The road to reconciliation

4 March 2021 | Posted In: #138 Autumn 2021, Aboriginal Issues, Archive,

The 2021 reconciliation report examines the progress we have made so far, while pointing the way forward toward unity.

The demand for reconciliation in Australia is as old as its European colonisation. Since the first Europeans arrived on Australia’s shores and commenced an unequal, uneasy, and often violent relationship with the continent’s hundreds of distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our shared history has seen calls for, and denials of, reconciliation and justice.

From the earliest days of the British colonies there were demands from a few lonely voices to treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultural protocols with respect. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples — despite the dispossession, violence, and repressive racist policies they endured — have shown a generosity towards the new arrivals; and since 1788 have repeatedly called for reconciliation and a coming together.

Progress has been slow, but in the past few decades Australia has made advances towards the goal of a reconciled nation. But how do we define what Australian reconciliation is, and how will we will know when it has been achieved? By attempting to capture the mood of the country, the Australian Reconciliation Barometer aims to do just that.

So where we are right now? According to the 2020 ARB, 79 percent of Australians in the broader community agree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are important to Australia’s national identity. And the proportion of Australians in the general community who believe in the possibility of national unity remains optimistically high, at 72 percent. “We see greater support for reconciliation from the Australian people than ever before,” says Reconciliation Australia CEO, Karen Mundine. Furthermore, 93 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also support the concept of unity.

Drawing on interviews with key leaders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities, the 2021 State of Reconciliation report also attempts to review how far along the road to reconciliation the country is. While the report acknowledges that there have been some improvements in how the First Nations perceive the relationship between non-Indigenous Australians and themselves, it also lays bare the uncomfortable truth that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experience of racism “remains consistently and unacceptably high”.

Before reconciliation can be achieved, says Reconciliation Australia’s inaugural chairperson Shelley Reys, our nation’s collective racism has to be confronted head on. “Now is the time to take a deeply personal journey and have conversations.” Bravery, says Reys, will be the change agent. “Are you willing to challenge those you love despite the fear of losing their respect? Are you willing to risk social isolation or your popularity at the next dinner party because you’ve challenged a racist comment? Let’s take an unapologetic, brave stance on racism to propel us faster toward a reconciled nation.”

Encouragingly, there appears to exist an ever-increasing proportion of Australians who acknowledge racism and want to do something about it. Indeed, 43 percent of the broader community agree with the view that Australia remains a racist country. “Many more Australians now understand and acknowledge the impacts that British colonialism and the modern Australian state have had on our First Nations families and communities,” says Mundine.

Addressing the many justice issues that have been the subject of significant government inquiries and acting on findings and recommendations should be paramount in order to improve the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, government, and government institutions. “More broadly,” say the report’s authors, “overcoming racism must be a national priority.”

They call for a “zero-tolerance approach to racism”, backed by effective institutional and legislative settings, and supported by public education. “Australian institutions must be more active in calling out and condemning all racism both at the individual and systemic levels, including any racism in our parliaments. Workplaces, schools, and individuals should also consider how they can support a greater understanding of how unconscious bias can function, and how we can actively intervene, disrupt, and challenge racism.”

Although a broad consensus agrees that Australia has made some progress toward reconciliation, the report reveals a level of frustration at the slowness of that progress. There exists a clear view that politicians are lagging behind public opinion and “dragging the chain”. Many of the stakeholders interviewed for the report look to the lack of progress in relation to the Uluru Statement as an indicator our politicians are not keeping up with the community in progressing reconciliation. “There are signs of increasing impatience as to why this is not all fixed,” said one. Another commented: “In a broader sense the issue of reconciliation has been a positive story. In a political sense, though, we are seeing a bare minimum of support.”

That lack of support flies in the face of public opinion. In a 2019 Essential Poll, 79 percent of respondents backed the Uluru Statement and its call for constitutional recognition of First Nations people. Support for the Uluru Statement by some of Australia’s biggest companies — including BHP, UBS, KPMG, Qantas, Goldman Sachs, Citi Australia and Lendlease — is further evidence that politics needs to catch up.

The 2021 State of Reconciliation report outlines the five dimensions of reconciliation: race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity, unity, and historical acceptance. “The dimensions form the basis upon which we understand the reconciliation effort, track progress and identify areas of greater need,” says Mundine. “These dimensions are interdependent, meaning sustained progress towards reconciliation can only occur when advancements are made in every dimension.”

The report also lists the key actions needed to reach reconciliation: maintain legal protections against racism; support public campaigns against racism; provide public education on First Nations’ cultures and histories; reform mainstream service delivery and workplaces to promote cultural safety and improve accountability; and address the issues that impact the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and institutions — including over-incarceration, rates of family violence, and children in out-of-home care. “We are seeing examples of this substantive work with a number of partners coming out in support of the Uluru Statement and increasingly speaking up on issues important to First Peoples,” says Mundine. “For example, engaging in Indigenous-led initiatives such as justice reinvestment to reduce engagement with the criminal justice system. We are seeing it too in the level of community support.”

It is within local communities where reconciliation is lived and felt. One of the stakeholders interviewed for the report noted that, “It was an enormous grassroots movement in the early days with the local reconciliation action groups. Mums and dads of Australia came together to learn and to start to build relationships with Aboriginal people in their area.” Other respondents also pointed to the effectiveness of reconciliation in local communities and stressed the important role of local government in such a process.

There are many examples of community initiatives to draw from. The Mossman State School in Far North Queensland is currently teaching its students the local Aboriginal language, Yalanji, with great success. Fifty years ago, speaking Yalanji in the playground of this same school was a punishable misdemeanour, but today the Elders who experienced this repression of their mother tongue are working with teachers and education officials to bring their language to the broader community. In the small historic town of Braidwood in NSW, local non-Indigenous residents advocated for, funded, and erected a large tribute to the local Dhurga Yuin, acknowledging their ancient connection to local Country. Local Catholic school, St Bedes, is also running language classes in the local Dhurga language.

Supporting similar projects on a national scale, and ensuring our institutions are progressing the broader community’s understanding and pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is important to progressing unity. It is also an opportunity for the whole nation to forge a national identity that is uniquely Australian, of this continent, and inclusive.

But, say the report’s authors, more needs to be done. “It is imperative that governments engage in the partnership discussions and negotiations in good faith and act on the advice of those who know best how to address the issues that affect them.” And not just governments — corporations, the media, and educational institutions can all contribute to progressing reconciliation and supporting initiatives that promote First Peoples’ histories, cultures, and achievements. “This should become part of everyday business as a way of enhancing our national identity and celebrating the oldest living culture on the planet.”

This includes presenting a more truthful representation of Australia’s past. Just as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are missing from the Australian constitution, their occupation by the Europeans has also been airbrushed from history. “Too often,” say the report’s authors, “our history covers up the brutal nature of colonisation. All Australians need to understand a fuller account of our shared history and its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society post-colonisation — as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ contribution to the nation.” Most Australians, according to the ARB (83 percent), believe that education about our shared past is critical and agree that it’s important for Indigenous history to be taught in schools. “Action on [reconciliation] can only be realised by being truthful,” says Reys. “Truthful to ourselves and truth-telling.”

Many young Indigenous people are already taking the lead. “We have heard their voices demanding to be heard with a palpable sense of urgency,” says Reys. “They will be our leaders in decades to come and we, as a reconciliation community, have a duty now to help them reclaim their narrative.” Reys believes, that as a nation, the measure of our success in achieving reconciliation will be the position that those same young Indigenous people find themselves in years from now. “That is, a safe, equitable, equal and fair environment filled with prospect and hope.”

Source: Reconciliation Australia

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