citizens.
This paralleled the US civil rights movement and activism in many countries as decolonisation led to the recognition of the rights of Indigenous people, of reparations for past injustices and meaningful forms of reconciliation.
In Australia after the passage of the referendum, the public focus shifted from on-the-ground activism to more formal institutional battlefields: courts, parliaments and committees of inquiry, where important rulings, legislation and reports were generated. Money became available, discrimination was outlawed, high-minded talk of rights to self-determination and land became the order of the day. People who had been cosseted by the state and church for generations began the difficult process of learning how to take responsibility and be taken seriously. This was not easy for anyone involved.
PUBLIC POLICY IS always a response to changing fashions, political agendas, popular movements and ideas whose time has finally come.
By the twentieth anniversary of the referendum, and the lead-up to the Australian Bicentenary, national sentiment was changing. Indigenous rights became a part of the national conversation. By 1991, when Parliament created a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the mood could not have been more different to the one I had encountered in Cunnamulla fourteen years earlier. The following year, after a decade of litigation, the High Court recognised native title and six months later Prime Minister Paul Keating gave his landmark speech accepting responsibility and calling for an "act of recognition".
Many felt that at last there were tangible changes; a new dialogue began and the importance of an Aboriginal past to a future Australia was recognised. There were signs that the anger that once typified Cunnamulla, and scores of towns like it, was subsiding and optimism taking its place as people found ways of working together. The number of Indigenous people completing school, attending university, making a contribution in the arts, politics, religion and sport increased, and some in remote areas began to craft viable communities. Shame and anger began to abate as the spirit of reconciliation reached into the fabric of the nation.
Then, on the thirtieth anniversary in 1997, Prime Minister John Howard took one step forward and two steps back. He was prepared to acknowledge "the fact of past injustice", but refused to "say sorry" or accept that his leadership was essential to the moment of symbolic closure. His advocacy of the importance of "practical reconciliation" was impossible to deny, but without a formal recognition of rights, and an open-hearted embrace of responsibility for and the consequences of past policies that could be owned by all Australians, the old powerlessness and divisions easily returned.
Over the following years, the rights agenda was dismantled, and an epidemic of despair – measured in terms of abuse, violence, suicide, ill-health – has claimed many lives. In the process, the standing of some of the most impressive Indigenous leaders of a generation was undermined, while others tried to find a way to keep the rights agenda alive while accepting responsibilities and dealing with hopelessness.
AMIDST THE GLOOMY reporting of indigenous affairs, the constant images of abuse, violence, isolation and failure, it is easy to forget the successes – just how much has been achieved in the last four decades. Statistics collected by the Human Rights Commission (www.humanrights.gov.au/social_ justice/statistics/index.html) tell the story in numbers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still the poorest people in the nation, but those with the personal capacity and community support to rise above the disadvantages are making a disproportionate contribution, moving between several worlds, paving the way for a new renaissance, when the fruits of a true marriage between rights and responsibilities will be realised.
In 2001, Justice Tony Fitzgerald – a man who has contributed more than most to the shaping of modern Queensland – turned his attention, at the request of Premier Peter Beattie, to the intractable problems besetting the remote communities on Cape York. His report, which made widespread recommendations about ways of improving the quality of life on the Cape, began with an important insight for anyone dealing with complex, difficult and deeply entrenched problems:
"Whatever course is followed by the Government, even inaction, will significantly affect the lives of the people ... have disadvantages as well as benefits. The history of the relationship between the Aboriginal peoples of this country and the rest of the population, including the history of events in the recent past, is littered with conflict and mistakes.
"Well-intentioned initiatives continue to produce unexpected adverse consequences for Indigenous Australians. The tragic consequences of past mistakes provoke concern that future well-intentioned activities might miscarry and cause further damage. Government must not become paralysed by the difficulties or risk of failure."