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Paul Bongiorno: Now the Queen is laid to rest, it’s time to right historic wrongs

Australia will face up to reconciliation in coming days and weeks, Paul Bongiorno writes.

Australia will face up to reconciliation in coming days and weeks, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: Getty

Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Special Envoy for Reconciliation Pat Dodson are on a reset mission to the United Nations in New York, which has been interrupted by the death of the Queen.

Senator Wong was due to address the UN General Assembly at the weekend, but that was postponed with so many key leaders absent in London for the royal obsequies.

But in many ways the disruption has only served to highlight the urgency of Wong and Dodson’s task: To communicate the biggest development in Australia’s Indigenous relations in decades.

They are there to spell out what the Albanese government means when it talks of having a First Nations foreign policy based on righting a historic wrong.

Patrick Dodson

Special envoy for Reconciliation Patrick Dodson.

In a real sense the end of the Queen’s record 70 years on the throne has ensured a warts-and-all assessment of our brutal post-colonial past.

Whatever the injustice of Captain Cook’s refusal to acknowledge the unceded sovereignty of the First Nations people to the Australian continent, the failure to address it in the 120 years since Federation and repression of these peoples continues to have profound implications for our reputation, security and prosperity.

This is a point made very strongly by strategic analyst Huon Curtis in The Sydney Morning Herald.

He says we have to demonstrate that we are facing up to a shared damning truth with other colonial nations that we have trashed the human rights of our Indigenous people – and continue to do so by withholding constitutional respect and recognition.

Not mere words, but an acceptance of the claim First Nations people have to uniquely participate in the affairs of the contemporary nation.

On the eve of the funeral the Prime Minister gave an interview to the BBC where he again made constitutional recognition – through implementing the full Uluru Statement process – his priority for this term.

He did this while at the same time acknowledging we share much with Britain emphasising the rule of law and “commitment to human rights”.

PM Anthony Albanese is adamant about implementing the full Uluru Statement process. Photo: AAP

But it is precisely here that Australia is so vulnerable to charges of rank hypocrisy – charges regularly made by China when we attack Beijing’s record.

Our treatment of Aboriginal Australians has frequently been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur – the Northern Territory Intervention a notorious example.

Our High Court has twice upheld that “unlawful non-citizens” can be held indefinitely in detention, even in hell-hole camps offshore.

We accuse Chinese courts of doing the bidding of an autocratic government while at the same time we have no bill of human rights checking our legislators or courts.

Albanese, like his predecessors in the job, did not blush when he told the BBC he wanted good relations with China but would always stand up for our democratic values and “the rule of law”.

As the Prime Minister was preparing to fly to London on Thursday, a book was launched at the National Library in Canberra that could usefully serve as a template for how Australia implements its First Nations foreign policy agenda.

The book chronicles the international development work for more than 40 years of Bill Armstrong, who was awarded the Order of Australia for “the provision of overseas aid relief through Australian Volunteers International and to fostering a greater understanding of different cultures and raising awareness of social justice and human rights issues”.

Its title Everything and Nothing sums up how he sees the role of a community development worker “being nothing in the background”, but without them you don’t have the formation of effective local leaders.

Armstrong says it’s essential that our government realises our security depends on Australians building and strengthening personal relationships with people around the region.

He regrets that recent government policy has “focused on contracting community organisations as service providers” for government aid programs, applying competition policy rather than encouraging co-operation.

Armstrong’s recent work with the domestic Indigenous organisation Community First Development builds on this template of respecting people, listening to them and working alongside them.

Applied as national policy with a guaranteed Voice, Armstrong is confident we would have a much better chance to “close the gap”.

Dr Curtis believes Labor’s broader commitments to Indigenous affairs also have wide policy implications.

For starters, in national security Australia “cannot rely on influence, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, without demonstrating its commitment to Indigenous rights at home and abroad”.

Penny Wong and Patrick Dodson have got the message, they will be hoping their interlocutors at the United Nations can be convinced.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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