While reconciliation is a nice idea, it has been expressed in Australia as politeness, white people learning about Aboriginal cultures, and corporate guilt-relief.
The problem with this framing of race relations is two-fold – it is limited to what white people will accept or feel comfortable with, and it does not deal with the substantive issues at hand: genocide and the normalised power imbalances of white control.
The result of this blinkered approach is that Rio Tinto can knowingly blow up 46 000 years of human history, and the country slaps it on the wrist by – oooh shudder – revoking their Reconciliation Action Plan. They must be trembling at the knees while they laugh all the way to the bank. Even the hands of the Aboriginal Treasurer and Minister for Indigenous Affairs in Western Australia are seemingly tied – white profits and greed always trump (pun intended) Black Lives Matter.
The answer to this collective national amnesia and pretence is the truth.
We have to lance the boil, once and for all. Not just because it is good for race relations between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and all the immigrants that have ‘arrived’ since 1770, but because white Australians will finally get to squarely and safely face their own backstory of rejection and shaming by their European forebears.
How can we look other nations in the eye without knowing properly what deep values and whose ground we stand on?
The values we espouse as a nation are confused and colonial – we believe in mateship, and some love the Queen’s ceremony, but we hate English classism and snobbery. We are up the proverbial of the USA on every front, but we think the Yanks are jerks too. We make fun of New Zealand and our Pacific neighbours as small backyard playgrounds, but they routinely show us up by delivering good ol‘decency and strength.
Telling the truth in an ethical, open and respectful way will set us free. But even the truth is not enough – the evidence tells us so.
The Ebony Institute, Australia’s first independent Black think tank, has been thinking deeply about and researching these issues for the last five years. We trawled through the evidence of what thirty-two countries found or produced as part of formal truth-telling commissions, and also countless international and Australian informal experiences of truth-telling.
Two key lessons are apparent. First, that truth-telling must be based on the evidence, not merely on political control of the narrative, or narrow legal or punitive terms of reference, or on social activist sentiment.
These things must be balanced with clear and transparent motivations of atonement and honesty, and with the will to do something about it. The South African experience is instructive here, where Mandela and Tutu led the country through the heart-rendering experience of expunging national shame and atrocities. However, Black South Africans have rightly asked since then, what is the point of telling the truth if economic justice is not served? Who controls the money?
The second key lesson is that any formal truth telling must be based on the primacy of the voices of the victims and their families. In Germany for example, where the government has rightly memorialised the Holocaust, made it illegal to deny, and teach it as a part of the national curriculum so everyone understands the weight of the term ‘never again’, Jewish communities have reported that much of that work was done from the perspective of Germans, not Jews.
The truth is not enough.
We must, as a nation, also come to terms with the ‘so what?’ question. Why should Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples spill our guts again when nothing changes? The Deaths in Custody Royal Commission and Bringing Them Home National Inquiry amounted to crumbs – Black Australians are statistically more likely to get murdered in custody than die of coronavirus. Racism in the public health system, from nurses, doctors and other health professionals, accounts for at least one third of the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Victorians.
The substantive question of what justice looks like must be addressed. What does healing look like? Not just for the victims, but also the perpetrators? Should truth telling be localised, or state based or national, or a combination of all? How might we leave a better future for our grandkids? How might we ensure culturally safe social and emotional wellbeing supports for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the witnesses hearing their stories?
Coming to terms with genocide is not easy. No one really wants to talk about difficult stuff. But lance the boil we must.
It is for these reasons that the Ebony Institute are now taking the next step to talk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and seek their views on a national framework for truth, justice and healing. We must ensure truth-telling is not just another pithy exercise in national shame.
– Gregory Phillips is from the Waanyi and Jaru Aboriginal Australian peoples, and comes from Cloncurry and Mount Isa.He is a medical anthropologist, with thirty years’ experience in leading change.