Noel Turnbull, founder of Turnbull Fox Phillips and leading PR consultant, writes:

PR programs are unlikely to solve the problems caused by stealing the land, children, culture and pride of Indigenous Australians – particularly when many PRs and propagandists have been complicit in shaping the racist attitudes which compound the problems.

From the 19th century, most communications about indigenous Australians have worsened, not improved, the situation. There’s the Australian Natives Association campaign which redefined the concept of “native”; the mid-20th century racial stereotyping in the marketing, artifacts and images used ironically today by Destiny Deacon; the campaign to extinguish native title; and the propagation of the myths of the axis of denial in the Howard Government, think tanks and the Murdoch media. On the positive side, moreover, some of the most successful programs (such as those of Rio Tinto, ANZ, Woolworths, Boston Consulting Group and various community efforts) seem to have worked best when they have been promoted least.

So what is to be done? Perhaps a few modest proposals might help. At the highest strategic level the issue needs to be re-framed by redefining what is unique and special about Australia. This would create a new national narrative in which Lake Mungo and Dreamtime stories assume the significance in education, politics and community commemoration and celebration that the far less important Gallipoli does.

At the simplest practical level, what about a lobbying campaign to reverse the result of the Michael Kroger commercial galleries’ campaign to deprive indigenous artists of the opportunity to achieve greater economic benefits from art resales? And, in between, some ruthless promotion of soundbites around positives such as the fact that a greater proportion of Indigenous Australians are teetotallers than are non-Indigenous Australians would help counter propaganda from the other side. More consultancy and corporate staff could do pro-bono work to promote successes such as Rumbalara in Victoria, and more companies adopting more far-reaching community social responsibility programs in the field would also be useful.

But these are all only modest proposals – none of them with quite the same positive impact as campaigning at the next election to get rid of the Federal Government and its Swiftian Modest Proposals.

Jackie Huggins, Deputy Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland, responds:

Noel is right that no PR campaign will solve the legacy of colonisation and its aftermath. But that doesn’t mean every sector of the Australian community shouldn’t use every tool at its disposal to do what’s right for today.

It’s also true that negative stereotyping of Indigenous Australians is continually reinforced by politicians and commentators who describe us and our culture in terms of the most abhorrent behaviour of our most damaged citizens.

Noel makes a range of relevant suggestions about how to combat the effect of what can only be described as long term, systemic racism. In particular, I’m attracted to his ideas about “redefining what’s special about Australia”, and more engagement from corporates.

If only every Australian could participate in the Garma Festival in North East Arnhem Land or Rhoda Roberts’s Dreaming Festival at Woodford. You can’t help but take out of those experiences an enormous pride in Australia’s Indigenous heritage. As I often remind students, “white Australia has a black history”. My involvement in the recent national history summit gave me great hope that Australian kids will soon be learning about Indigenous history as part of the national story – this will enrich the whole community.

In many ways, corporate Australia is ahead of government in coming up with innovative ways of partnering with Indigenous communities for the benefit of everyone. Private enterprise recognises there’s an economic case for this as well as a moral case. Find examples (you may decide you can do something yourself) here.

As for the next federal election, anyone interested in reconciliation knows that it’s essential to keep the politics out of Indigenous affairs (inevitably it polarises people) – the only way to get the consistent, long term, properly resourced action we need is on a bipartisan basis.

Peter Fray

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