Reconciliation Week 2018 - Don't keep history a mystery!

Thursday, 31 May 2018

by Professor Victoria Haskins, School of Humanities and Social Science (History)

National Reconciliation Week (NRW) is embedded in history. The start date, 27 May, marks the anniversary of the famous 1967 Referendum when an overwhelming yes vote overturned the exclusion of Indigenous Australians in the national census: a powerful symbolic moment in Australian history as a statement of the desires and hopes of all Australians for an inclusive and just society. The week’s end date, 3 June, marks another day of great significance, being the date of the landmark High Court decision of 1992 in the case Mabo v Queensland, overturning the “legal fiction” of terra nullius.

This year the theme for the week is historical awareness. It is interesting, and timely, to reflect on the event’s own history. National Reconciliation Week was first held in May 1996 and it aimed to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians together to move forward into a shared future. Its origins were in the Reconciliation movement and the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991,  in response to ongoing calls for Indigenous land rights and a Treaty, and the shocking findings of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that year. There was an initial church-organised Week of Prayer for Reconciliation that began in 1993, in the Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, but by the time National Reconciliation Week was first launched in 1996, the Reconciliation movement was taking on a new role. In face of increasing official indifference and the onset of the so-called “History Wars”, the movement called for public recognition and apology for the injustices endured by Aboriginal people in the course of colonisation.

Chief among these were the traumatic experiences of the “Stolen Generations,” whose testimony was being held in town halls and other public spaces around the country by the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families in 1995 and 1996. The following year, on 26 May 1997, the report of the Inquiry titled Bringing Them Home was tabled in Parliament.

One of the recommendations of that Report was that a National Sorry Day should be declared, to give Australians the opportunity to come together, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to acknowledge the impact of past policies and practices of forcible child removal, and to begin a process of healing through an official apology on behalf of all non-Indigenous Australians. In 1998, the first Sorry Day was held, a year to the day that the Report had been tabled.

Two years later the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation delivered its final report during the fifth Reconciliation Week, “Corroboree 2000.” During that week, on Sunday 28 May 2000, some 250 to 300 thousand people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge – one of the largest public demonstrations ever in Australian history – for Reconciliation, and for an official public apology.[7] It would take another ten years, however, before such an apology was finally delivered, by the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, on February 13, 2008.

In hindsight, it seems the momentum of those times was lost by the long delay.

Another eight years on, Reconciliation Australia produced the State of Reconciliation Report. This 2016 report measured progress towards Reconciliation in terms of race relations, equality and equity, unity, institutional integrity, and historical acceptance. In terms of the last aspect, historical acceptance, the report’s findings are sobering.

Most Australians surveyed – 94 per cent – accepted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had endured historical injustices as a result of “European settlement.” But importantly, many were unsure of the details. There was also a division on the nature and extent of the effect of past wrongs on the lives of Indigenous people today, and only half to 60 per cent of the general community agreed that past racialist policies had created disadvantages today. In fact, “Australians have widely varying views on forgiveness and moving on, and progress on repairing the wrongs of the past has been mixed.” And the report concluded by noting, depressingly, that some of the wrongs of the past were being repeated today, with urgent action needed to reduce the rates of Indigenous Australian children in out-of-home care, and Indigenous Australians in prison.

Has the level of historical awareness among non-Indigenous Australians declined since the mid-1990s? As a university educator in Australian history, I have taught the subject since 2000, and it seems to me that, indeed, while many of those entering university do have a basic understanding that “White Australia has a Black History” (as the 1988 slogan put it), the grasp of the details, the complexities, the stories, and the ongoing impacts and effects of this history on all Australians is terribly feeble in the broader society today. If we are to embrace a positive and shared future, it is critical that Australians today make the effort to learn, and learn from, the history of race relations in this country.

Professor Victoria Haskins is co-director of the Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre, and a former ARC Future Fellow (2009-13). As a historian of Indigenous and women's histories, her key research interests are in gender, labour and cross-cultural relationships, with a focus on settler colonialism in Australia and the United States. She has published widely in the area of Indigenous domestic service histories and colonization, and utilizes comparative and transnational approaches to history. In 2013, she was awarded the NSW Centenary of Anzac Commemoration History Fellowship to research the impact of WWI on women in NSW.