Seeing the con in reconciliation

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Nearly every year, on Sorry Day, I will click on that saved link I have of a Territory Stories webpage, download the audio file and listen to my nanna’s voice recalling her experiences as a stolen child in the NT during the 1930s. Nanna passed away quite a while ago now so it’s pretty amazing to be able to click and hear her voice whenever I like. But it’s also a reminder of the horrors she, and so many other Aboriginal kids, endured at the hands of various governments. There may have been a national Apology, but can we honestly say Australia has rectified the wrongs when more children are being taken than ever before?

Gina Somfleth one half of musical group Peachnoise performs at her home as part of Isol-Aid on March 28, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Sorry Day happens the day before what is known as 'Reconciliation Week'. Sorry Day itself marks the tabling in Parliament of the Bringing them Home report in 1997 — marking the end of an inquiry into the many laws and practices across the country which led to the Stolen Generations. Reconciliation week itself begins on the 27th May, the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum that granted Aboriginal people the right to be counted in the census. The anniversary of the Mabo ruling in the High Court rounds out the week.

Yet every year, I would swear that this week means nothing more to most people in this country than to call on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their workplaces and community to do more work. I wish it were a remembrance of these important dates and why they should be days which spark pride in the average 'Australian', but instead it seems to be an opportunity to ask Indigenous folks what 'reconciliation' means to us and then call on us to educate them on stuff they will then neglect to do for the next 12 months.

It’s also not surprising when I see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people respond that they think the notion of 'reconciliation' is a mere con. Or they feel it’s a remnant from the Howard years when he tried to water down our political movements. Or they ask 'why is it us that are called upon to reconcile when we did nothing?' I have met a handful in my time that speak more positively about the notion of reconciliation, talking about opportunities for 'honest conversations', 'justice' and 'coming together'. But in the main, I think most are disillusioned.

When I think about the hype around reconciliation week, it reminds me of being a kid during 1988 when we were told that the Bicentennial celebrations were for us too. They weren’t, and mostly our inclusion ended up being tokenistic. What was more important was what we were conveying on the streets as we marched, first in Sydney on the 26th January, and then in Canberra in May, yelling 'land rights now!' We’re still yelling those words, 22 years later. So what then therefore does the notion of 'reconciliation' actually mean?

We don’t have 'land rights', just native title and that counts for little when mining companies are blowing up some of the most ancient sites in the world with a mere 'whoops'. Even then, what Mabo fought for, and won, has not been embraced in the public consciousness. Does anyone truly believe the 'terra nullius' mindset has left this country? Because I’m not seeing evidence of this every time the 26th of January rolls around, or every time Reconciliation Week happens and days as important as this aren’t recognised as public holidays yet the AFL Grand Final warrants a day off, as does the Queen.

 

'Yet the reality is beyond rehashing the photo of the Harbour Bridge walk in 2000, which many see as a visual representation of reconciliation, we don’t witness change actually rolling out.'

 

We haven’t even managed to capture the spirit of the 1967 referendum when at least people recognised that Aboriginal people were worthy of being considered human beings. If we were then why is Australia seemingly okay with the disproportionate level of policing Aboriginal people have been experiencing during the COVID-19 crisis where community people can’t even drive 2kms to the nearest shop without being arrested.

It was the play The 7 Stages of Grieving that first alerted me to the 'con' in the middle of 'reconciliation' and cemented it in my brain. Truth is, as an Aboriginal woman, Reconciliation Week in Australia does come across as a bit of a con. Years pass yet things stay the same.

There has been an opportunity here for a long time to recognise some gains this country has made and truths it has told so that we move forward to a healthy, more equal, future. When you consider the Referendum, Mabo and the Stolen Generations, all of these were rooted in recognising some painful truths and trying to make them right. Yet the reality is beyond rehashing the photo of the Harbour Bridge walk in 2000, which many see as a visual representation of reconciliation, we don’t witness change actually rolling out.

Perhaps, in this COVID-19 time, where reaching out and building community is more important than ever, it’s time?

