Truth-telling Without the Voice? There is a Way Forward

The Uluru Statement from the Heart advocates for ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’ to redefine the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous peoples. However, the recent referendum defeat exposed significant gaps in understanding, both of history and constitutional mechanisms. Professor Heidi Norman and Dr Anne Maree Payne’s new research shows us that truth-telling is more vital than ever on the path to recognition and reconciliation.

Our recent research, Coming to terms with the past? Identifying barriers and enablers to truth-telling and strategies to promote historical acceptance finds that while truth-telling is an everyday activity for many First Nations people, non-Indigenous Australians are unsure about what their role in truth-telling might be.

The 2022 Australian Reconciliation Barometer identified that only 6% of non-Indigenous respondents had participated in a local truth-telling activity in the previous12 months, compared to 43% of First Nations respondents.

This indicates a gap between First Nations peoples’ calls for truth-telling as an essential part of transforming the future relationship between them and non-Indigenous Australians, and non-Indigenous people’s knowledge about and interest in participating in truth-telling. It might also indicate a lack of opportunity to participate in truth-telling activities.


We broadly defined truth-telling as activities or processes that seek to recognise or engage with a fuller account of Australia’s history and its ongoing legacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Three dominant understandings emerged from the research, with a fourth category capturing our research findings on the ‘how to’ of truth-telling:

Truth-telling to achieve justice for First Nations people: Usually undertaken on a larger scale and informed by human rights frameworks to address systemic injustice at an institutional level. Examples include the Bringing Them Home Report and the Yorrook Justice Commission.

Truth-telling to promote reconciliation and healing: Occurs mostly at the local and community level under the understanding that relationships and dialogue can create change. Less likely to be tied to formal outcomes or reparations. Examples include memorials, remembrance and reconciliation events.

Truth-telling to challenge and change historical understanding: Draws on a wide array of evidence to tell a richer story of history to help come to terms with the past’s legacies and what that means to live in Australia today. Acknowledges that First Nations histories extend beyond the 200-plus years of colonisation to many thousands of generations.

Truth-telling practice: A vital step where more work is needed. The strong consensus from our research participants was that truth-telling must be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. It should engage with First Nations perspectives; recognise the ongoing impacts of the past on First Nations people’s lives today; be ongoing, not a ‘one-off’ event; and aim to achieve change, whether at an attitudinal, institutional or structural level.

While acknowledging the interconnections between these categories, this framework is useful to think about the wide range of initiatives and events currently taking place under the umbrella of ‘truth-telling’. It also helps to distinguish what cannot meaningfully be described as truth-telling.

Benefits of truth-telling

First Nations and non-Indigenous people agreed that the main benefits of truth-telling is developing a shared understanding of Australian history; as well as delivering healing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and improving relationships between First Nations and non-Indigenous peoples.

All respondents agreed that truth- telling should involve First Nations people’s perspectives on the past being presented and a large majority agreed that truth-telling should recognise the diversity of First Nations peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were highly committed to truth-telling, although less likely than non-Indigenous people to agree that truth-telling might lead to justice for First Nations peoples.

First Nations respondents identified a range of motivations for participating in truth-telling and were more interested in truth-telling about their local community (87%) than non- Indigenous people (67%). 89% were motivated to participate to share their own personal or family history or perspective, compared to only 25% of non-Indigenous respondents.

Barriers to truth-telling

Trauma and the need for cultural safety in truth-telling were significant concerns for First Nations people, who were also significantly more likely to express concerns that truth- telling might emphasise divisions and differences between First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians. They were also concerned that participants in truth-telling might question or challenge the accuracy of perspectives shared.

Non-Indigenous respondents indicated significant uncertainty about how to participate in truth-telling, despite identifying as being highly aware of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and truth-telling. 38% of non-Indigenous respondents indicated that this would be a barrier to their participation and 26% said they were neutral or unsure. In contrast, only 12% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents said a lack of knowledge about how to get involved might prevent their participation in truth-telling.

There was a degree of uncertainty among non-Indigenous people about what truth-telling involves. Others identified a lack of opportunity to participate in truth-telling.

These findings highlight that community- based truth-telling initiatives need to include public education about what truth-telling encompasses, as well as practical information about where, when and how truth-telling will be taking place.

Contested truths

Truth-telling is not a universal panacea and as historian Mark McKenna commented in the wake of the Voice referendum, ‘telling the truth is one thing, hearing the truth and taking it in is something else entirely.’

Our research highlights the need for Australians to do more to enable meaningful participation in truth-telling, which must be realistic about its benefits and limits and recognise the diversity among and between First Nations and non-Indigenous participants. It must also acknowledge systemic disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, address cultural safety concerns and provide clear protocols for participants.

Finally, it should build truth-telling and truth-listening capacity among both First Nations and non-Indigenous participants, recognise that truth-telling may involve difficult emotions and the potential for conflict, and have strategies in place to manage these and, perhaps most importantly, maintain hope for a better future.

Read the full report: Coming to terms with the past?

This article was first published on The Conversation. To read more, go to:

This article is from the 51st edition of Reconciliation News. Read the rest of the issue.

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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