Timelines recording the history of attempts at Finding Common Ground for reconciliation between Australia’s First Peoples and the non-Indigenous Australians contain dates and events spanning almost two centuries. The contemporary formal process known as Reconciliation, however, has its origins in the final Recommendation of the 1991 Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It states:
'That all political leaders and their parties recognise that reconciliation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Australia must be achieved if community division, discord and injustice to Aboriginal people are to be avoided. To this end the Commission recommends that political leaders use their best endeavours to ensure bi-partisan public support for the process of reconciliation and that the urgency and necessity of the process be acknowledged.'
1991 – 2008
A public, bi-partisan commitment to a process of reconciliation, that called on all citizens to engage with it, was ratified with the establishment of a Federally legislated Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR). CAR’s task was to set up a ten year reconciliation process (the decade of reconciliation) to be devolved to each State and Territory. Its specified objectives were to:
- Educate non-Indigenous Australians about First Nations culture and the extent of disadvantage still experienced by their people;
- Avoid polarising language of treaty and talk about a ‘document of reconciliation’; and
- Set up local reconciliation groups, at state, local council and local community levels to build a social movement that would drive the nation to ‘address Indigenous aspirations, human rights and social justice’.
The ‘decade of reconciliation’ saw a flourishing of reconciliation groups and activities – encouraged by a number of significant ‘reconciling’ events on the part of the country’s political leadership. These included the 1992 High Court decision on the Mabo land rights case that ruled Terra Nullius should not have been applied to Australia; Paul Keating’s 1992 powerful Redfern Speech – the first time an Australian Prime Minister publicly acknowledged the dispossession and ongoing suffering wrought on First Nations by colonisation, the 1993 Native Title Act; and the 1996 Wik Peoples’ case for upholding Native Title.
These landmark events provoked significant pushback from conservative elements in Australia. Halfway through the official decade of reconciliation these forces found a powerful ally in the newly elected Coalition government. Bitter and ugly culture wars raged in the media, ‘a shameful, hysterical period of modern history’ – one that prompted many concerned Australians to push back.
However, throughout the decade progress continued. National Reconciliation Week started as the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation in 1993 (the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples) and was supported by Australia’s major faith communities. In 1996, CAR launched Australia’s first National Reconciliation Week.
In 1997, the newly formed 'Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation' (ANTaR) staged their first iconic Sea of Hands installation in front of Parliament House Canberra. In 2020, ANTaR marks 23 years of working, ‘To engage, educate and mobilise a broad community movement to advocate for justice, rights and respect for Australia's First Peoples.'
Also in 1997, an inquiry into the 20th century history of forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families was concluded. Indigenous agencies had been petitioning governments, concerned that the general public’s ignorance of this history was hindering present day recognition of victims’ needs. To this day, the Inquiry Report 'Bringing Them Home' is the only public record of significant wrongdoing towards First Nations Peoples. At the time of the Report in 1997 there was an outpouring of concerned reactions of ordinary Australians, ‘horrified at the truths they never knew’. However, it would be over another decade before until a national apology was made to the Stolen Generations.
The official conclusion to the decade of reconciliation, saw 250,000 Australians symbolically walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge (others did the same across the country) – a further testament to the good will of so many Australians wanting national recognition of past wrongs and commitment to future justice.
First Nations Peoples' culture, society and leadership and responses to the Reconciliation Process
From the late 1950’s, there was an steady awakening of interest in First Nations cultures, and a new emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership. More and more non-Indigenous Australians were listening to these new voices – voices that moved the country’s political leadership to a number of reconciling milestones.
- The 1967 Referendum, acknowledging the presence of First Nations people in national censuses; and
- The 1973-74 Whitlam Government’s Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights, which paved the way for the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal land-rights
- The 1975 historic handing back of land to the Northern Territory’s Gurindji people.
The Gurindji’s nine-year ‘fight for justice’ with Prime Minister Whitlam’s symbolic pouring of red earth into the hands of Elder Vincent Lingiari, was implicit acknowledgement of historical injustices done to these people.
In 1988, the year Australia celebrated the bicentenary of colonisation, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and other senior Aboriginal leaders presented Prime Minister Bob Hawke with the Buranga Statement. Calling for Treaty, and self-determination, the Buranga Statement was the culmination of years of activism for recogintion of land rights in the Northern Territory. Although probably little known by most Australians, this event is often referred to as the birth of the treaty movement in Australia. In response, the Hawke government promptly ‘adopted, as its official policy, support for a treaty between the Australian government and First Nations People'. However, the Government did not follow through with its promise to negotiate a national treaty and legislate for national land rights. Instead it established the ten-year reconciliation process – viewed by political analysts as ‘what [government] hoped would be a political panacea’.
First Nations Peoples' responses to the reconciliation process have been understandably varied – from hopeful, active participation believing improved relationships are a worthy end in themselves, to pragmatic acceptance (their numbers comprise approx. only 3% of population), to hostile rejection. From the beginning the language and content of CAR's objectives for the decade were ‘moderate, unthreatening’… in order not to ‘offend the sensibilities of non-Indigenous Australians’. This stood in contrast to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' demands for specific rights and truth-telling about past injustices and their ongoing impacts. It highlighted the often starkly opposing goals held for reconciliation by each group:
‘want(ing) to see truth about past harms generate wider debate about contested sovereignty and collective rights in the present; non-Indigenous Australians wishing to ‘draw a line under the past’ and focus on future peaceful co-existence’.
In 2000, as the Bridge walkers headed to the Sydney Opera House for the closing ritual (Corroboree 2000) marking the conclusion of the decade of reconciliation, they were greeted by banners that read:
'No reconciliation without justice;
Restore land rights now;
Recognise Aboriginal sovereignty.'
2008 – to the Present
In the two decades since 2000, there have been two momentous landmarks in Australia’s reconciliation journey:
- The first being the 2008 National Apology to the Stolen Generations; and the second
- The historic 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart
The Statement was delivered to the Australian people in a traditional ceremonial manner at Uluru, the symbolic heart of Aboriginal Australia. Sandwiched between these events, and post the delivery of the Uluru Statement, there have been a number of expert panels, senate committees, and Referendum Councils, commissioned to find a way through the various technical, legal and political roadblocks to reconciliation.
Meanwhile, beyond the political sphere there continues to be a groundswell of First Nations voices togther with their non-Indigenous allies, in the arts, literature, history, music, song, dance, film, and in caring for country. All these voices are carrying forward the story of our shared history and commitment to living and working for a reconciled Australia.
In the words of National Reconciliation Week 2020, we are In this Together!