The Philistine

Reconciliation at $1500 a Pop

Salvatore Babones

On February 25, 2021, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade finally got with the program. That morning, the DFAT website finally endorsed the modern loyalty oath:

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia, and their continuing connection to land, waters and community. We pay our respect to all First Nations peoples, their cultures and to their Elders, past, present and emerging.

This acknowledgment (preposition error included) was a deliverable from DFAT’s Reconciliation Action Plan 2019–2022 (the department’s fourth plan, and second “stretch” action plan). The public loyalty oath was supposed to be implemented by December 2019, but was delayed fourteen months without explanation. Direct complaints to the First Assistant Secretary, Soft Power, Communications and Scholarships Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, R.G. Casey Building, John McEwen Crescent, Barton ACT.

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If the DFAT acknowledgment of country seems somewhat vague (“throughout Australia”? “all First Nations peoples”?), it may be because the “traditional” custodianship of R.G. Casey Building, John McEwen Crescent, Barton, is subject to dispute. Just how traditional is a disputed tradition? That’s one for the analytical philosophers. As any sensible metaphysician knows, a tradition is what you make of it. It turns out that the traditional ownership of the Australian Capital Territory—a prime piece of traditional land if ever there was one—is the subject of intense dispute. In 2002, the ACT government decided to recognise the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of the entire territory, much to the chagrin of their local arch-enemies, the Ngambri. Thus Australia joins Israel as the only two countries in which the national capital territory is the subject of a sovereignty dispute.

It is not immediately obvious what the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—an organisation that is, after all, mainly concerned with foreign affairs (and trade)—ever did to alienate the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with whom it now plans to reconcile, never mind what horrific actions in its past could require the completion of four successive Reconciliation Action Plans (two of them “stretch”) covering a period of fifteen years. Nor is the fourth plan slated to be the last. The department’s fifth Reconciliation Action Plan is due in April. How many more plans will be required before Australia’s diplomats finally achieve reconciliation with the country’s indigenous peoples? Mathematicians have a word for a series of numbers that starts small but increments at fixed intervals forever: infinity.

The five ministers responsible for DFAT are Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, the Hon. Dan Tehan MP, Senator the Hon. Zed Seselja, the Hon. Dr David Gillespie MP and the Hon. Michelle Landry MP. They are, of course, not mentioned in the department’s fourth Reconciliation Action Plan—notably, its second “stretch” action plan in a row. No signature, no photo, not even an acknowledgment of ministership. One wonders if they are even aware that their department has a Reconciliation Action Plan, short or stretched. Senator the Hon. Marise Payne in particular might want to take a look at her department’s website. Not content to merely acknowledge “Custodians of Country throughout Australia” (at least they capitalised Australia), the bureaucrats at DFAT chose to pay their respect to “all First Nations peoples” … everywhere?

To which “Nations” (capital N), specifically, does DFAT pay Australia’s respect? All of them? Even if they are not recognised as “Nations” by their host … nations? In paying respect to them as “First” nations, does DFAT mean to imply that they have legitimate prior claims to the territories of their host societies? In referring to them as “Nations” (a dignity it noticeably does not accord to Australia’s mere “Traditional Custodians of Country”) is it implicitly endorsing indigenous sovereignty claims against foreign governments? Are the Pueblo the “First Nation” of the American South-West? Or does that title belong to the Apache, who conquered them in the twelfth century? Or to Spain, or to colonial Mexico, from which the region was taken by the nascent United States? Are the Ukrainians or the Tartars the First Nation of Crimea? Are the Arabs or the Jews the First Nation of Israel? Of course, DFAT does not offer explicit answers to any of these questions. Très diplomatique!

Quadrant readers will surely be the first to applaud when DFAT rolls its acknowledgment of country out on the website of the Australian embassy in Beijing, paying DFAT’s respects to the “First Nations” of China and the “Elders, past, present and emerging” of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

DIPLOMACY, they say, is best left to the professionals. So are defence, health and of course education. The Department of Defence is now on its fourth (stretch) Reconciliation Action Plan; the Department of Health is on its fifth (innovative) plan, and the Department of Education is currently awaiting endorsement of its sixth (innovative stretch) plan. All three departments feature acknowledgments of country on their websites, although sensibly they refrain from endorsing overseas sovereignty claims. The Departments of Industry, Home Affairs and Social Services are all languishing on their third Reconciliation Action Plans, though all feature acknowledgments of country on their websites. The Department of Infrastructure is the only major Australian government department to be relegated to the “reflect” level of reconciliation planning. It is still working its way through its very first Reconciliation Action Plan. Its online loyalty oath went live only last summer.

The Australian Treasury is on its fourth Reconciliation Action Plan and the Department of Finance is now on its fifth. Both are “innovative” plans, as we would expect from the country’s top economists. But neither department has yet placed an acknowledgment of country on its website. Philistines.

At least forty-eight Commonwealth government entities have filed Reconciliation Action Plans with Reconciliation Australia, the registered charity that endorses these plans—or sends them back for revision. Only two of the government’s plans have achieved the highest level of distinction from Reconciliation Australia, being endorsed as “elevate” plans: the ABC (of course) and Services Australia (who knew?). Action plans can be filed at any one of four levels: reflect (stand in the corner), innovate (step out of the corner), stretch (reach for the stars) and elevate (you are a star!). Only the first three levels have published qualification criteria. The requirements for an “elevate” plan are more bespoke, involving “unique requirements, expectations and processes in order to qualify”. Is that a euphemism for blood money? You’ll have to apply to find out.

One prominent Australian organisation that notably has not filed a Reconciliation Action Plan is the University of Sydney. With the University of Melbourne preening at the “elevate” level, it’s got to hurt. Maybe the fees were too high. Whatever the reason, instead of going with Reconciliation Australia, Sydney decided to go it alone. Its “One Sydney, Many People” strategy represents a “whole-of-University commitment to journey together, valuing, respecting and celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s knowledges and cultures”. Whole-of-university started at the heart of the university, with the planting of a native flame tree to complement the famous jacaranda tree inside the university’s historic Quadrangle. It continues at the library, where anyone consulting the online catalogue must read an acknowledgment of country while waiting for search results to appear.

Given the university’s extraordinary (if a bit lonely) commitment to building “a stronger and more accountable partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”, it is a bit embarrassing that the New South Wales Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council has complained to the Independent Commission Against Corruption about the university’s indigenous admission and hiring practices. The story was completely ignored by the Guardian, the Herald, and the ABC, so Sydney should be able to tough it out. If things get too hot at the university’s annual Reconciliation Week smoking ceremony, Sydney can always start over by submitting a “reflect” Reconciliation Action Plan to Reconciliation Australia. The reconciliation journey may never end, but like any journey worth taking, it starts with a single $1500 filing fee.

Australia’s reconciliation journey originally was supposed to end more than twenty years ago. In a unanimous act of collective self-delusion, Parliament voted in 1991 to embark on a ten-year journey to achieve reconciliation “by the year 2001”. Accordingly, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 (passed in the days before Torres Strait Islanders got to share top billing) had a baked-in sunset clause. The eponymous Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, of course, thought differently. Before disbanding, its leaders set up Reconciliation Australia, commending the new organisation to the Commonwealth for perpetual support. Good thing, too. A triennial Reconciliation Action Plan lets government bureaucrats assuage their guilty consciences for $1500 a pop, and the acknowledgment of country is free. Virtue signalling has never been so cost-effective.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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