In 2016, Reconciliation Australia developed the first State of Reconciliation in Australia Report to mark 25 years of a formal reconciliation process in Australia through both the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and Reconciliation Australia.
The report identified for the first time the five dimensions of reconciliation that are necessary to achieve reconciliation in this country. The dimensions – Historical Acceptance, Race Relations, Equality and Equity, Institutional Integrity, and Unity – continue to form the basis upon which we understand the reconciliation effort, track progress and identify areas of greater need.
Drawing on the views of First Nations leaders, data from the Australian Reconciliation Barometer 2020, and practical examples of reconciliation in action from across the country, the report reflects on where we have come from, where we are today, where we need to get to, and how we can get there.
The good news is that we as a nation are moving closer to being reconciled – progress has been steady as Australia has made advances towards reconciliation.
Our research shows us that almost all Australians support reconciliation, with over 90% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the general community believing the relationship between us all is important. Significantly, over 60% of the general community want to do something to help improve reconciliation.
At a broader level there is a huge network of organisations and individuals driving change through reconciliation structures at grass roots, local, state, national and corporate levels.
There are 1100 Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) in non-profit, corporate and government organisations; 6500+ schools and early learning services currently developing Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs); thousands of National Reconciliation Week activities have been held since 1993 engaging with millions of people; support for national campaigns has grown – Close the Gap, Change the Record, Family Matters, Racism: it stops with me, Black Lives Matter; the many local reconciliation groups and networks; and the many practical examples of reconciliation, some of which are demonstrated in the report in case-studies. Organisations like ANTaR are an important part of that network.
But while there are reasons to celebrate achievements, there is still a long way to go. In the interviews we did with Indigenous leaders and other stakeholders for the State of Reconciliation Report, there was understandable frustration at the slowness of progress. This was especially the case on some of the key structural building blocks of reconciliation – constitutional reform, treaties, truth-telling, addressing the disadvantage gaps and racism in particular. There was a clear view that politicians are lagging behind public opinion and dragging the chain.
But the issues that seem so difficult to progress are the ‘braver’ issues that must be addressed. For reconciliation to be effective, it must involve truth-telling, and actively address issues of inequality, systemic racism and instances where the rights of First Nations Peoples are ignored, denied or reduced. It must answer the invitation of the Uluru Statement.
A braver reconciliation is where we move more of our effort from focusing on the preconditions for reconciliation, to focussing on more substantive change.
And as we move closer to achieving some of the key prerequisites – truth-telling, negotiations around treaties, and greater control by First Nations Peoples over our own affairs – it is possible the reconciliation journey will become more difficult.
We saw again on the 26 of January the predictable debate that unfolds each year, but one where more and more Australians understand the difficulty of that date for First Peoples. As Reconciliation Australia’s inaugural Chair Shelley Reys explained in her recent SMH op-ed,
the topic of changing the date, “has become a social movement of its own as a growing number of Australians now understand and acknowledge the brutal impact that colonisation has had on First Nations families and communities.
In many ways it demonstrates the importance of truth-telling to being able to move forward. Much of Australia’s telling of its history is silent on the occupation of Australia by First Nations Peoples. Too often, our history covers up the brutal nature of colonisation and leaves out the resilience and contribution by First Peoples.
To develop a deeper reconciliation process, Australia must also develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of pre-colonisation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in order to appreciate what was disrupted or lost. 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 people’s contribution to the nation.
Encouragingly, as the State of Reconciliation Report highlights, this is what Australians want: 89% of the general community and 93% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people believe it is important to undertake formal truth-telling processes in relation to Australia’s shared history, while 83% of the general community believes it is important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures to be taught in schools.
Reconciliation Australia knows that for the reconciliation movement to continue to build the network of supporters, entry into the reconciliation space must still allow for a safe space to start the journey – to learn, to grow, to make mistakes and to build skills and capability.
In this respect there is reason for optimism – there is now a generation of Australians raised in reconciliation. They grew up and take for granted Acknowledgements of Country, flying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, a more accurate account of our shared history, and the importance of First Nations’ voices.
But our journey cannot end in this safe space. It is now that we must take on the substantive change that will propel us towards a more reconciled country. Australians are ready to take braver action, to realise the unfinished business, and walk more purposefully towards a reconciled nation.