Indigenous leaders have been begging for committed intervention for years and years and years. Finally it happens and it is truly, utterly devastating.

White Australia can now waste another decade working out ways to stop black fellas harming black fellas. And we’ll never have to address the issue of how white fellas harmed black fellas, and how we continue to. Yes, black fellas are harming black fellas. It is disgraceful, it must be stopped and Howard’s strategy is a very good start. But if that’s where the debate ends, that’s also where reconciliation will end, and the root cause will remain unaddressed.

Howard’s strategy relieves all pressure for ordinary Australians to play our part. “It’s the drunk black fellas’ fault. The police and the government will fix it.” Ordinary Australians are off the hook again.

This is the biggest, most far-reaching movement on indigenous issues I can remember in my lifetime. The announcement itself, the reports which were its catalyst, the media interest prior to and subsequent to the PM’s announcement, and the water-cooler talk among ordinary Australians, all adds up to more talk and more action on indigenous issues than I have ever seen.

But what’s the talk about? Australia finally stands up and acts, and what’s it all about? Black fellas harming black fellas. What – we’re told – is the cause of this scourge? Drunk black fellas. Irresponsible black fellas. Criminal black fellas.

yet, the root cause of this scourge is not drunk black fellas. The root cause of this scourge is whatever caused black fellas to get drunk in the first place.

And guess what? They’re the same reasons that throughout history have caused serious dysfunction among all oppressed peoples: violent suppression; political and personal disempowerment; neglect of health; lack of education; forced removal from family; forced removal from home and homeland; subjugation of spirituality and/or religious beliefs.

Some will say this is bleeding-heart black-armband theory. But if you were born into a world with seven generations of the oppression listed above, you too would struggle, and you’d hope to God someone put on a black armband to help you.

While I don’t pretend the picture was all rosy until white Australians arrived, Indigenous people lived largely peaceful lives, they lived empowered lives, they lived healthy lives, they were educated about their world, they were cared for in their family unit, and they were deeply connected to their home.

Throughout history, when one group of people is deprived of these basic human rights by another group of people, the oppressed people will almost inevitably suffer ills and dysfunction. And until the wrongs are righted, their descendants will suffer these same ills. No one moves on until amends are made. Neither the violated, nor the violator. Until the oppressor acknowledges the error in the oppression, the oppressed will continue to feel that oppression.

That is why we need to say sorry. But more importantly, it’s why we need to be sorry.

Indigenous Australians need to know that white Australians feel for them. They need to know white Australians are on their side, that we care for them, that we feel bad about what happened. That we regret it. That we know they’re the victim. We don’t have to blame ourselves, but we can’t blame them.

While there is some conjecture about this, it is largely agreed that until white Australia arrived black fellas were not drunkards (of course), rapists or child s-x offenders in any greater numbers than in any other human society.

White Australia created this problem, however indirectly. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. It’s not my fault. It’s not yours. But it’s our responsibility.

Because we failed to make amends then, we’re forced to act drastically now. It should never have come to this. There is a price to pay for the actions of our forefathers. There’s always a price to pay for mistakes. That price, however, is not nearly as great as the price paid by the generations of Indigenous people who have already lived and died without ever knowing the empowerment, the health, the freedom, the education, the home, the security or the childhood the rest of us take for granted.

If we simply leave this as a law and order issue, without also making it a hearts and minds issue, we will never solve the true cause of this devastating scourge.

We are capable of change. Last year we didn’t care about climate change. This year we do. I only hope this announcement doesn’t relieve white Australia of its need to care just as much about Indigenous issues.

We are Australian. We are compassionate. We are good people. Yes we should say sorry. But more importantly, we should be sorry.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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