'The journey of the nation has begun'

Ten years ago, Aboriginal Australian Michael Long was a champion in Australia’s most popular winter sport—Australian Rules football. In that sports-mad country, Long was a universally popular hero because of his exploits on the football field.

Last week, Long was back in the limelight, trekking 400km to meet with newly re-elected Australian Prime Minister John Howard about the deplorable state of Aboriginal affairs in his country.

A month ago, Long declared he would walk from Melbourne to Australia’s capital, Canberra—a distance of about 750km—to meet with Howard.

Four hundred kilometres into the walk, the prime minister agreed to a meeting with Long, which took place in Canberra last Friday.

Long, whose feet were swathed in bandages after his marathon walk, was accompanied to his meeting with Howard by two respected Aboriginal leaders, Patrick Dodson and Noel Pearson.

“Obviously the walk has ended, but the journey of the nation has begun,” Long said after his 75-minute meeting with Howard.

He urged Howard to visit Aboriginal communities.

“Hopefully he can visit indigenous communities and see the complexities and challenges we face now and into the future,” Long said.

Aboriginal Australians lag behind white Australia in education, health and income standards. The life expectancy of Aboriginal males is 56 years, but 75 for white Australians. For women, the figures are 63 years for Aborigines and 80 years for whites. Alcoholism is rife in many Aboriginal communities, as is violence. 

Howard, who has angered many Aboriginal and white Australians over his refusal to formally apologise for white Australia’s long history of abuse of Aboriginal people, told the media after his meeting with Long that he wants to allow Aboriginal communities to solve social and economic ills by themselves.

“Every community is a little different and we have to trust local indigenous communities to take decisions that are in their own, long-term best interests,” Howard said over the weekend.

The prime minister supports alcohol bans and curfews in communities. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that his government will support any decisions taken along those lines by Aboriginal leaders and communities.

Howard is also keen to extend the concept of mutual obligation—where welfare recipients undertake work and training in exchange for benefits—to Aboriginal people. Aboriginal leaders Pearson and Dodson also support that approach.

Despite the strained relationship that has existed between Howard and Aboriginal leaders since 1996 when the Howard government was elected to office, Dodson said: “We want to reopen the dialogue with the prime minister.

“Such a dialogue would be about clarification and trying to find common ground with him in the social arena. We are prepared to move beyond the past. We want to put our people first, not ourselves.”

Long’s meeting with Howard came as violence against Aboriginal people appeared to be escalating in the state of Queensland.

On Palm Island, off Queensland’s north coast, the death of a 36-year-old Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee—who died while in police custody last month—sparked a violent riot. 

Doomadgee was arrested for alleged drunkenness and public nuisance. An autopsy found that he had sustained broken ribs and a ruptured liver shortly before he died. There is some evidence of a struggle between Doomadgee and a police officer before Doomadgee’s death.

Last week, Queensland police arrested two men who alleged dragged an Aboriginal youth by a noose around his neck in the small town of Goondiwindi.

And this week, an Aboriginal leader in the Queensland town of Toowoomba, Bert Button, has alleged that three Aboriginal young people were bashed with fence palings by a group of young white men at a party last Friday night.

Greg Barns

Greg Barns

Greg Barns graduated BA LLB from Monash University in 1984. He was a member of the Victorian Bar where he practiced in criminal law from 1986-89 and has been a member of the Tasmanian Bar since 2003. Greg was chief of staff and senior adviser to a number of federal and state Liberal Party leaders and ministers from 1989-99. He is also the former National Chair of the Australian Republican Movement and a director of human rights group, Rights Australia. Greg has written three books on Australian politics, is a Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, and a member of the Australian Defence Lawyers Alliance. Read more from Greg Barns

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