Still seeking truth and justice in Australia’s reconciliation process

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The release of the State of Reconciliation in Australia report this month, 25 years after the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, is a clarion call to rethink our nation’s approach to reconciliation after more than two decades of stunted progress.

A generation on from the commencement of the formal reconciliation process, school leavers today have learned little more about the ancient history of this land, the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples or the brutal nature of colonisation and the frontier wars, than they ever did, despite this now finally being part of the Australian curriculum.

The ‘truth’ of Australia’s history remains largely invisible in our towns and communities. Our memorials, statues, street names and community celebrations largely reflect an Australia post-1788 – a whitewashed story – rather than honouring our ancient past, commemorating frontier wars and embracing the ongoing cultures of our First Peoples.

Eight years ago, we finally saw an apology to the stolen generations. Significant and long overdue. But where is the justice?

Aboriginal people and families are still seeking justice for stolen land, stolen children and stolen wages. Aboriginal families are still seeking justice for family members who have died in police custody.

In the State of Reconciliation in Australia report, Reconciliation Australia draws on international comparative research into reconciliation experiences in other countries to identify five key dimensions of reconciliation: race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity, unity, and historical acceptance. These dimensions provide a valuable framework for governments, business and the community to assess progress and priorities for a reconciled Australia.

The report highlights some positive steps in our nation’s reconciliation journey. The goodwill and sense that we do want to be united, coupled with the practical measures being taken in workplaces, are a strong foundation for accelerating our efforts.

The report also highlights that if we are to be a reconciled nation, we must make significant progress against all dimensions of reconciliation. Its findings show that Australia has developed a foundation for reconciliation, but one that is uneven across the five key dimensions.

Efforts to ‘close the gap’ and boost Indigenous employment – which have been the focus of the ‘practical reconciliation’ approach – have been undermined by our failure as a nation to address the truth and justice elements of the reconciliation process. These elements are connected with historical acceptance, institutional integrity and race relations.

In Victoria, we have taken important steps along the journey. However symbolic recognition measures – such as in the preamble to the Victorian Constitution, flying of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, and protocols acknowledging Traditional Owners – have not been met with enough meaningful action.

While Aboriginal people in Victoria have successfully fought for important mechanisms such as the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement and Traditional Owner Settlement Act, our failure to pay reparations for stolen children or stolen wages, deliver land justice, close the gap in life expectancy or prevent overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prison, shows we have much to do to make amends and achieve equity.

We now risk repeating the wrongs of the past and failing another generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To break these cycles, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be involved in decision making to develop comprehensive, preventative, long-term approaches to address these issues. Greater support for Aboriginal community-controlled services in these areas is the critical first step.

A major contributor to policy failure is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are left out of the decision-making process. Until we truly value and recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s right to self-determination – to participate in and make decisions about their social, cultural and economic development – we are doomed to fail.

Reconciliation is hard work and a long and winding road, as the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has acknowledged. The State of Reconciliation in Australia report calls on all of us committed to just and respectful relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians to continue the journey with renewed vigour, courage and commitment, and to honour the legacy and ongoing fight of Aboriginal civil rights activists in this country.

It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to actively commit to and participate in conversations and actions within our families, communities and workplaces that build awareness and understanding, challenge prejudice, and contribute to creating just and respectful relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.

Read more on VCOSS Voice – with thanks to Reconciliation Victoria

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