Indigenous 'Key to Australia's Relationship With Pacific'
13 January 2007

Australia was making the same mistakes in its relationship with Pacific nations as with its own indigenous peoples, claimed award-winning Solomon Islands based journalist Mary Louise O'Callaghan at a public forum in Melbourne on 13 January.

'We throw a little money at them and hope they [the problems] will go away', she said. What was needed was a readiness to listen to the perspectives of indigenous peoples, both domestically and in the Pacific.

The forum was part of a five-day conference on 'Australia as a Neighbour' organised by Initiatives of Change, attended by 300 people, which explores the twin themes of Australia's relationships with neighbouring countries and relationships between people and communities within Australia.

O'Callaghan, originally from Melbourne and married to a Solomon Islander, spoke of her own learning curve since moving to the Solomon Islands twenty years ago. Australians have a pyramid-shaped communications style: 'we start with the headlines, and then, if there is space, we explain why we have come to that conclusion'. With Solomon Islanders, as with many indigenous peoples, the pyramid was inverted, and it takes time – sometimes days – before the heart of the matter is reached. 'It's all about building a context' she said. Australians frequently didn't give enough space to really understand.

At the same forum, leading Muslim commentator Waleed Aly spoke of the need to overcome our ego-centricity if we were to live with diversity. 'Most of us, if we are really honest, believe the world would be a better place if only everybody else was just like me'. This assumption made us 'hard-wired for conflict'. An example of this was the attempt to introduce American-style secular democracy in Iraq. This form of government evolved as a result of European struggles to free themselves from the tyranny of religion and religious wars. 'Most people in the Middle East are conditioned by a different history where secular regimes have been the oppressors and religion is seen as liberation.'

Asked if he thought the Australian Government would 'play the fear card' on Muslims at the next election, Aly said he thought it was already happening but that we needed to look beyond the next election and work to overcome fear over the next 20 years. 'The best way I know to overcome prejudice is one-on-one conversations. There's only about 300,000 Muslims in Australia. That's not enough to go around.'

The conference continues until Tuesday 16th, exploring issues of living with cultural diversity, resolving historical divisions and dealing with corruption as an underlying factor in many tensions between neighbours.