Poor Queen, my country

Sydney Morning Herald - Saturday, March 25, 2000
Author: Tony Stephens

Her words were unremarkable, writes Tony Stephens, but their symbolism in the light of the reconciliation debate is immense.

WHILE many Australians who had the opportunity to meet the Queen this week congratulated her for voicing her concern about the plight of Aborigines, Germaine Greer said the Queen's comments had come "a bit late". Greer said Aborigines had been appealing to the British Crown for support for decades.

Greer is right. Tasmanian Aborigines petitioned Queen Victoria for justice in 1846. There is no evidence of a royal response to that plea, nor to any of those made subsequently.

This lack of response, however, makes Queen Elizabeth's heartfelt words this week all the more noteworthy and the offered congratulations so understandable. The words themselves are unremarkable. The fact that they were uttered is remarkable.

The Queen said in Sydney: "I know that the fairness and decency for which this country is rightly renowned will mean that continued efforts are made to ensure that this prosperity touches all Australians. It remains a sad fact of life that many indigenous Australians face a legacy of economic and social disadvantage. Others, particularly from rural areas, feel left behind. The country's response in trying to find ways of helping all Australians to share in the country's growing wealth will require patience, determination and goodwill from all members of the community."

The Queen's answer to those offering congratulations was that she was the only person who could make such a speech.

This suggests that she is very conscious of her unique position to make a contribution in the painfully slow movement towards reconciliation between indigenous people and other Australians.

Her words are not as powerful as those of her vice-regal representative in Australia, Governor-General Sir William Deane, who has said of the need to acknowledge the past in order to secure the future: "Where there is no room for national pride or national shame about the past, there can be no national soul." However, the Queen's first public contribution adds a dimension to the question of reconciliation.

The Queen did not undergo a miraculous conversion on the road to Sydney, or to Bourke, where she met more Aborigines. She is a well-informed woman.

On the occasion of her golden wedding anniversary in 1997, she acknowledged the need to "listen" more.

She listened last October, past the appointed time, to five indigenous Australian leaders who met her at Buckingham Palace. Pat Dodson, who was joined by Lowitja O'Donoghue, Marcia Langton , Gatjil Djerrkura and Peter Yu, said later that the meeting was "extraordinarily beneficial from our point of view".

The group bore a number of gifts to the Queen, including a photograph of Dodson's grandfather, Paddy Djiagween, meeting the Queen in Broome in 1963, four years before Aborigines had full citizenship. Having danced before the Queen, Paddy asked why he wasn't allowed to drink in a Broome hotel like other Australians. The Queen thought he should be able to exercise this right, so he went back to the pub, sought the help of the Queen's equerry and won his case.

The Queen and the Australians talked about Britain and Australia's shared history and the fact that the Aboriginal people had not fared well from colonisation. The conversation was diplomatic but cheerful. The Queen had read briefing papers.

Another meeting the five Australians had in October was with members of the British Government, when the visitors raised the possibility of an apology from Britain to indigenous Australians.

The only visible protest to the Queen in Bourke on Wednesday came from Alan Jackson, who wrapped himself in an Aboriginal flag and said the Queen should apologise for standing on Aboriginal land.

O'Donoghue said: "Mr Jackson expressed the truth of what many Aboriginal people were privately hoping. But the Queen's heartfelt words are great and it might be more appropriate for an apology to come from the British Government. This could happen in July [at the centenary of Federation celebrations in London]."

The Queen has listened, then, to the group of five. It would have been impossible for her to have missed the drift of Deane's message on reconciliation. She listened to Evelyn Scott, chairwoman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, at a private, 30-minute meeting on Monday and met her again at a Government House dinner on Wednesday night.

The Queen will also be reasonably familiar with the work of Henry Reynolds, author and historian. Reynolds prepared one of the briefing papers that Dodson and O'Donoghue took to Buckingham Palace.

Reynolds said: "The Aborigines suffered more severely than their New Zealand counterparts. Far more were killed in conflict with the settlers. The Crown recognised Maori native title.

" Its failure to accord any property rights to the Aborigines had long-term consequences that are still being felt."