National Reconciliation Week, Walking Together with Courage

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long called for a comprehensive process of truth-telling about Australia’s colonial history. Our nation’s past is reflected in the present, and will continue to play out in future unless we heal historical wounds..."

National Reconciliation Week annually commemorates of two major milestones on the journey towards justice and equality for our First Nations People.

National Reconciliation Week begins on Referendum Day―27 May, a momentous day in 1967 when more than 90% of Australians supported amendments to the Constitution recognising equality for Indigenous Australians. This was a turning point in Australian history. The campaign was ambitious and the victory hard-won. New South Wales campaign director Faith Bandler told voters:

When you write Yes in the lower square of your ballot paper you are holding out the hand of friendship and wiping out nearly 200 years of injustice and inhumanity.

The end of Reconciliation Week, on 3 June, commemorates another great moment in our nation’s path to justice. This was the day in 1992 when the High Court of Australia recognised the Meriam people as the traditional, rightful and legal owners of the island of Mer in the Torres Strait. The battle had been fought for over ten years, led by the courageous Eddie Koiki Mabo. Sadly, Mabo died before seeing his people given justice, however, his legacy lives on for all Australians. The ‘Mabo Decision’ recognised that the settlement of Australia under the pretext of terra nullius – a land belonging to nobody- was invalid. The decision led to the passing of the Native Title Act 1993, the legislative framework through which Indigenous Australians can achieve legal recognition of their Traditional Ownership and rights to their Country.

These milestones represent the strength, endurance and resilience of Indigenous Australians in their ongoing fight for justice and equality. This is a struggle that continues. At the start of Reconciliation Week in 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued by delegates to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Referendum Convention.

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution….In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

Its three pillars of truth, treaty and voice resonant strongly across time and place and point the way to a new nationhood.

National Reconciliation Week is also an opportunity to reflect on the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill in NSW. Last year, a summary of public submissions report was released, showing overwhelming support for the Bill. Further targeted consultation will further refine the Bill before it is again considered by the NSW government.

We hope that the NSW government ‘walks with courage’ to reform Aboriginal cultural heritage management towards recognising and protecting the rights and interests of Aboriginal people in land, sea and Country.  Since the National Parks and Wildlife Act first included provisions for the protection of Aboriginal heritage in the 1970s, the overwhelming focus in the context of environment impact assessment has been on ‘stones and bones’.  While there is no denying the significance of such evidence, it is the lived experiences, values, meanings and rights and interests of Aboriginal people that warrant particular care and attention in land use planning.  At GML, we trust that the State government’s next steps will be in that direction.