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Who were the real winners from the great Harbour Bridge walk for Corroboree 2000?

Affluent Australians showed the world how tolerant we really are while John Howard apparently got the message loud and clear that reconciliation and the sorry word enjoy vast support in the electorate.

Some Aboriginal walkers were brought to tears by the liberating feeling of acceptance that surrounded them; many on the Sydney Harbour Bridge felt they were fringe dwellers no longer.

But there are three clear winners from the weekend’s staged assemblies of black and white Australians: John Howard, the International Olympics Committee, and the white marchers themselves.

The walk effectively concealed the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s failure to achieve its stated goals, and of course, aboriginal Australians are still waiting for the justice and equity many require for reconciliation to mean much in their lives.

In fact the walk was the celebration of victory by the real winners of reconciliation: white Australians.

It is they who have taken the opportunity to rid themselves of what Henry Reynolds calls “this whispering in our hearts”: the denied knowledge that you personally are the beneficiary from the dispossession of Aboriginal people. By saying sorry and walking for reconciliation we, white Australians, can again be proud to call ourselves Australian.

This is what white people wanted in 1988 when massive Aboriginal protests marred Bicentennial celebrations.

Corroboree 2000’s vital, unstated motive was fear of a repeat performance this year. Olympic organizers and the federal government hope that it will be sufficient to avert a credible aboriginal protest campaign at the Olympics.

The weekend’s symbolism, however, seems pale when there is no treaty, no compensation for the stolen generation, and no formal national apology.

Over the last five years the Commonwealth has cut spending on Aboriginal programs in every budget. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs typifies the arrogance and ignorance of a mission manager whose “visits” to Aboriginal communities are conducted from the back of a moving limo with windows wound up.

This awareness of the dim state of Australian policy provided a further motive for marchers, many of whom hailed for the nearby, wealthy suburbs to the north of Sydney’s main bridge.

They will be in receipt of ample humiliating questions from friends, relatives and business associates in other countries about the nature of racism in Australia.

Thousands of these people lined up at the northern and southern ends of the bridge on Sunday to get their pictures taken and so take home tangible evidence of their tolerance.

Only last month Sydney’s print media exploited the fears of these same people, with condemnation of the prospect of Aboriginal protests over the stolen generation and the “sorry” word.

The Daily Telegraph reported on page one that all sympathy for the stolen generation had been “incinerated” by Charles Perkins’ threats of an aboriginal campaign.

Piers Akerman in early April told alarmed readers that “Charles Perkins has revealed the true Olympic agenda of a minority of aborigines – an unprecedented campaign to denigrate Australia in the eyes of the international community.”

Barely a month later the same paper told its readers to join the walk for reconciliation.

Seem hypocritical? Hardly. The reconciliation walk was a positive photo opportunity literally teeming with international media.

Photographers and camera operators mobbed Aboriginal kids. Everyone got images of black and white together. Should blacks protest during the Olympics, media images of Corroboree 2000 will be published and broadcast again to disprove any claims of ongoing racism.

Corroboree 2000 did make a difference. You only had to be there and see the smiles on every Aboriginal face to know that. The fringe dwellers came in from the cold and were welcomed by white Australians with open arms.

For a race of people used to “looking rejection in the eye” (Warumpi Band) they saw only friendly smiling faces just wanting to know them. Some Aboriginal marchers reported that this was truly a personal turning point, a day they will remember with affection for the rest of their lives.

This is no small victory. Aboriginal Australia desperately needed a signal that Howard and Herron did not represent the views of white Australia if the reconciliation process was to proceed.

But the real test of our tolerance is yet to come. White Australia has much ground to make up in respect of its treatment of its indigineous citizens, even to catch up with other former British colonies.

But large questions remain. Does widespread support for reconciliation mean widespread support for a treaty or compensation for the stolen children?

How would we react if 100,000 Aboriginal people marched over the bridge? Would the media urge white people to join in and “vote with your Feet” as The Sun Herald exhorted, or would the police line the route armed with batons and riot gear “just in case”?

The community seems to have finally decided that reconciliation is important but there is not yet any substance behind the words. So far reconciliation has helped restore our tattered international reputation without delivering anything tangible for Aboriginal Australians.

Peter Fray

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