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Prime Minister admits non-Aboriginal responsibility for destruction of Aboriginal culture and dispossession of Aboriginal land in his launch of the International Year for the World's Indigenous People at Redfern Park

ELLEN FANNING: In what's being hailed as the most significant statement on Aboriginal rights by any Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating has admitted responsibility for the destruction of Aboriginal culture and society. White Australia, he says, took away their traditional lands, brought disease, dispossessed children and practised discrimination and exclusion.

Well, Mr Keating delivered his speech at the launch of the International Year of Indigenous People in Sydney today, and it comes on the eve of Australia's first Aboriginal presentation to the United Nations. Mr Keating also announced that the non-indigenous community must stop feeling guilty about the past, and get on with building a new partnership. Desree Bissett and Rebecca Gorman joined the crowds at Redfern Park in Sydney, and they compiled this report.

GOUGH WHITLAM: Men and women of the Gurindji people: On this great day I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of the Australian people, all those who honour and love this great land we live in. I want to acknowledge that we Australians still have much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that have for so long been the loss of black Australians. I want to promise you that this act of restitution which we perform today will not stand alone.

PAUL KEATING: ... to Mabo which will .... in the past few months. Mabo is an historic decision; we can make it an historic turning point, the basis of a new relationship between indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians. The message should be that there's nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy ....

DESREE BISSETT: It's 17 years, and the message is essentially still the same. In 1975 it was the then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, returning ownership of the Gorinji land to its traditional owners. Today, 1992, it was Prime Minister Paul Keating launching the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples. His frank and honest speech is being hailed by some members of the Aboriginal community as the most important acknowledgment of Aboriginal rights by a Prime Minister.

PAUL KEATING: And as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us, the non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with an act of recognition, recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. We failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask: How would I feel if this was done to me?

DESREE BISSETT: At times the crowd at finally hearing an admission of guilt, and later I asked them if they thought his words were sincere.

UNIDENTIFIED: I don't think so, not the way I was looking at it, it wasn't. No, I don't think we ever get that way, you know.

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, personally, I thought it was a good speech, but we've been listening to the same old rhetoric for so long. Are they going to do anything about it?

DESREE BISSETT: Do you think with today and the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples starting up next year, do you think the average Australians are going to be more aware of Aboriginal culture?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah, I think so, especially now with the Aboriginal ... if they're not aware this year, well, they're never ever going to be aware, are they?

UNIDENTIFIED: This is our culture and people got to know about the culture and they will learn about us if they want to.

UNIDENTIFIED: I think it's actually a lot of hype at the moment. We haven't seen change in the last 200 years, or not significant changes, so I don't see how one day is going to change that. I mean, we won't see significant changes this year or next year or within the five years. White Australia, or non-Aboriginal Australia, has to sit down and really think about what they've done to Aboriginal people and acknowledge that fact - acknowledge that they've come along and destroyed cultures. They've destroyed whole ways of life. And, until they do that, there's not going to be any changes at all.

ELLEN FANNING: And this woman wasn't the only sceptic, as Rebecca Gorman discovered.

LYLE MUNRO: In actual fact, over Australia they've felt no guilt about what's gone on in this country for 200 years, and they still don't shoulder any guilt for what goes on in this country. You see, it's an Aboriginal problem. Whether the Prime Minister says it's their problem or not, you know, it's a well-known fact that it becomes an Aboriginal problem.

REBECCA GORMAN: Lyle Munro was part of the black power group which formed in the 70s to fight for self-determination. Without Government assistance they set up the Redfern Legal Centre, the Medical Service, the Aboriginal Housing Co-op, and the tent embassy in Canberra to fight for equal rights for Aboriginal people. And he still believes in one fundamental - that Aboriginal people must be the ones who govern their own lives.

LYLE MUNRO: We have particular rights here in this country. You know, the Government's got to recognise that we are the sovereign people. First and foremost, they have to recognise that we were the prior owners of the country.

REBECCA GORMAN: Well, Mr Keating recognised that on the stage today.

LYLE MUNRO: Well, it was a very gutsy speech by the Prime Minister, and I applaud him on that, but whether or not he's got the nous and whether or not he's got the people in power to be able to bring fruition his vision of what should, you know, go on with Aboriginal people - and let me say this, the reconciliation process is not necessarily the right process. That's accepted by Aboriginal people.

REBECCA GORMAN: Is it a step in the right direction?

LYLE MUNRO: No, it's not, because until such time as Aboriginal people have got the same economic power, the same political power as non-Aboriginal people, we're not in the position to sit down and talk constructively about things like treaties and about reconciliation.

REBECCA GORMAN: But where do you start?

LYLE MUNRO: Well, we start from the grass roots. We start by allowing Aboriginal people a political voice, a particular political voice that's governed by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people. The Government needs to know what Aboriginal people at all levels feel about the situation.

REBECCA GORMAN: But as Lyle Munro admits, his voice represents just one in a broad range. At today's launch, those varying opinions had a chance to be fully expressed, as dancers, musicians, both black and white leaders, and ordinary community members mixed it in the park, recognising that at least for the day and perhaps for next year, the culture and rights of indigenous people across the world will be at the forefront of community awareness.

ELLEN FANNING: Rebecca Gorman with Desree Bissett reporting there. And 1993 is designated the Year of Indigenous People by the United Nations.