Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

2000 - Walk Across the Bridge
by Mark McKenna
Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Walk for Reconciliation.

S ydney. Late spring, 2000. On a clear, cold, windy Sunday morning, more than 250,000 Australians walked south across Sydney Harbour Bridge to Darling Harbour in support of reconciliation. At first, organisers thought they might get a few hundred people to march. But when they saw the packed trains heading north across the bridge, and the thousands walking towards the bridge from North Sydney station, they realised that they were witnessing something momentous.

People of all ages and backgrounds walked side by side. Some carried Aboriginal or Australian flags. There were former prime ministers, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke; members of the Stolen Generations, and proud campaigners for Indigenous rights like Faith Bandler and Koiki Mabo; political leaders such as the New South Wales premier, Bob Carr, and his Liberal and National party counterparts; and Federal cabinet members Philip Ruddock (minister for multicultural affairs, and minister assisting the prime minister for reconciliation) and John Herron (minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs).

Above the steady stream of walkers, which would continue for six hours, a small plane left a white trail of letters in the sky—‘SORRY’—as Yothu Yindi’s anthem ‘Treaty’ boomed from speakers carried by supporters in the crowd.

Rivalled only by the protests held in February 2003 against Australia’s participation in the Iraq War, the walk across the bridge was one of the largest ever public demonstrations in Australia’s history. By the time thousands more had walked in cities and towns across the country in the weeks that followed, almost one million Australians had expressed their support for reconciliation.

One of the leaders of the walk in Sydney was Dr Evelyn Scott who, in 1997, had succeeded Yawuru elder Pat Dodson as chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR). Established in September 1991 by the Hawke government with cross-party support, CAR had planned the bridge walk from 1995. It was imagined as the culmination of the council’s work on reconciliation, which would conclude before the centenary of Federation in 2001.

Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Walk for Reconciliation.
At Sydney Opera House, on 27 May, the day before the walk across the bridge, CAR held ‘Corroboree 2000’ to mark the end of its decade-long mission. It was here, at this official gathering of Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders, that the council presented Prime Minister John Howard and the nation with two documents: the ‘Australian Declaration towards Reconciliation’ and the ‘Roadmap for Reconciliation.’

Contrary to one of the key recommendations in the Bringing Them Home report (1997), Howard had steadfastly refused to apologise to the members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants. As he told parliament in 1998, ‘it is the view of my Government that a formal national apology of the type sought by others is not appropriate.’

Unlike his treasurer, Peter Costello, who would walk in the Melbourne march for reconciliation, Howard chose not to take part in the Sydney bridge walk. Although many Indigenous leaders interpreted the large turnout in Sydney as support for a treaty, Howard rejected this, arguing that ‘a treaty … implies two nations.’ ‘I don’t think many Australians like that,’ he said. Nor did he endorse the wording of the ‘Declaration towards Reconciliation’ he had received at the Sydney Opera House, which included the following apology:

As we walk the journey of healing, one part of the nation apologises and expresses its sorrow and sincere regret for the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apologies and forgives.

Among the thousands who walked across the Harbour Bridge in May 2000, there were undoubtedly many reasons for attending. But the overwhelming expression of support for reconciliation would lodge permanently in the nation’s memory. So too would the simple act of walking, which became one of the most powerful metaphors employed by Indigenous leaders when seeking support from their fellow Australians.

In October 1992, CAR explained that the process of reconciliation ‘involves all of us walking together to find a better path to the future of this nation.’ In May 2017, the concluding words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart invited Australians ‘to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’


left arrow 1992: The Redfern Park Speech
2007: John Howard's Commitment right arrow