The False Promises of Reconciliation

During Australia Day 1998, a campaign was launched in Sydney by the Australians for Native Title and Recognition (ANTAR). Motivated by the Bringing Them Home report in 1997, this movement advocated an official apology and acknowledgment of the Stolen Generations. The Australian government refused this request. John Howard, the Prime Minister, moved towards a “Motion of Reconciliation”. ANTAR responded with the provocative “Sorry Book” campaign. Thousands of books circulated around the nation, collecting signatures and stories. Each “Sorry Book” began with a declaration, expressing “deep regret for the injustices suffered by Indigenous Australians as a result of European settlement” as well as a reference to the Stolen Generations. The statement includes an explicit apology for the “hurt and harm” caused by previous government policies. In addition, there is a desire for reconciliation among “all of our peoples”. Interestingly, the last sentence is a commitment to a “united Australia”.

These books were displayed by local councils, churches, art galleries, schools and shops. A Sorry Book even emerged in London, giving Australian expatriates and visitors a chance to write in it. Some opted for a signature. Others wrote detailed apologies, empathising with indigenous Australians. According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, many expressed frustration at the federal government’s lack of apology. The Sorry Books also appeared in schools.

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These Sorry Books came at a crucial time in Australian history, nearly a century after federation. The 1990s saw Aboriginal affairs shaping much of Australia’s political history. A previous Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, stated he wanted to bring Australians together under the concept of Reconciliation. The prospect of a united Australia, where citizens enjoyed equality and friendship, appealed to many. Reconciliation was the method of achieving this dream.

The dream, however, refused to come true. Decades after the Sorry Books, Australia prepares for the referendum on “the Voice”. This proposed constitutional change has the support of NGOs such as Reconciliation Australia and others focusing on indigenous affairs. In response, there has been terrific journalism by Michael Green and Peter Smith, among others writing for Quadrant Online. To paraphrase a common point raised, the Voice risks dividing Australian society further. This is partially the result of a constitutional change based on ethnicity. Yet, I will argue, the Voice exploits the empty promises of reconciliation towards all Australians. One must consider the response from prestigious universities and popular newspapers to understand this manipulation in action.

The ANU Reporter recently published the article “Voice Referendum is a Historic Opportunity for Reconciliation” by Professor Peter Yu. Ever polarising, the Sydney Morning Herald also engaged in melo­drama, with “Our Most Important Year: Pearson Fears Reconciliation Will Be Lost Forever”. From this, reconciliation only seems possible if Australians vote a certain way. It’s difficult not to interpret these headlines as emotional blackmail. An Australian who votes No should not be regarded as an obstacle in the way of better relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It is unacceptable to manipulate Australians, Aboriginal or not, into voting for a utopia which will never arrive. Reconciliation has no end. To quote Reconciliation Australia, it must “live in the hearts, minds and actions of all Australians”. This mirrors the worst impulses of Robin DiAngelo, the American author of White Fragility. To DiAngelo, whites are automatically racist and must commit to a lifetime of anti-racism. There is no promise of a future where people, regardless of race, live together peacefully.

When applied to Australia, DiAngelo’s writings mirror attempts at “decolonisation” by Australians. One example comes from the charity Barayamal. On its web page, decolonisation is described as “the process of undoing the cultural and political effects of colonisation”. This could refer to the English language or our parliamentary system. At worst, “undoing” means ridding Australia of “invaders”. It is improper to assume this intent among these activists. However, there is a clear bridge between decolonisation and reconciliation. To some campaigners, these two principles have no difference. In the eyes of someone like Senator Lidia Thorpe, they may suggest the same meaning.

This was not the reconciliation promised to Australians under Bob Hawke. Much of Australia’s political culture from the 1990s to the late 2000s stressed the importance of a “united Australia”. This is not coming true. Australia is increasingly divided, racialised and bitter. The increasing attacks on Australia Day by businesses and politicians are evidence of this. Telstra’s chief executive, Vicki Brady, announced her intent to work on Australia Day, and some pubs said they would not participate. The Guardian had a list of “Invasion Day” protests and events. P&O Cruises ended up overturning the ban on Australian flags by staff after a public backlash. 

Universities indulge in this catastrophe, too. Many units and departments are a front for activism. The Freilich Project for the Study of Bigotry, at ANU, is a clear example of this. Reconciliation, it seems, is a vehicle to make ordinary Australians as uncomfortable as possible. This is done under the guise of “responsibility” and “healing”.

