Australian Reconciliation Week: “Australians Are Ready To Come To Terms With Our History”

National Reconciliation Week is held annually between 27 May and 3 June in Australia. These dates were chosen as they commemorate both the 1967 Referendum and the 1992 Mabo ruling. Both are landmark cases for Indigenous rights as the former amended the Australian Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census for the first time as well as allowing the Commonwealth to create laws on their behalf. The latter passed the Native Title Act which recognized the rights to land of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people due to their unique connection with it. The week itself is part of a comprehensive process of truth-telling in regard to Australia’s colonial history. In doing so, it aims to promote more positive relations between broader Australia and Indigenous communities.

This year’s theme for the event is ‘Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage’ which aims to focus upon the race relations dimension of reconciliation and encourages all Australians to build relationships that are based on this foundation. The week sees numerous public events from lectures to the arts. These occasions aim to raise awareness that Australia has yet to reconcile with its colonial past and highlights its ongoing treatment and neglect of Indigenous communities.

The Australian Capital Territory’s Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Affairs, Rachel Stephen-Smith has stated that “not until we understand the impact of inter-generational trauma and the impact of institutional racism, that we’re really going to make a difference.” On their website, Reconciliation Australia has written: “Today 80% of Australians believe it is important to undertake formal truth-telling processes,” stating that “Australians are ready to come to terms with our history as a crucial step towards a unified future.”

National Reconciliation Week, which first began in 1996 by the not-for-profit group Reconciliation Australia, is a step in the right direction to help achieve this unified future. It allows the general public to interact with and hear about the experiences of Indigenous communities. However, it demonstrates the need for more education to occur within the country where Indigenous issues are so often overlooked and tucked away. Just recently, following the May federal elections, the position of Australian Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians will be held for the first time in Australian history by a person of Aboriginal descent, Ken Wyatt. This demonstrates the need for more Indigenous representation and voices in the policies that are affecting them. Therefore, it would be wise to reconsider the Uluru Statement, which calls for the establishment of a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution. It was first proposed in 2017, unfortunately to no avail. However, it would be a step in creating Makarrate, a Yolngu word which describes the process of conflict resolution, justice and peacemaking.

Colonization has caused significant and enduring damage to Indigenous communities. This is through policies enacted by both federal and state parliament that in the past, have racially targeted Indigenous Australians to make them feel excluded, segregated and discriminated against. A prime example of this is the Stolen Generation, originally a policy which aimed to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their families and instead be raised in church missions for the purpose of assimilation into ‘white society.’ These events and memories cause inter-generational trauma, a side effect of colonization due to the extreme levels of violence, loss of culture and land it has enforced over Indigenous groups. This trauma is prevalent and lasting, it is transmitted across generations and particularly affects the descendants of those who have endured conflict. It is expressed by first-generation survivors who have directly experienced or witnessed these events and due to unresolved suffering can then pass it to future generations. This is often through means such as parenting practices, behavioural problems, violence, harmful substance use and mental health issues. Consequently, supporting communities and raising cultural awareness can help bring an end to this anguish. By giving a voice to Indigenous communities, the healing process that is so desperately needed can begin.

Reconciliation is one of many practices that post-conflict societies seek out in order to heal and recreate peaceful relations. For Australia, this means reconciling with its colonial past and the treatment it forced upon Indigenous communities. National Reconciliation Week highlights this and demonstrates the need for further dialogue to continue between the Indigenous communities and the Australian public. More needs to be done, and higher levels of representation need to be implemented for Indigenous voices to create and be a part of the policies that will pave the path for a more unified Australia.

Isha Tembe