After the (failed) referendum dust settles

Mar 19, 2024
Sun set reminiscent of the iconic Australian Aboriginal flag.

David Marr’s recent book, Killing for Country, confronts the reality of the dispossession of Aboriginal lands in Queensland by the Native Police Force. It is a recounting of wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of “natives” in order to settle the land that never was Terra Nullius.

Most confronting for Marr is the realization that it was his ancestors, the Uhrs, who led the Native Police and instigated the killing. Though painful to admit, (as indeed it is to read) he felt compelled to research and write the truth. Why? As Marr points out it is easy to see this as an historical reality, but the bitter truth is that he, like all non-indigenous, continue to reap the benefits of indigenous dispossession of land. Further, historians claim that any Australian with non-indigenous heritage dating back 3 or 4 generations in this country, will find their own ancestors in some way implicated in the injustices of dispossession. When then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued the Apology to the Stolen Generation, on 13th February 2008, many decried it, walked out or turned their backs in the Parliament claiming, “we were not responsible”. It is not just that the “sins of the parents are visited on the children” but rather that the “children” continue to profit from the sins of the parents. How do we redress the sins of the past as individuals, communities and as a nation? In part, this was what the Referendum on a Voice to Parliament attempted to answer.

Prescinding from why the Referendum failed and the heartache this caused for many of us, I believe there are ways forward and a Catholic perspective on the sacrament of Reconciliation (or Penance) may be a reasonable starting point for people of any faith or none. In the Church’s tradition the sacrament from the penitent’s perspective requires 3 things; Repentance (i.e. sorrow for sin including an undertaking not to repeat it), Confession (i.e. disclosure of sins) and Reparation (i.e. restitution where possible). Clearly these aspects are a part of any relationship. “I am sorry for …., I won’t do it again, and I will try to make it up to you.” If we transpose this to a national reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters perhaps some clarity may be gained. First the nation’s sorrow; sorrow for the sins of the past, sorrow at the continuing sinfulness, sorrow that we, as Marr points out, experience the fruits of past failings. Integral to this is the truth telling about the moral failures in our relationship with First Nations People; stolen land, stolen children, stolen opportunities inter alia. (This is not the place to catalogue but to acknowledge the failings as that has and will be done elsewhere.) This includes the promise of “never again”. Finally comes the reparation. How can we as a nation atone for our failings and heal division leading to true reconciliation. Of course, this is a 2-sided process and requires the injured party, in this case over 200 indigenous nations, to accept the process in good faith that we may move forward. Thus, reconciliation is a process, not a moment, and setbacks, even major ones like the failure of the Referendum, cannot be allowed to derail the process.

There have been times in our recent history when we have seen how a reconciliation process could work. Then Prime Minister Paul Keating, launching the International Year for the World’s Indigenous People at Redfern on 10th December 1992, recognized our national failing. He stated:
Just a mile or two from this place where European settlers landed, in too many ways it tells us that their failure to bring much more than devastation and demoralization to Aboriginal Australia continues to be our failure. More I think than most Australians recognize, the plight of Aboriginal Australia affects us all.

Keating continue with a list of the failings endemic to colonization each prefaced by “we did…”. Then follows the ways in which reparation can be enacted as a path to the “never again”. Key amongst these was the Mabo decision on land rights just 6 months previous. A similar case could be made for the process of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous People of the 13th February 2008.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were the stolen generations- this blemished chapter in our nation’s history. The time has come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

Repentance, Confession, Repatriation.

What will our national reconciliation project look like now as the dust settles after the failed Referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament? Difficult to know but it is certain that we as a nation have some painful truths to face, apologies to make, and reparations to enact. Like David Marr we must face the uncomfortable fact that we are the beneficiaries of our forebear’s violent injustices, and it is incumbent on all Australians to ameliorate the plight of disadvantage to our modern-day Indigenous brothers and sisters. Will we be honest enough to name our moral failings? Will we look to a future where racism and disadvantage disappear from our national story. Will we be prepared to pay the price of a different future? Are we, in short, prepared as a nation to be integrated enough to engage in a process of makarrata and come together after acknowledged conflict?

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