Last Friday, on the 26th of January, I had the most confronting speaking experience I have ever encountered in over three decades of public engagements about reconciliation.
I had accepted an invitation from the Anglesea Lions Club to be a keynote speaker at their event. Prior to the event I advised I would speak on "truth-telling" and provided information on my roles – including Co-Chair of Reconciliation Victoria and Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor Reconciliation at Federation University – and sent them links to some of my publications written over several decades. It was very clear what I would speak about.
I arrived from my two-hour drive from Melbourne, very much looking forward to speaking at the event and having some engaging conversations about truth telling and reconciliation. Instead, midway through my speech, when I mentioned the word "invasion", many in the audience started aggressively booing and heckling me. These comments included "piss off", "shut up", and "f**k off" and were so loud that I was forced to halt my speech.
I was even more shocked though at the complete lack of support from the club to me as their keynote speaker. Rather than explaining to the audience that I was an invited speaker who was speaking on my area of expertise, and that they could either listen to me or leave the event, the club's President instead told me I could not continue my speech. Even more concerningly, he pulled me from the microphone.
As I walked off the stage, I continued to be loudly booed and heckled. I was concerned for my personal safety, with people screaming at me from close quarters with much anger as I moved through the crowd. At no time during this ordeal did anyone from the club intervene to protect me by telling the audience to stop their appalling behaviour.
While several people approached me later, including members of the Anglesea Lions Club, to privately apologise for the actions of the crowd and the club's President, the only person who made a public apology was Peter Yates AM, the other keynote speaker. It was disappointing though that none of these people who apologised to me after the event supported me at the time the crowd and organisers were preventing me from speaking.
The club President also later came up to me to apologise for grabbing my arm, but then criticised me for being "political" by using the word "invasion". This claim was repeated by him, and also made by the local Liberal MP, in subsequent news articles. What they both failed to understand though was I was not being "political", but rather simply stating the truth. "Political", along with "woke", is often used to try to shut down discussions on truth-telling.
There have been three news articles written about this event. Only the first reached out to me for comment. Of the other two, one included several quotes from the local Liberal State MP and the second was written by a journalist. Despite both being at the event, neither talked to me, but instead made hurtful and inaccurate claims, minimised the crowd and organiser's behaviour, and sensationalised rather than sought understanding.
It is critically important to position this specific event in Anglesea within a broader context. Several behaviours demonstrated at this event – racism, exclusion, silencing, violence, bystander apathy, white privilege, and white fragility – are all directed towards Indigenous peoples every day of the year, very often in far, far worse circumstances. Non-Indigenous allies must genuinely increase our efforts to strongly advocate against these disgusting and appalling practices.
Further, these disgraceful behaviours have considerably worsened following the First Nations Voice Referendum in October. The Anglesea event is but one example of a clearly observable trend where many non-Indigenous opponents of the Voice are attempting to create momentum from the Referendum defeat to push back against hard-won transformational gains made over the past several decades in reconciliation, truth, and justice.
Local governments are abolishing Welcomes to Country and Acknowledgements of Country. State political parties are backflipping on previous commitments to engage with Treaties and Truth-telling. Patriotic fervour is being whipped up against any organisations that fail to jingoistically support "Australia Day". Appalling levels of structural and individual racism towards Indigenous peoples, both online and in person, continue to increase.
Indigenous peoples across the country are undertaking inspirational and transformational work on Voice, Treaty, and Truth, including the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria with Treaty, and the Yoorrook Justice Commission with Truth-telling. This extraordinary work though, along with our ongoing national reconciliation journey, is under considerable threat from these racist and divisive practices. I strongly urge all non-Indigenous allies to genuinely help push back against these practices, and continue to have brave conversations about reconciliation, truth, and justice.
Professor Andrew Gunstone is a leading authority on reconciliation. He is Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor Reconciliation and Professor Indigenous Studies at Federation University, where he established and leads the National Centre for Reconciliation, Truth, and Justice. He is also Co-Chair of Reconciliation Victoria and sits on several national reconciliation committees.