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After the truths are told

  • 03 May 2022
Five years on from the Uluru Statement from the Heart a truth-telling process is at last taking shape. So too are some difficult questions: which truths are to be told? Told how? By whom? The last of these questions is most troubling for people like me, a fourth-generation Australian of English and Scottish extraction. The assumption of my lot seems to be that if Indigenous Australians want truths to be told then of course we should support them, but after that it’s their business.

That irresponsibility is being abetted by a very similar Indigenous assumption that it’s their story to be told by them in their way.

These assumptions are now being institutionalised. In Victoria the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission has set to work on gathering information and hearing stories from First Peoples ‘on their experience of past and ongoing injustices’ and on how their cultures have survived. Similar bodies are likely to be set up along similar lines in other States and Territories.

But stories of the Indigenous experience have already been told, over and again, in hundreds of autobiographies, biographies, and oral histories, in documentary and dramatised film and TV, in theatre, dance, song, and poetry as well as in news and comment and feature stories in the mass media. More, they have been told to commissions of inquiry very like the Yoo-rrook Commission, including the ‘stolen generations’ inquiry of 1995-97. 

The report of that inquiry, Bringing them home, had a tremendous emotional impact. The then Leader of the Opposition wept in parliament as he related some of the findings; across the country ‘sorry books’ collected tens of thousands of signatures.

'At best, Indigenous people telling of their experience of past and continuing injustices will teach us more about them when we should also be learning more about us.'

But the report also provoked a powerful backlash — and it failed to deliver. Of the four recommendations, for compensation, restitution, rehabilitation, and an apology, only the apology was delivered in full. That apology was of course a great moment in the long history of the First Nations struggle and in the history of Australia. But it was also just another in a series of emotional outpourings dating back to the 1967 referendum — and, in its way, just another abdication of official responsibility.

Compare prime minister Rudd’s apology with prime minister Paul Keating’s catalogue at Redfern: we were the ones, he said, who were responsible for the dispossessing, for smashing the