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After the truths are told



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 traditional way of life, for the diseases and the alcohol, for the discrimination and exclusion, and for the taking of children from their mothers.

Is there any reason to hope that this time, at last, the telling of ‘past and ongoing injustices’ to commissions of inquiry won’t meet with the familiar kinds of attenuation, delay, and fudge?

The danger is that unless commissions and inquiries are accompanied by other ways of telling other truths they will inadvertently help to shrink that national story into the story of victims who in fact have never been only victims, and of unmentioned perpetrators who in fact have never been only perpetrators.

They risk preaching to a more-or-less converted majority and to an implacably unconverted minority. They risk prompting indifference on one side, hostility on the other. 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.

In my Telling Tennant’s Story: The strange career of the great Australian silence, I offer two suggestions about how complicated truths might be told in ways that engage, and last. Both propose a revamping of our official public history, in localities across Australia in the one case, at the national apex in the other.

On the first: there are more than 34 000 obelisks, statues, plaques, cairns and other such memorials in Australia's towns and cities and along its roads and highways. Of those tens of thousands of markers of the past just 190 remember Indigenous people, places or events. And less than a quarter of those (41) remember violent conflict between white and black.

At the other end of the public history scale is the mighty Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra, one of the world's most recognised institutions of commemoration, adamantly silent on the longest and most destructive of armed conflict between peoples in Australia's history.

Here, in the history curriculum of everyday life and in our institutions of memory is our chance to pull our weight in truth-telling. The Coalition parties are long since lost to this cause, in office or out; Labor has been in steady retreat since Keating’s time. Might an Albanese government do better and pick up where Keating left off?

Two things are doable and affordable. First, a new government in Canberra could establish and fund an agency tasked with encouraging communities across Australia to work with their Indigenous members and with historians and local history societies to document what is and is not told by their monuments, memorials and other forms of public history, and to decide how those markers might be refurbished or added to in the interests of telling a more complete and truthful local story.

Second, an Albanese government could put responsibility for the AWM into the hands of a senior cabinet minister charged with returning the Memorial to its stated mission: to ‘assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society’.

If those who spoke From the Heart could lend their support to such other ways of truth telling, so much the better.



Dean AshendenDean Ashenden has published on anthropology and its historical role.


Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, Uluru Statement, anthropology, Indigenous, AusPol



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Existing comments

Here is a thought for truth telling...how about when perpetrators of Colonisation-stealing land,
Frontier Wars and massacres-stealing lives,
Assimilation-stealing children,
Slavery- stealing wages,
Genocide- stealing culture and language,
Racism- stealing lives in custody .....say Sorry they actually tell the truth and mean it.

Jan Wright | 03 May 2022  

To a Martian anthropologist or historian looking down on us, the history of the colonisation of Australia might seem but a branch of the History of the British Empire, which is again a branch of the vast History of European Colonisation in that period. Ghastly wrongs and dispossession occurred. It was interesting, when the Prince of Wales and more junior members of the British Royal family visited the West Indies recently, the locals confronted them with the ugly truths of the past, including slavery, the demand for reparation and their intention to become republics. Prince Charles arrived just as Barbados proclaimed itself a republic. 'Wider still and wider'? I think not. Much, not all, recent Australian History has been written by the likes of the late Stuart Macintyre, a middle class Marxist. As someone trained in the field, I would contest that all history tends to be partisan. I get worried when phrases like 'truth telling' slip glibly off some people's tongues. I would ask 'Which version of the truth?' Manning Clarke's 'History of Australia' is seen by some as similar to the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. It seeks to perpetrate a myth. We need to be very careful we do not replace this myth with another one.

Edward Fido | 04 May 2022  
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‘West Indies’

If it happened, it’s truth and should be recorded for posterity. But the recorded truth that X’s great-great-grandfather was lynched by Y’s great-great-grandfather does not mean that Y owes reparation to X. The scepticism about ‘truth telling’ is that it is being used as a scam to build a feeding trough for descendants of the wronged (who are most probably now in Heaven and not feeling the slightest regret over their once-earthly lives), whether here or in the US or in the Caribbean or (given some time) in the South Pacific beginning with official ‘truth-making’ in the Solomons.

The Caribbean are Christian and, being Christian, should note that the clamour for reparation is very similar to what was once a, but is now regarded as very old-fashioned, clamour of the Jewish blood-libel, that Jews as a whole, past, present and future, were responsible for the death of Christ. Well, bad things happen, but Scripture as the Old Testament had an answer to that: every now and then, have a jubilee in which debts of history are set aside and things are begun anew. The Cross is a jubilee.

If we want the Australian War Memorial to commemorate ‘frontier wars’, we can start by dumping the idea of a constitutionalised or de facto constitutionalised Voice to Parliament as an anti-jubilee perennial scratching of an obsolete itch, a bit like a priest who draws aside the curtain in the confessional, looks at you and reminds you of the sins you confessed the last time you were there.

The burden of the past should be named, shamed and put in a museum for tourists. Or, if you believe in the Judeo-Christian narrative, named, shamed, nailed to the Cross and left behind as forgiven.

roy chen yee | 05 May 2022  

Ashenden speaks with the fervour of a prophet who has done the hard yards and sometimes failed in what he hoped to achieve, perhaps because of the limited nature of his advice.

Its unfair to dwell on one instance of this when so much else of his contribution is of the kind that a Jesuit publication would commendably endorse. However, there are lessons to be learnt from one instance, all the more important to address because it continues to be a running sore in a battle for justice every bit as contentious as the one he addresses in this edition of ES.

From the 1970s Dean has been an advisor to many governments and principally to Senator Susan Ryan when she was Education Minister on a range of matters from school-funding to curriculum content and assessment.

During that time the fully-funded NZ model of Catholic school-funding was briefly mentioned but rejected. Australia now has the most contested school-funding policy on the globe.

since ttghat time it would bbe righht to say that a school funding policy that he played a crucial role in shaping has resulted in the growth of the largest publicly-funded private school sector in the developed world.

Michael Furtado | 05 May 2022  
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No one commenting on this thread, as far as I understand their posts, underestimates Dean Ashenden's undoubted ability and achievements. It is just that he is dealing with an issue, which, of its very nature, is highly controversial. The ATSI community is itself divided on it. Any lasting and generally acceptable solution will take a long time and a genuine national conversation to achieve.

Edward Fido | 09 May 2022  

Perhaps I'm misreading the article but am struggling to find anything that doesn't divide the premise of "truth" into an "us and them" scenario. Clearly, Australia has had a few centuries of recorded history being the domain of the educated to log their observations and the similarly educated to believe; the notion of terra nullius was declared in a land far away but purely based on the written evidence presented. The swing in this peculiarly weighted narrative is evolving that the population are becoming more educated and knowledgeable; forensic science and archeology tells us certain information but that then becomes a wrangling exercise between musty evidenced factual field reports, literary historic art based on selected findings and accusative, pathos-ridden memes. The wider audience will select both what vehicles of "truth" they prefer and how they interpret the same. Unfortunately, some writers and their truth may be condemned to obscurity not because they haven't got something worthy but because they simply can't write to appease a popular demand. So where is the truth if a person is not empowered to be heard only because they didn't get published? If we're truly sophisticated a monument which misrepresents truth should remain as testimony of a time we need to remember.

ray | 05 May 2022  

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