 

 

Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Main image: Woman silhouetted in Aboriginal flag (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Reconciliation, Sorry Day, Mabo

 

 

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Existing comments

"Oh dear, how sad, never mind' was a recurring line from a Theatre Restaurant show back about 1975. It seems to apply so well here. Most non-Aboriginal Australians would not even know it is Reconciliation Week, let alone care. They believe that it is we who should concede ground and just get over it - after all they did nothing wrong. Therein lies the problem. How do we get them to understand that we were here 64000 years before 1770. Terra nullius - don't think so. Me biased? You bet. The more I study the more obvious this nation, Australia, was, and still is founded on a crime. Deane J and Gaudron j succinctly and directly stated The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgement of and retreat from, those past injustices.’ Mabo No. 2 There -Allan Barnes MAblSt
Allan Barnes | 28 May 2020


Excellent till you got to the last line. Apart from that I totally agree with you, no white government in my lifetime has actually wanted reconciliation or anything else, we just have to see them melt down when the word treaty is mentioned
Marilyn | 28 May 2020


TBH Marilyn, I wasn't quite sure how to end my piece so I'm totally fine with that line being criticised :)
Celeste | 28 May 2020


I just wanted to to say that not all Australia thinks this way. I work for Catholic Education WA. We have local Noongar educators helping us establish Aboriginal Education Plans. Our aim is to embed Aboriginal Perspectives across the curriculum. We work hard to listen to local Aboriginal People on how we can listen more thoughtfully and how we can particularly assist our students to understand the past and to seek true reconciliation in the future. I just wanted to add this as I what I think is a positive.
Rob Coughlan | 29 May 2020


Thank you Celeste for this honest appraisal. I feel ashamed when I see our own mob falling the tea, flour and sugar 'gifts' offered by the so-called settlers. I proud of your work and send it far and wide!
Sharon Meagher | 29 May 2020


Hi Celeste, What a privelege it is that you are sharing the link to your "nanna's voice". The more I hear the stories of the Stolen generations,including your nanna's story, the more I want to weep, some are available now on youtube. I hope that through the reconciliation process that we may be able to earn the trust and respect that is needed for us all to go forward. Thankyou for your contribution to this process. Peace and God bless, Ros
Ros | 29 May 2020


The process of reconciliation has four steps. 1) Acknowledgment: "I have done wrong, I have hurt you, I am sorry." 2) Ask for forgiveness: "Will you please forgive me?" Hand the power to the one who was wronged. 3) Restoration: rebuild the relationship, reestablish trust: "I need to know I can trust you again, so allow me time and let your actions demonstrate that you will not hurt me again". 4) forgiveness and being reconciled. We (non-indigenous) have made the first step, and are now petulantly expecting to be forgiven (fourth step), but we have not given the power to the wronged party and demonstrated that we have changed the basis of our relationship. We still hold all the power, and are too often condescending towards our indigenous brothers and sisters. It is like an abusive relationship cycle. We must have the courage to let go of control and hand the power to the wronged party and trust that "they" will come back to us with the gift of forgiveness. Only then will reconciliation be lasting and true.
Richard Ross | 29 May 2020


Thank you Celeste, the more I know the more I need to know about Aboriginal life. As a 15 yr old in regional NSW I was keen for LandRights in 1975, things move so slowly here. I have been very aware ever since of the necessity of stories. Walked the bridge walk, a day of love and hope. Saw The 7 Stages of Grieving with Deb Mailman and some Bangarra dance. Keeping my ears and eyes wide open for more
Louise Holmes | 29 May 2020


TASMANIA (history). This piece is verbatim from Sovereign Union and worth reading: George Hull was posted at Hobart as the Deputy Assistant Commissary in 1819 and was granted a large estate. He reported that it was a favourite amusement to hunt the Aborigines; that a day would be selected and the neighbouring settlers invited, with their families, to a picnic. After dinner all would be gaiety and merriment, while the gentlemen of the party would take their guns and dogs, and accompanied by two or three convict servants, wander through the bush in search of blackfellows. Sometimes they would return without sport; at others they would succeed in killing a woman, or, if lucky, a man or two'. Hull also wrote that a fellow European he knew had a pickle tub in which he put the ears of all the blacks he shot." Hull, George (1787–1879) by E. R. Pretyman This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966 George Hull (1787-1879), assistant commissary general, was born on 13 August 1787 in the parish of Iwerne, Dorset, England, son of Thomas Hull, a farmer and an officer in the county militia, and his wife Catherine, née Short. After receiving a classical education he was articled to a solicitor at Mitcham with the intention of following a legal profession, but learnt of the demand for accountants on the Commissariat Department staff in the war in Spain. Through the influence of Sir Mark Wood, he was offered and accepted a Treasury clerkship. He sailed for Lisbon in 1810. In 1814 he received from the Duke of Wellington a commission as assistant to the commissary-general. At the end of the war he returned to England, and married Anna (1800-1877), only daughter of Lieutenant Hugh Munro, formerly of the Scots Guards. For three years he served at Somerset House. In 1818 he was ordered on foreign service and was given an option of proceeding to Canada or to New South Wales. He chose the latter and with his wife and two children reached Sydney in the Tyne on 4 January 1819. He took up the administration of the Commissariat Department at Parramatta, but in September was transferred to Van Diemen's Land. Here, in the opinion of Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell, Hull assumed unwarranted powers, just as Commissary Frederick Drennan was trying to do in Sydney and the matter was referred to Macquarie. The governor, whose own position in the dispute had been supported in London, now backed up Sorell in his turn, although Commissioner John Thomas Bigge agreed that the lieutenant-governor should not refuse Hull the usual indulgences if he decided to settle in the colony. In 1824 Hull applied for a land grant under conditions offered to army officers on half-pay in New South Wales. For his military and other services he received 2560 acres (1036 ha) near Glenorchy. Here he built his home Tolosa, traditionally named because a workman's remark that the house was 'too low, sir' reminded Hull of the name of the Spanish town in which he had served. In 1828, in addition to other official duties, he was called upon to act as collector of internal revenue at Launceston and to unravel confusion in the accounts of a defaulting Naval Officer in Hobart Town. Next year he applied for the position of postmaster at Launceston but was refused. In 1831 he was obliged to retire from the Commissariat Department, as he was becoming too deaf, but in July 1832 was appointed a justice of the peace, and in 1837 held the position of assistant to the director-general of roads. In 1839 he was fulfilling the duties of sitting magistrate and in 1841 suggested that he might be appointed visiting magistrate as well. He then spent many years seeing to the cultivation of his large property but when his health began to fail he moved to live with his daughter at Battery Point and died there on 23 June 1879. He was survived by 10 children, 75 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren. He was buried with his wife in the grounds of St John's Church, New Town. Select Bibliography Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 10, series 3, vols 2-5 Makes you wonder doesnt it?
Francis Armstrong | 30 May 2020


