As our country commemorated January 26th once again as our national day, it is time for a renewed discussion on how and when we celebrate being Australian. This year offers an opportunity to begin a process of healing as a nation following last year's referendum experience. A renewed approach to truth-telling, which the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for, is much needed in this post-referendum age.
The idea of what is 'truth' is often contested with multiple perspectives of what constitutes reality or a recounting of the same set of events. For Australia we have not been able to integrate our First Nations 'truths' into the national narrative of our history. Instead, we focus on what suits our image of ourselves as a young nation which only came into proper existence at the turn of the twentieth century. This not only ignores the colonial period, frontier wars and the impacts of settlement on our First Nations associated with it, but also ignores the 65,000+ years of continuous cultures and societies that we should proudly promote and feel a part of. This is a stain on our character and a weakness for our standing regionally and globally. By refusing to acknowledge the full truth of our history we are limiting our opportunity to grow and realise our full potential as a people and as a nation.
So why is it that truth-telling matters so much and how can it "set us free" as a nation?
Two fundamental traits of humanity are that we are driven to complete things and at the same time have an inherent need for balance and healing. These driving forces are fundamental to explaining how humanity and human societies deal with change to their physical, social, political, and economic environments.
A new era is often defined by the perceived completion of a previous one. We as humans feel compelled to complete what has come before either through its natural end or by actions or decisions to move on from a particular defining era. In creating a new era, human societies often feel compelled to address imbalances that were factors or causes of the end of the previous era – particularly where there may have been conflict. By doing so we restore a balance which leads to healing and hopefully a better future.
This doesn't just apply to 'truth telling' of history in Australia but also to the recognition of climate change after decades of denial of the truth of human-induced warming; post-conflict situations (such as what will in future be needed in Gaza and the Ukraine) or even changes from unfair and despotic systems of rule such as the Apartheid system In South Africa where truth-telling allowed divided groups to come together and reconcile their differences peacefully.
One theory of why the YES vote could not be achieved in the recent referendum is that we are still in deep and active denial of the history of our nation. Despite years of effort to raise the consciousness of the nation to this history, many still seem unaware of the heavy price paid by our First Nations people to give birth to the country we now know as Australia.
January 26th is a case in point. The day, far from being a day of inclusion and unity for all Australians, was specifically selected as a day commemorating the first fleet's planting of the British flag in Sydney Cove and the establishment of a future of dispossession, permanent settlement and rule over Australia by the British Crown and its people as part of the British Empire- all this at the expense of our First Nations.
It is easy to remain ignorant of our record of treatment of First Nations peoples throughout our history. When was the last time you saw a documentary series like Rachel Perkin's 'First Australians' or the 'Australian Wars' on commercial television? This history of conquest, conflict and in some cases decimation of the First Nations people of our land is often cast in the media as 'activist' or a 'black-arm band' view of history designed to focus on the negative aspects of Australia's past.
However, given these events and occurrences were often documented historically by those who perpetrated the violence and remain a part of a living history for many Australians whose families and ancestors were impacted by them, don't we have a moral responsibility to come to grips with the reality of what it means to be Australian and with the cost borne by some members of our community?
Truth-telling is important to human civilisations not only for healing but also for nation-building. In his 1992 Redfern speech, Paul Keating said:
And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.
The process of truth-telling is an essential step toward healing and being able to move forward. It is also an opportunity to bring balance back to broken relationships and trust after periods of conflict. It is for this reason that a call for the Uluru Statement's call for a 'Makarrata' Commission or process of truth-telling following a period of conflict was such a central tenet.
It is also why, at this moment of our history, I believe truth-telling is our best pathway forward to healing our nation post-referendum.
As Dr Martin Luther King Jr said: "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
Director for Justice and Advocacy (ERCS)
Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education