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New website launched to drive national Truth-telling

Giovanni Torre -

A new website aimed at empowering Truth-telling in Australia - Towards Truth - was launched Monday morning.

Organisers of the site describe it as the first attempt to document and analyse the vast catalogue of laws and government policies that have impacted the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since colonisation

Towards Truth is a partnership between the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the UNSW Indigenous Law Centre (ILC), with significant support from pro bono partners across the legal field.

The website compiles laws and policies that have impacted First Nations people from 1788 until today, as well as government documents, reports, media articles and case studies that show their practical effects.

The website maps the systematic dispossession and disempowerment of Australia's first people alongside the ways in which the laws have sought to protect and provide for reparation.

Towards Truth founders say knowledge and information collected by the site is also testament to the long history of First Nations resistance and endurance.

"The dispossession of First Nations land, law and culture was not clandestine," said Scientia Professor Megan Davis, Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous at the University of New South Wales.

"Official government records show how laws made by our Parliaments and policies made by governments cumulatively provided the regulatory framework for dispossession and subjugation.

"Few Australians know about this because they are told the colonial period was messy or these decisions are a relic of their times. Or they are told the nation didn't collectively know. 'Why Weren't We Told?' is one of those narratives that seeks to exonerate Australians.

"After Uluru we contemplated the complex archival resources needed to paint an accurate picture of the dispossession of First Nations people. Many of the stories found in the dialogues referred to actions sanctioned by government laws and policies."

Towards Truth launch: PIAC and ILC staff with Professor Davis. Image: Keith Saunders

Towards Truth "invites Australians to recognise how law and policy can be both a positive tool and a destructive force".

"Australia's archives are full of laws and policies that show the damage of legal exclusion and control. It highlights how the law has been weaponised against Indigenous culture," said Professor Davis.

"The database speaks to the need for structural reform and the power of law- and policy-making to make a difference. Without the kind of structural reform the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart envisages, truth-telling is meaningless.

"The vision of truth determined by the First Nation Regional Dialogues, which led to the Uluru statement, captured this dynamic: localised and featuring understandings of a shared history within communities. But it cannot be Truth for Truth's sake. Towards Truth provides context to individual experiences and histories by shining a light on how formal legal processes and bureaucrats drive the direction of communities. It's a powerful database that shows why a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament is so overdue."

Towards Truth is a publicly available resource for research, investigation and education. The first stage includes materials relating to New South Wales, with potential to expand to all states and territories and the Commonwealth.

Public Interest Advocacy Centre chief executive Jonathon Hunyor said the site "compels us to reckon with our past and understand the deliberate, systematic choices that robbed so many First Nations people of their land, families and culture".

"By responding to the Uluru Statement's call for Voice, Treaty and Truth, we have an opportunity for repair and recovery," he said.

"As lawyers, we see the power of laws and government decisions every day. Towards Truth helps to explain the generational impacts of more than 200 years of laws and policies forced upon First Nations communities. It is a powerful reminder of why the voices of First Nations people must be heard if we are to make a better future.

"This is an ambitious project and we have been delighted to have the support of so many who have shared our vision for Towards Truth. This has included countless hours of legal research and analysis contributed by talented and passionate pro bono lawyers and generous financial support from corporate and philanthropic partners and private donors."

Towards Truth project coordinator Corey Smith noted "this isn't the history we learnt in school".

"Before working on Towards Truth, I didn't have an understanding of the pervasiveness of laws designed to erase First Nations culture. From voting rights to participating in court, child removals and suppressing languages, our work shows a history of harmful government decisions that have a lasting impact on families and communities," he said.

"My work has helped me understand the pressures my own family were under to hide or diminish their Aboriginality.

"We want to help young First Nations people answer any questions they have about their identity, why they can't speak their language – questions that I had when I was younger."

Herbert Smith Freehills pro bono solicitor Kishaya Delaney, who coordinates HSF's pro bono contributions to Towards Truth, said "being able to connect the dots between my own family's history and the legal reality at the time has had such a profound impact on me and my sense of identity".

"Towards Truth will allow people and communities across Australia come to terms with our history and understand the state sanctioned injustices that have led us to where we are today.

"Historically, First Nations people haven't been listened to. Towards Truth gives evidence of why a First Nations Voice is so important. It warns about what happens when First Nations people are not involved in the creation of law and policy, and helps us imagine what could happen if we were."

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