Thank you for this important article, Celeste. Yes, I agree with your comments about Sorry Day and the "con" in Reconciliation the purpose of Sorry Day(26 May) is to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of Australia's indigenous population, but this has not advanced justice, recognition or land rights very far for for them. This year's Reconciliation week has occurred during the corona virus lock down and for many who don't have computers it will have gone largely unnoticed by many Australians. Having said this, I believe that there is much support for Aboriginal rights in this country from non-Aboriginal Australians. During the week, I read an essay by Teela Reid - an Aboriginal lawyer in Sydney - who says that we need to make 2020 the year of reckoning - not reconciliation. Her message is in an article in the Griffith Review. https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/2020-year-of-reckoning/ She sees the current Reconciliation process appeases people in business and conservative politicians, and doesn't lead to the changes needed to win full recognition fir Aboriginal people. Later, I heard Teela speak at a Zoom meeting organised by the SEARCH Foundation. Her message was very clear. She stated that the elements of true reconciliation require unity, a concept of race relations, equity, institutional integrity and self determination Teela said she took up law because she could see that for her people to win constitutional recognition knowledge about the law was crucial as the struggle is largely a legal process https://nit.com.au/teela-reid-takes-on-the-law-as-she-advocates-for-constitutional-recognition She considered that the Uluru Statement from the Heart spells out what first nations people want and must be taken seriously. Teela was on a Q&A( Questions and Answers) panel after Turnbull rejected it in 2018 and rightly criticised his dismissive reaction, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=757414254612441 For Teela, this was yet another example of why we cannot leave the decision for Reconciliation in the hands of politicians and she called for all non-Aboriginal Australians to be involved in solidarity with Aboriginal people for constitutional recognition. I think the message we get from Celeste and Teela iin Reconciliation Week 2020 that progressive Australians need to step up their solidarity and support for Aboriginal Australians to have a meaningful voice, to be listened to and to win justice.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 30 May 2020


Contrary to the critic here who objects to it, your closing sentence, Celeste, is prescient and well-chosen. It cites an opportunity, during and after COVID-19, for a breakthrough in the reconciliation stalemate. My basis for supporting this isn't just the seering reminder of our terrible history of murderous dispossession that Francis Armstrong has uncovered in his harrowing account, but by current events in the United States surrounding the race-killing of George Floyd. In saying this I pay tribute to my daughter, Camille, who lives in Scotland, and who reminded me in my conversation with her last night that, not only has the pandemic raised the consciousness of race-injustice in the United States, but that now is the time for it to do so in Australia. In pursuing this line of conversation with Camille, she reminded me that Aboriginal deaths in custody are still commonplace, long after the Final Report of the Royal Commission was submitted and published in 1991. Clearly we need another Royal Commission into Constitutional Recognition into the Righteous Claims of Australia's Aboriginal Peoples. Go Celeste!
Michael Furtado | 01 June 2020


Re: assault on a child. The officer was having a bad day ! Rubbish! The police office MUST be sacked! Who is the real criminal here? He Needs to go! Wake up Australia. It's now or never! The police force here in Australia is a Joke!
AO | 03 June 2020


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