The most damning flaw in the Sorry Book is the blame assigned to all Australians. By encouraging signatures from Australians with no role in Aboriginal policy, this puts the responsibility on them. No Australian deserves a life where they are treated as guilty, living on “stolen land”.

Many Australians, like me, have ancestors who arrived between the First Fleet and the Gold Rush. These individuals faced awful conditions to reach Australia. Over generations, they built the country we live in today. They built universities, fought in Gallipoli, advocated for Federation and founded businesses. Australian Aborigines contributed to this great country—it would be false to argue the opposite. However, Reconciliation is currently a disguise for decolonisation, racial exclusion and historical vengeance. It is less about love and more about power. The Australian people, Aboriginal or not, risk voting a certain way due to the enticing promises of Reconciliation.

Those advocating Reconciliation or healing should have the honesty to express their true intentions. I doubt these activists, politicians and journalists believe in a truly “united Australia”. To hide this from others, they use Reconciliation a shield.

The word Reconciliation has significance among Australians. Theology has its role: many Australians are Christian, and understand salvation as the result of atonement. Reconciliation is also a sacrament in the Catholic Church and precedes the Eucharist. In Christianity, reconciliation shares a deep link with salvation, peace, sacrifice and atonement. This helps everyone. However, Reconciliation, as argued by Christian theologian John W. de Gruchy, has taken on a new usage in the modern era. Political groups and governments apply the concept of reconciliation. This was shown in post-apartheid South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reconciliation has also shaped Irish and Korean culture. Ireland is a significant example due to the Christian divisions in the Troubles. Reconciliation in Australia has theological and global underpinnings, but the state of Reconciliation in 2023 does not inspire hope.

Two critical points require articulation. The first one concerns the referendum on the Voice. It is absolutely unacceptable for activists to use Reconciliation to earn votes. For many Australians, Reconciliation evokes an image of a united Australia, enjoying peace. In addition, the Australian Constitution is not the playground for activists seeking change. No votes, particularly those in a referendum, should come from these bullying tactics. It’s crucial to remain unmotivated by these campaigns.

Australians should be welcome to vote their preferred way, either for or against the proposed change. Elections and politics have the power to upset many. We accept this as Australians taking part in a democracy. It is not right to respond with censorship. We should encourage debate and discussion. Australian-based publications such as Quadrant and Quillette have provided a home for unorthodox views on cultural subjects. We can discuss the Voice with our friends and family, while remaining firm on our choices.

Second, Australia needs to rethink Reconcili­ation’s role in the future. Currently, Reconciliation is the pet project of activists and journalists, who bully Australians. Only progressives with fashionable opinions get to shape this conversation. This is why Adam Bandt is promoted over Jacinta Price.  

I do not believe Bob Hawke or the thousands of signatures in the Sorry Books came from a hateful place. Many advocates for Reconciliation, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, were motivated by concern for their fellow countrymen and women. It is shameful that hateful doctrines of decolonisation and racial hatred against European-descent Australians have taken hold of the conversation. Perhaps Reconciliation was always destined to evolve like that.

Australia requires a new vision of peace between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. For too long, activist groups and NGOs have run the conversation on indigenous affairs. Australia is not better from this. Schools, state governments, businesses and universities shouldn’t treat any Australian as an “invader” or “living on stolen land”. This especially includes children who have a right to innocence. Critical Race Theory must not prevail.

None of this means neglecting Aboriginal communities in places like Alice Springs. These are our fellow Australians. We have a duty to uphold law and order in our great nation.

Reconciliation should be a hopeful concept, synonymous with healing, peace and friendship. The promise of Reconciliation was a commitment to a better tomorrow.

But Reconciliation, as it is known now in Australia, has not provided this and probably will not. An honest conversation about its merits is fundamental to our great civilisation.

Madeleine Rose Jones has a BA in Modern History from Macquarie University. She lives in Sydney and runs the literary blog Snowy Fictions.


10 thoughts on “The False Promises of Reconciliation

  • NarelleG says:

    There will be many regrets from people like myself who signed the book at our Town Hall – and planted ‘sorry hands’ outside the Post Office in Cootamundra in NSW.

    {Many advocates for Reconciliation, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, were motivated by concern for their fellow countrymen and women. It is shameful that hateful doctrines of decolonisation and racial hatred against European-descent Australians have taken hold of the conversation. …………………..Perhaps Reconciliation was always destined to evolve like that.}

    Anyone under 35 is already programmed – gosh adult children are turning on their parents.
    We are the boomers who need to ‘wake up’ and stop being ‘woke.’!!!!!

