Volume 11 Number 1
Room for Pride and Shame
01 February 1998

Since becoming Australia's Governor-General in 1996, Sir William Deane has spoken compellingly about Australia's social needs. These remarks are taken from his address to the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) in November 1997, with the last two paragraphs from his Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture in August 1996.

I think it is desirable that I make clear that my comments about disadvantage in this country and support for ACOSS should not be seen as support for, or opposition to, any policy which is the subject of current political controversy. Nor should my comments about the importance of Aboriginal reconciliation-a national aspiration enjoying bipartisan support-be seen as any intervention in relation to current political issues.

The ultimate test of the worth of a democratic nation is how we treat our minorities and the most vulnerable members of our society. And by 'we' I mean all of us, not only collectively but also individually.

I stress individually because there is a danger in a social welfare society that ordinary people, including essentially good people, will take the approach that it is for the State to look after the needy-and that, if public welfare does not look after those in need, it is somehow their own fault rather than an occasion in which their fellow citizens are under an obligation to assist. That danger is obviously increased in circumstances where there seems to be a growing tendency to marginalize different groups of disadvantaged Australians by unfair stereotyping or labelling.

The assistance provided by governments is vital. Yet our social welfare system is inevitably imperfect. There are disadvantaged people for whom relevant government assistance is unavailable or insufficient. And even if adequate funds were available, that would still remain the case, for, as you all know, there are many types of disadvantage which cannot adequately be addressed by money, but which require human assistance, human skill, human dedication and compassion, human companionship, human inspiration.

The Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander peoples, on virtually every measure of well-being, are significantly worse off than other Australians. Indeed, as we examine indigenous history over the past 200 years, we cannot help but be saddened by the awful contrast between what has been in so many parts of the country and what might have been.

Those of us-indigenous and non-indigenous-who are joined together in a crusade for true national reconciliation know that we will not succeed until our nation has made significant progress towards resolving the plight of the Aboriginal peoples in relation to health, education, employment and living conditions.

How could it be otherwise when the gap between the average life expectancy of an Aborigine and that of a non-Aborigine is almost 20 years and widening, and where Aborigines are dying from particular diseases at rates up to 12 times those of non-Aborigines? Clearly we will not achieve reconcilation until we are at least approaching the position where the life expectancy and future prospects of an Aboriginal baby are in the same realm as those of a non-Aboriginal one.

We have no real prospect of reaching that stage until we effectively address the terrible problems of the spirit as well as those of the body-the present effects on the spirit and self-esteem of Australia's indigenous peoples of all that has happened, all that has been taken, and all that has been destroyed during the two centuries and more since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

We are confronted with the terrible realities of what was done in earlier times to the Aboriginal peoples in this their country. Those realities cannot be dismissed as of no present relevance. For we still live with their consequences. If their existence as a shameful aspect of our history is ignored or denied, they will remain to haunt us as a source of bitterness and an insurmountable obstacle on the difficult road to true reconcilation. It is essential that our hopes for true reconciliation be kept alive. If they are not, I weep for our country.

...True reconciliation between the Australian nation and its indigenous peoples is not achievable in the absence of acknowledgement by the nation of the wrongfulness of the past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples.

That is not to say that individual Australians who had no part in what was done in the past should feel personal guilt. It is simply to assert that national shame, as well as national pride, can and should exist in relation to past acts and omissions, at least when done or made in the name of the community or with the authority of government. Where there is no room for national pride or national shame about the past, there can be no national soul.
Sir William Deane

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