Yes, it matters

Reconciliation with First Nations peoples goes way beyond an Acknowledgement of Country, writes GML Partner and CEO Sharon Veale.

An honest reckoning with our past is required to create the necessary structural changes to ensure First Nations peoples have their rights and interests in land and water recognised. In May 2020, when Rio Tinto blasted the 46,000-year-old caves in Juukan Gorge, WA, it devastated a place of profound cultural value. The community faced a ‘perfect storm’ with an abject failure of support and protection, which according to Hon. Warren Entsch MP, Chair of the Inquiry, ‘robbed a significant piece of history from all Australians—from the world’.   

We need to listen. The country’s leaders, now and in the future, must be committed to opening the door to the haunted house that is Australia’s history recognising the continuing impacts of colonisation and dispossession. We each need to become more culturally fluent, recognising and respecting the diversity and significance of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Australians lives and cultures as collectively we work towards equity, justice and healing. With the Uluru Statement from the Heart calling for truthtelling and the landmark Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum on the near horizon, each of us needs to take the time to understand the facts, outside of the politics, to recognise and create the opportunity for equitable constitutional participation recognising First Nations peoples’ sovereign rights. 

Australia signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2009. Yet the realisation of its principles and purpose into law, policy and practice to engage with and protect Indigenous human rights has not been effective.

In her keynote address at the 21st General Assembly of ICOMOS – International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS GA2023) held in Sydney earlier in September, June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, eloquently reminded us that we need to work collectively to transform our systems and structures from ‘siloed, punitive, top-down and short-term to holistic, healing-orientated, culturally and community-grounded and sustainable … where knowledges, songlines and ceremonies are recognised for their worth and importance and our Laws are upheld, respected, intergenerationally transferred and embedded within local, regional and national governance and decision making’.  

Taking steps in the right direction, at the ICOMOS GA2023 several resolutions were adopted. This included implementing a human rights-based approach to cultural heritage management; recognising Indigenous peoples values and the interconnections of culture and nature; and ensuring Indigenous inclusion throughout ICOMOS, as well as working with communities to understand the impact of climate change on Indigenous heritage.   

In short, we need a profound shift, one that centres on self-determination and recognition of Indigenous rights. In Australia, gaining a better understanding of our history, and ensuring truth and reconciliation becomes intrinsic to our democracy by writing it into our constitution through a Voice to Parliament will give us all hope and reflect that we truly value our First Nations peoples and recognise their rights and responsibilities.