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Truth-telling research identifies barriers and enablers in path to meaningful reconciliation

Callan Morse -

New research has uncovered the need for significant capacity building to enable meaningful and safe participation in truth-telling.

Broadly accepted as a much-needed step towards recognition and reconciliation, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) study into truth-telling found significant uncertainty surrounding the concept among non-Indigenous Australians, how it is conducted, and how to participate.

Undertaken by UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture researchers on behalf of Reconciliation Australia, the report, Coming to terms with the past? Identifying barriers and enablers to truth-telling explores attitudes towards, barriers to and enablers of truth-telling in Australia.

The report details significant gaps in the understanding of truth-telling between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians.

It also highlights the need to consider the aims of community truth-telling initiatives, establish protocols for safe and inclusive events and build truth-telling and truth-listening capacity among participants.

UNSW School of Humanities & Languages Indigenous Land and Justice Research Group co-lead researcher, Dr Anne Maree Payne, said there are broad misconceptions held throughout society about the point and purpose of truth-telling.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians don't always share a common understanding of what truth-telling involves, what it might achieve, and how to go about it," Dr Payne said.

"This research identifies a need to demystify truth-telling and address some of the critical barriers to participation in truth-telling for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians that were identified."

The comprehensive research project involved a literature review, media analysis of six weeks of news reporting about truth-telling, a 225-respondent survey and 10 in-depth interviews to uncover truth-telling perspectives.

A quarter of survey respondents identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and 20 per cent of those interviewed were Aboriginal people. Most saw themselves as supporters of reconciliation and truth-telling, and who were already highly engaged with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories.

The report found for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peopled, the impact of trauma and need for cultural safety in truth-telling were significant concerns with non-Indigenous peoples - although seeing themselves as highly engaged with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and truth-telling - still indicated significant uncertainty about how to participate in the practise.

"Even among non-Indigenous people who see themselves as highly supportive of Indigenous issues, there is significant anxiety about participating in truth-telling," Dr Payne said.

"This uncertainty was around not knowing what truth-telling involves or lack of opportunity to participate, which highlights the need for basic literacy in the wider population about truth-telling."

Report findings also included that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were highly committed to truth-telling, although less likely than non-Indigenous people to agree that truth-telling might lead to justice.

They also identified a range of motivations for participating in truth-telling, not just education of non-Indigenous people.

UNSW School of Humanities & Languages Indigenous Land and Justice Research Group co-lead researcher, Prof. Heidi Norman, said the research uncovered differences in truth-telling perspectives held by Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

"Non-Indigenous people were interested in attending truth-telling to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's stories," Prof. Norman said.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more interested in truth-telling about their local community than non-Indigenous people and were also much more likely to be motivated to participate in truth-telling to share their own personal or family history or perspective."

Reconciliation Australia Chief Executive Officer, Karen Mundine, said the report makes an important contribution to the evidence-base necessary to inform community truth-telling.

"…community truth-telling processes must be informed by evidence, and the importance of this new research is in identifying barriers and enablers to truth-telling and strategies to promote historical acceptance," Ms Mundine said.

"Critically, the report finds that truth-telling must be an ongoing process of dialogue and engagement, not a 'one-off' event or activity and that truth-telling must be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

"The research emphasises that any processes must be trauma-informed and guided by culturally safe protocols."

The report highlighted the three dominant understandings of truth-telling: truth-telling to achieve justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, truth-telling to promote reconciliation and healing, truth-telling to challenge and change historical understanding, and a fourth category about the 'how to' of truth-telling.

"While acknowledging the interconnections between these categories, we believe this framework is useful for considering the wide range of initiatives and events currently taking place in Australia under the umbrella of 'truth-telling'," Dr Payne said.

"Truth-telling is not a panacea that will fix every problem facing Indigenous communities.

"It's one step that is part of a bigger journey towards recognition and reconciliation, not a destination in itself."

The report is available via the Reconciliation Australia website.

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