A necessary conversation


7 Feb 2023

Reconciliation with Australia’s First Nations peoples requires change, commitment and respect.

In recent years the Anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations has been seen in the light of the debates about the appropriateness of the date of Australia Day. This year the Apology will help frame the conversation about the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The content and the shape of the Apology are a proper starting point for conversation about the Referendum and the way in which we should engage in it.

In the Apology the Australian government spoke on behalf of all Australians in recognising that Australia had acted wrongly in removing Indigenous children from their parents. The removal was dictated by the disrespectful claim that the children were defined, not by their shared humanity, but by their race. This disrespect caused lasting damage to the children affected, to their families and their descendants. It was possible only because of the Indigenous experience after the colonisation of their land. This was one of invasion, massacres, displacement, expulsion from land and the cultures it nurtured, violation of sacred places, the taking away of their children, discrimination enshrined in law and in custom, racism and condescension within Australian life, and imposed marginalisation. It obscured the heroic story of endurance, resistance, guarding of culture and language, organisation, pride and constant struggle for justice that were also part of Indigenous experience. Recognition of this history must be the starting point for conversation about the referendum.

The choreography of the Apology is also relevant to the Referendum. It was not a talking about Indigenous issues but a conversation between representatives of the Australian nation and Indigenous representatives. The Prime Minister made the Apology in person to representatives of the Stolen Generations. In doing so he emphasised that all Australians are equally entitled to respect, and that the government is responsible to ensure that all Australians are treated equally regardless of their race and history. The Apology also recognised that Indigenous Australians have a special place in Australia as the first peoples. They are not the objects of Australian policy but the subjects of their own history.

The dignity and respect involved in the Apology need to be kept in mind as the Referendum becomes a reality. Already there are signs that it still be exploited for political gain and will feature voices of prejudice and hatred, voices of activists who wish to harness the Referendum to other causes, and voices of confusion. These contrast with the voice of the Uluru Statement on the Voice, a disciplined, encouraging, respectful and modest voice.

The Referendum and the Voice are further steps toward reconciliation. The prospect of the Voice, like the memory of the Apology, brings joy and hope both to our Indigenous members and others. But its ritual and its words both made clear that reconciliation will demand great change. To accept and to implement that is our common challenge.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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