It is with these three reports in mind that I reflect on where we find ourselves on 26 January 2021 – now 233 years since European colonisation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ dispossession began.
To start with, it is clear that the world takes note of our failure to reconcile our past and give a fair shake to First Nations Peoples across Australia. The chapter on Australia in the HRW World Report, in relation to Indigenous Rights noted the glaring over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison, the ongoing and all too regular deaths in custody, the inadequate health care and indifference to the ancient and priceless cultural heritage with the highly contentious destruction of the Juukan Caves:
Australia is a vibrant multicultural democracy with robust institutions, but in 2020 the global Black Lives Matter movement refocused attention on the severe disadvantage suffered by First Nations people in Australia, particularly the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison and high rate of deaths in custody.
In the case of over-incarceration, it is clear that we cannot hide this shame away from the world and in the case of the Juukan Caves and the destruction of cultural heritage more broadly, we can be indifferent no longer.
It is reports like this, and the myriad other domestic and international reports and commentaries on Australia’s relationship with and attitudes towards its First Nations Peoples, that make a blithe and carefree celebration of Australia on 26 January – the day that marked the genesis of our broken relationships – hard to swallow.
Those that would ignore what the world is pointing out are usually the ones that are, ever more shrilly, doubling down on celebrating the myth of our peaceful past and present and increasingly adopting the American style nationalistic and loud patriotism that rejects any challenge to the narrative of successful settlement.
In my view, this rise of patriotic fervour is a reaction to the growing evidence that an increasing number of Australians are ready for a truthful conversation about our shared past since 1788 and are expecting much more from our governments in terms of investment and genuine participation in reconciliation.
The 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia Report, drawing from the Australian Reconciliation Barometer findings in 2020, has shown that Australians are more aware and more willing to do what is needed to see conciliation between the First Nations peoples and all of us who have come since 1788. The Report states that:
There is strong evidence of progress in Australia’s journey towards reconciliation. This is despite some well-founded disappointments—particularly over the response of the Australian Government to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This progress is borne out of data in the Australian Reconciliation Barometer, the RAP Impact Measurement Report, the many case studies of success and progress, and is the consensus from the stakeholders interviewed by Reconciliation Australia. We are moving closer to becoming a reconciled nation…
It has been a slow process, much too slow and as the Closing the Gap statistics bear out each year, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends, family, colleagues and fellow citizens are suffering the compounding impact of colonisation. But change is inevitable and governments will ultimately be forced to act in accordance with the will of the broader public.
It is with this in mind that, using 26 January 2021 as a time of reflection, we hear the Voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the continent and not just hear, but respond with respect and humility.
As we all know, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, presented to the Australian people in 2017 called for ‘the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution’. The Voice, along with a process of Treaty-making and Truth-telling, would ‘empower’ First Nations Peoples to ‘take our rightful place in our own country’:
When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
Over the last 3 plus years, I have read this eloquent and historic statement many times, but in preparing these thoughts I focused on the idea of ‘rightful place’. First Nations Peoples have a rightful place in the halls of our Parliament to speak with their Voice, reflecting their legal, spiritual and historical rights as First and sovereign peoples. For non-Indigenous Australians, 26 January should be a time to consider how we claim ‘rightful place’ in a land occupied without consent, incomplete and unreconciled.
For all Australians, the descendants of the ancient or the descendants of us newcomers, a rightful place together should be the central project of nation building.
The group of senior and distinguished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from across Australia that have been tasked with designing models for the Voice, should be commended for the way forward they have conceived and offered. The models proposed for consideration are not complete or perfect, but they honour the intent of the Uluru Statement and we need to think carefully now on how we give place to the Voice in Parliament as soon as possible. As Co-chairs of the group, Professor Marcia Langton AO and Professor Tom Calma AO said in their forward message:
An Indigenous Voice is a pragmatic, natural step for our country, as we work towards creating a better shared future for all Australians.
That does not mean the expectation that the Voice be enshrined in our constitution should be dropped. The fears, based on hard and bitter experience, that governments can take away the hard-won Voice of First Nations Peoples must be allayed by a demonstrated commitment by Australia that their Voice is at the heart of our nation and cannot be silenced.
A ‘Rightful place’ will be front of mind this 26 January.