  • Michael says:

    Let me offer a view on what reconciliation means.

    1. The Commonwealth of Australia acknowledges the ancient occupation of this continent by the indigenous Aboriginal peoples, respects through the Mabo decision their traditional ownership of land, and apologises for their past mistreatment.

    2. The Aboriginal people of Australia acknowledge the establishment on this continent of the Commonwealth of Australia, its British institutional heritage, and success as a modern immigrant nation of which the Aboriginal peoples are proud be a part.

    • Daffy says:

      We can’t apologize for any mistreatment because ‘we’ didn’t do any mistreating. OTOH Aboriginal elders might like to apologize for the systematic brutal mistreatment of women and children in past (and some present) tribal (and township) settings.

  • Brian Boru says:

    “Reconciliation should be a hopeful concept, synonymous with healing, peace and friendship.”
    It will require acknowledgement of our history but also forgiveness and acceptance. At present the latter two requirements are lacking as the proponents of the “Voice ” have smelt the gravy train.
    We need to recommit to egalitarianism and decry racism.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land” is a popular chant. It would be right, except for the fact that the 19thC anthropologists recognised three distinct mainland Aboriginal ethnicities, apart from Torres Strait Islanders, and all apparently arriving via what is now Indonesia:
    1. The Tasmanians; first to arrive, but driven south and across the (then dry land of) Bass Strait.
    2. The Murrayans, of taller and stockier build than the Tasmanians, who presumably drove the Tasmanians south before them, and
    3. The Carpentarians: more ‘gracile’ in body and some of them the last remaining ‘full bloods’ around today.
    As damn near all of the people who chant “always was, always will be, Aboriginal land” are themselves of part non-Aboriginal ancestry, they (perhaps unwittingly) not only condemn themselves for being here, and a great part of their own ancestry for arriving here in 1788 and in the years after, but for themselves existing; anywhere at all on the face of this Earth. Because it was only via the British colonisation that they could have happened at all.
    Thus ‘be careful what past you wish for’ is an appropriate slogan in this context; unless you wish you had never existed.

  • brandee says:

    Allow one quibble on point 1 from Michael about the Mabo decision: the decision confuses Torres Strait Islanders, who like in New Guinea owned plots of land, and itinerant Aboriginal mainlanders who often say that the land owned them. The TSI quickly shed their primitive headhunting culture for that of Christian Europeans, and Aboriginal mainlanders along the east coast have adopted and prospered by shedding an itinerant life for the technologically advanced culture of the colonisers.
    In Central Australia the last to emerge from harsh subsistence living were given socialism. How now to extract them from socialism, from idleness and demand sharing in the welfare ghettos, and raise them to the prosperity of the integrated?
    To MRJ, thank you for your insights.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Even some of the activists were dumbfounded by Mabo. For example:
    As a side issue I think it’s very interesting that Eddie Mabo came from one tiny part of the present Commonwealth of Australia which was actually occupied by gardeners [that is, Torres Strait]. You know, these people are Papuan gardeners and, perhaps it is too difficult to discuss these days because there is so much politics attached to any discussion [that is, terra nullius], or any dissenting view. But it is interesting that the Mabo case was in that part of Australia that was occupied by gardeners, and I still wonder – had the [native title] test case been a place occupied by hunters and gatherers, would you have had the same result.

    Rhys Jones, ‘Mindjongork: Legacy of the firestick’. In DB Rose (ed), Country in Flames: Proceedings of the 1994 Symposium on Biodiversity and Fire in North Australia (Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories / North Australia Research Unit, Australian National University, 1995), p.14

  • Macspee says:

    Stephen is correct. In many small island communities, families and individuals own their own plots of land and upon which they and their family lived and cultivated nothing like aboriginal tribal/family life who did not need to settle for long in one place, unlike islanders.

  • Michael says:

    Yes, ‘Reconciliation’ has become an sham offer of peace hiding a declaration of war.

  • john.singer says:

    25 May 2017 was the nearest we have ever been to “Reconciliation” because on that day 90.77% of Australian votere supported the 1967 Referendum.
    Later the same year from the 17 December 2017, (the day PM Harold Holt died). Government appointed bodies, charged with improving the lives of disadvantaged Aboriginal people followed HC Coombs’ lead and followed the wrong path.

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