Reconciliation Week 2017

01 Jun 2017

Welcome to Reconciliation Week for 2017. Suitably themed; “Let’s take the next steps”

So, friends, what does Reconciliation mean to you?

The Macquarie Dictionary suggests;
1. The settling of a lingering dispute, grievance, etc., held by one group or society against another.
2. Roman Catholic Church a sacramental rite involving a declaration of sins in order to obtain absolution, usually on condition of an act of penance, (atonement, amends, repentance).
The final line in this definition is suggestive that we, the invaders of this land, are required to make amends, indicates that a wrong has been done.

Therefore the use of the word ‘reconciliation’ evokes feelings within me of a wrongdoing. One for which I felt it necessary to read and learn about, to try and appreciate and dare I say, understand as best I can. If I didn’t do this, how could I have a conversation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Australia’s first people about their history? It simply wouldn’t be possible.

Fear of the unknown breed’s discrimination. I fear that too many Australians are unaware of the atrocities, massacres and complete deprivation of existence brought upon the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this land. 

Why is this?

What are we afraid of learning?

I note that for the first time next year HSC students will learn about pre 1788 Aboriginal History in the same way they are taught ancient Greek and Roman history. I suggest this is way overdue. As was the decision to only introduce Aboriginal Studies into the syllabus in 2011. Why did this take so long?

At long last students will be able to learn of the recent history, of significant Aboriginal Australians who have shaped our nation, learn of the stolen generation, deaths in custody, MABO, the referendum, etc. However the combining of recent history with the pre 1788 elements will allow further exploration of a culture almost completely wiped out.

I quote from Paul Keating’s speech delivered in Redfern Park December 1992 and will continue to do so throughout as I feel he encapsulates and identifies much of what Australia should be working towards, albeit 25 years on.  

“It begins, I think, with that 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. 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. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, 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 were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

Down the years, there has been no shortage of guilt, but it has not produced the responses we need. Guilt is not a very constructive emotion. I think what we need to do is open our hearts a bit. All of us”.

However that speech was made 25 years ago. The convention in the Northern Territory last week brought a new and different message. Constitutional Lawyer Megan David who played a key role in the convention said “the mob overwhelmingly rejected symbolism or a statement of acknowledgment in the constitution, not to seek ‘recognition’ but ‘reform’ that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to participate fully and actively in the life of the Australian state”. The report continues; “In 1967 we were counted; in 2017 we seek to be heard” was the overwhelming declaration by about 250 delegates just last Friday in the Northern Territory.

This year as we acknowledge Reconciliation Week, the theme of which is “Let’s take the next steps” we should note that it is especially significant for two reasons.

1.    It’s been 50 years since the 1967 referendum that made history.

Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them. However it took just on 10 years to get the Federal Government to agree to hold a referendum and then only after 15 months of petitions being presented in the Parliament on every single sitting day. Only then were Aboriginal and Torres Strait people seen as human beings. As noted by Jack Horner, a member of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship who worked in the tally room on that fateful night in 1967, “this was a triumph of an appeal to the sense of justice”. Although the referendum may have failed politically, historically it was and remains a triumph of the human spirit that continues to inspire generations of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people alike.

The second significant reason to note is that it has been;

2.    25 years MABO decision.

Again from Paul Keating;

“By doing away with the bizarre conceit that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans, Mabo establishes a fundamental truth and lays the basis for justice.

Mabo is an historic decision - it was an historic turning point, the basis of a new relationship between indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians. The message should be that there is 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 to include indigenous Australians.

It might help us if we non-Aboriginal Australians imagined ourselves dispossessed of land we had lived on for fifty thousand years - and then imagined ourselves told that it had never been ours. Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight”.

The suffering of yesterday is undeniably apparent today. 

Again as noted at the convention last week; “Proportionally Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most incarcerated people on the planet, our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates, and our youth languish in detention in obscene number. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness”.

Paul Keating’s words again ring true today as they did 25 years ago; “It, (the convention) comes at a time when we have committed ourselves to succeeding in the test which so far we have always failed. Because, in truth, we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia - the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people”.

We have much work to do.

It with optimism that I hope the findings coming from the convention last week will allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a voice directly to government. Not tokenistic acknowledgement in a constitution but an opportunity to be not only heard but genuinely listened to.

Ever so gradually we are learning how to see Australia through Aboriginal eyes, beginning to recognise the wisdom contained in their epic story. I think we are beginning to see how much we owe the indigenous Australians and how much we have lost by living so apart.