National Reconciliation Week took on a particular significance this year as it coincided with Mabo Day and the 20th anniversary of the High Court Mabo decision.
Perhaps it is timely then, given the Mabo decision and its links to the reconciliation movement, to re-evaluate where reconciliation has brought us as a nation, what advances have been made, and the eternal question: where to next?
This year Reconciliation Week began on the 45th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that saw Australian’s vote to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as citizens in this country. It is always a stark reminder for me that for the first 29 years of his life, my father was considered flora and fauna, not as a human being who is a citizen of this country.
Significant for me is the fact that as Reconciliation Week passes by this year, I too am 29 years old. The youngest child of my father, his namesake as well, I was a child when the 1991 report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was handed down and the formal reconciliation process began. So too were my contemporaries who are now indigenous women and men in their late 20s to late 30s, the daughters and sons of indigenous leaders and now indigenous leaders in their own right.
For us it is important to never lose sight of the main goal: equity and justice for indigenous Australians. There have been significant developments through the most popular vehicle used to achieve this goal, reconciliation, namely the apology from the Australian prime minister to stolen generations. However, what of those of us who do not view reconciliation as the best and only vehicle to achieving equity and justice?
Reconciliation should be a movement that places the burden of responsibility, to right the wrongs, solely on the shoulders of non-indigenous Australia. Unfortunately, this is not entirely evident in the reconciliation movement, and outside of government and parts of the corporate world it is often assumed that reconciliation is a movement driven only by indigenous Australians.
Credit should be given where it is due, however. Reconciliation, as the popular vehicle, has some very powerful and famous proponents of it from among non-indigenous Australia. However, what is this actually achieving? Generation One and any number of reconciliation action plans developed by government, education institutions and big business often seek to increase the employment of indigenous Australians, but how many of them are achieving targets and how are they achieving those targets?
The AFL engages directly with indigenous Australia, but there are reports that drafting and retention of indigenous players is on the decline and then there was that dreadful scandal involving Adelaide Crows recruiting manager Matt Rendell. The federal government is one of the main supporters of reconciliation with one hand, but the other hand recently pushed through the legislation to roll out the second incarnation of the highly controversial and widely criticised Northern Territory intervention, re-branded as the “Stronger Futures Policy”.
Maybe, this comes back to the very inception of reconciliation itself. As my contemporary Tiriki Onus — an early 30s opera singer, visual artist, curator and son of the late Aboriginal artist Lin Onus — shares with me, he believes that the vehicle of reconciliation starts with the premise that there was a good relationship between the two “adversaries” to begin with. As almost everyone would agree, this is not the case, and therefore how can reconciliation achieve the goals of equity and justice while working from this false premise?
Or maybe it is more about where we are at in terms of reconciliation now? Another early 30s contemporary, Renee Williamson — indigenous activist and critical thinker — alerted me to an event organised for Reconciliation Week on racism that featured a panel of people from minority groups, but only one indigenous Australian. While there is nothing wrong with panels discussing racism that feature people from a variety of different backgrounds, Williamson is right to state that holding such a panel during Reconciliation Week takes away from the fight for equity and justice for indigenous Australians.
How can Australia as a nation move forward, better itself as a nation, when it has not corrected its relationship with its indigenous peoples? To me it is like building a house without the proper foundations, you cannot fix any other issues until the foundation is corrected. And so it follows, if reconciliation is the most popular movement by which to achieve this equity and justice, then perhaps now with the 45th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the 20th anniversary of the handing down of the Mabo decision, maybe now this is the time to re-imagine the reconciliation movement and make some leaps and bounds forward.
*Eugenia Flynn is a Larrakiah, Tiwi, Chinese and Muslim Australian woman. Her thoughts on race, gender and religion can be found mostly on her blog Black Thoughts Live Here.