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Facing uncomfortable truths is a chance for repair

Sally Treveton -

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan's recent testimony at the Yoorrook Justice Commission is a stark reminder of the need to reckon with our history and its ongoing impact. The Premier's admission of ignorance of brutal massacres near her home reflects a broader failure to grapple with the past. These types of events are systemically excluded from our collective national memory, with a resulting lack of understanding of how these realities influence lives today.

When confronted with harrowing chapters of Australia's history, some people question its relevance to our modern, 'equal', society. Some reject responsibility for events that happened before they were born. It's tempting and comforting to rely on the old cliché: 'the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there'.

Yet, this perspective misses the point of why we revisit this history. The goal isn't to lay blame, but to shed light. To bring attention to the many dark and traumatic things that have happened here. And to show how the legacies of these things, influenced by certain attitudes and beliefs, are still at play: in the Australian people, in politics, and most importantly, in the lives of the people who have had to endure them.

Looking at even the recent past, we're faced with uncomfortable truths. Policies that stripped land from First Nations to enrich others, that exploited Aboriginal people for labour to build wealth for someone else, that marginalised the cultures and languages of Aboriginal people in favour of another's. A legacy of attempted assimilation and erasure.

This isn't merely historical recounting. The repercussions of these actions are woven into our societal fabric. Recognising the significance of the past is akin to acknowledging how a restless night affects the day that follows.

Denying a group the right to manage resources has lasting, significant impacts. The removal of children from their families to work without wages or live in institutions plants seeds of trauma, leaving subsequent generations bereft of both cultural heritage and material wealth.

But truth-telling is not just about reckoning with past injustices. It is also about recognising the enduring spirit of Aboriginal resistance and resilience.

Centuries of colonisation have not destroyed Aboriginal cultures: they are living, breathing embodiments of strength and survival. Aboriginal peoples have not merely endured but have actively resisted, survived and thrived – maintaining culture, language and connection to Country.

Across Australia, several states and territories are recognising that truth-telling can be a foundation for change and inform treaty making. Queensland has initiated the Truth-Telling and Healing Inquiry under the Path to Treaty Act 2023, while also establishing the First Nations Treaty Institute to document impacts of colonisation and foster community understanding. In Tasmania, a report informed by consultation with First Nations has recommended a truth-telling commission. Similarly, a report to the Northern Territory government based on research and consultation recommended exploring truth-telling.

The Victorian Yoorook Justice Commission has completed its work in the child protection and criminal justice systems sectors, with the Government accepting 28 of its 46 recommendations and considering 15 more. Hearings related to land, sky and waters are now complete, with the Commission set to deliver its final report in 2025.

In NSW, where colonisation began, Government has committed to consulting with Aboriginal communities about their aspirations for Treaty, which may involve truth-telling. But no formal process has been commenced.

From my own work, I know there is much that could be told. As a researcher with Towards Truth, I have seen the realities of what occurred in NSW and what it means for First Nations communities today. Our project is analysing year by year, law by law, what really happened here, and where it has left us. By compiling legislation, parliamentary debates, reports and media, we are building a comprehensive account of the historic and ongoing impacts of colonisation.

With wider awareness of this truth across NSW, wiser decisions could be made bringing opportunity for repair and restitution.

By honestly facing our history, we can begin to comprehend Aboriginal people's present aspirations and future needs. We have the tools for reform. The question is whether we have the collective will to use them.

I believe in the Australian people. I am convinced that, with a shared recognition and comprehension of the truth, there can be reform and transformative change. This is the essence of truth-telling, and it is indispensable.

Sally Treveton, Biripi woman and Legal Research Officer for Towards Truth, a partnership between the UNSW Indigenous Law Centre and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre


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