Long Walk over, longer journey ahead

December 04, 2004

AFTER walking hundreds of kilometres to make it happen, football legend Michael Long finally met the Prime Minister yesterday, symbolising a new era of engagement between John Howard's Government and an Aboriginal leadership emerging from years of bitter alienation.

The Parliament House meeting was attended, at Long's insistence, by Aboriginal leaders Pat and Mick Dodson, bringing Mr Howard together with three of his fiercest indigenous critics.

It did not begin with a hug, as Long had hoped, and the Prime Minister gave no ground on his social reform agenda. But it ended, after more than an hour, with a handshake and a commitment to talk again - enough for Long to say: "Obviously the walk has ended, but the journey of the nation has begun."

Three years ago, Long called Mr Howard a "cold-hearted prick" for suggesting the stolen generations was a myth. Mick Dodson has called the Howard Government "a Government of utter black-bashing". Pat Dodson recently described the Government's approach to welfare reform as "fascism gone mad".

But at the end of the Long meeting, there were signs of a thaw. Mick Dodson said he believed there was a "genuine desire" on the part of Aboriginal leaders and the Government to tackle indigenous social and economic problems together. Pat Dodson called it "a real opportunity for us and for the Government and for the nation". A spokesman for Mr Howard described the meeting as "worthwhile".

At the beginning of his quixotic journey from Melbourne to talk to Mr Howard, Long spoke of a laying down of spears and guns. Asked what his Long Walk had achieved, the former AFL champion laughed and said: "I've got sore feet."

He said he was "overawed" and "reassured" by the support he received along the way.

He said the state of Aboriginal Australia was everyone's problem, everyone's disaster.

The meeting, at which Long offered to take Mr Howard to remote Aboriginal communities, where he would be "embraced", ranged over issues of health, education, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.

The differences between Mr Howard and the Dodson brothers - between "practical reconciliation" and the so-called "rights agenda" - was raised, but it was not allowed to overshadow common ground on Aboriginal suffering and the need to build real economies in Aboriginal communities.

"There's a lot of common ground, a lot of fruitful ground for collaboration," Pat Dodson said afterwards. But he warned: "There's no short-term fix here. This is going to take a generation."

Mr Dodson said the Prime Minister had clarified how he saw the Government's policy of mutual obligation working in indigenous communities.

Under tough new measures, indigenous parents could be punished financially for failing to keep their children clean or send them to school, by linking welfare payments to behavioural requirements. "We don't want to see mutual obligation as a principle, or as a concept, trivialised by some of the stupidity that is associated with those contracts -- like telling people to wash their kids' faces twice a day," Mr Dodson told The Weekend Australian.

In Melbourne, outgoing ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark, no longer regarded as a credible voice in indigenous affairs, gatecrashed a meeting of indigenous affairs ministers, where he was cold-shouldered by federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone.

Senator Vanstone described Long's meeting with the Prime Minister as "fruitful", although she said he need not have walked to Canberra when he could have flown there four times a year as a member of the Government's new National Indigenous Council.