Reconciliation Australia’s Two-Faced Activism

Every year, Reconciliation Australia Limited (RAL) marks the period between the anniversaries of the 1967 referendum (May 217) and the Mabo judgment (June 3) as National Reconciliation Week. Last year, the theme was “Be a Voice for generations”, a reference to the looming referendum. This year’s theme, “Now more than ever”, reflects the organisation’s unprocessed shock and denial at the result. According to RAL, “as a nation we stumbled” but “the fight” must continue.

Really? RAL has now been operating for 23 years, more than twice as long as the statutory Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation that preceded it. As I have argued in a new paper for Close the Gap Research, “surely so emphatic a defeat of what advocates called ‘an act of reconciliation’ demands an objective assessment of the continued viability of that process.”

That assessment must begin with a difficult and still largely unexplored question: Is reconciliation what Aborigines actually want? In an address delivered during the last Reconciliation Week, ‘Yes’ campaigner Megan Davis cast serious doubt on this. During consultations in the lead-up to the 2017 Uluru Statement, she told a Townsville audience, “our old people kept saying, unsolicited and organically, that reconciliation was the wrong process, that reconciliation was the wrong word.”

We do not know how many of these “old people” there were, much less whether they represent a significant body of opinion among Aborigines. However, Davis’ comments are helpful because they at least acknowledge the diprotodon in the room. Reconciliation has always been promoted as a means to cement national unity. As such, it is inimical to a radical Aboriginal rights agenda centred on the indicia of a separate race-based nationhood: sovereignty, self-determination, international recognition, treaties, embassies and so on.

The Uluru Statement endorses the Aboriginal nationalist program first developed by the National Aboriginal Conference between 1979 and 1981. This includes Aboriginal sovereignty, a treaty (makarrata), reparations and recognition of customary law. The Voice to Parliament, the brainchild of non-Aboriginal academic Shireen Morris, was a novel addition. As later accounts of the convention that produced the Uluru Statement demonstrate, a treaty was the top priority for many delegates. They needed to be persuaded that the Voice was a necessary preliminary measure. This tension is reflected in the final text of the Statement, which characterises a treaty as “the culmination of our agenda”.

There are good reasons to question whether the Uluru Statement reflected Aboriginal opinion at the time. First, the 13 regional ‘dialogues’ were invitation-only, and roughly half the convention delegates were chosen directly by organisers. Second, the outcome of the process was determined in advance. As one Council member later wrote, “rather than arising from consultation with Indigenous Australians,” the Voice “was in fact sold to them”. Third, after securing endorsement of the Statement, organisers made no effort to validate this result through consultation at the local level. As the Blak Sovereignty Movement later observed, the Referendum Council process was “neither consistent with [Aboriginal] cultural protocols [nor] the democratic principles of the colonial system.”

With that said, ethnic nationalism cannot be assumed to be a fringe ideology among Aborigines. In 2023, many polling booths serving majority-Aboriginal communities posted solid ‘Yes’ majorities. And accounts of the convention debates seem to suggest that, if anything, organisers were seeking to moderate delegates’ demands.


THERE HAVE long been two competing visions of race relations in Australia. Their point of difference is whether this country is to be considered one nation or two. The vision of a single, inclusive nation was summarised by Billy McMahon in April 1971:

We believe that Aboriginal Australians should be assisted as individuals and, if they wish, as groups to hold effective and respected places within one Australian society with equal access to the rights and opportunities it provides and accepting responsibilities towards it. At the same time they should be encouraged and assisted to preserve and develop their culture their languages, traditions and arts so that these can become living elements in the diverse culture of the Australian society.

This approach is sometimes called ‘integration’, though McMahon himself cautioned against “attempts to embody complex policies in single words … capable as they are of varied interpretations”. While the term ‘reconciliation’ ultimately fell victim to a similar problem of interpretation, what common ground there is would seem to overlap neatly with the passage above.

The alternative vision of two racially, culturally and administratively distinct nations received its most authoritative articulation in the NAC’s treaty campaign, which began with the following resolution in April 1979:

[W]e as representatives of the Aboriginal Nation … request that a Treaty of Commitment be executed between the Aboriginal nation and the Australian Government.

That first treaty debate ended in stalemate over sovereignty. Bob Hawke revived the topic in 1987, apparently believing that he could succeed where his predecessors had failed. Having built up expectations among Aboriginal nationalists that he would negotiate a genuine treaty, Hawke clarified, sotto voce, that he “did not have in mind a treaty in the international sense but a general statement”. He and his ministers repeatedly reminded audiences not to worry too much about what to call the agreement. This approach is familiar to conflict resolution practitioners the world over as constructive ambiguity—or, in layman’s terms, fudge. When these word games failed to deliver the hoped-for consensus, the Government sought agreement on a new framework for negotiation: reconciliation.

The reconciliation process was devised by the Hawke Government and endorsed by the Opposition, State and territory leaders, ATSIC and key interest groups. It reflected Labor’s desire to secure a “formal document or formal documents of reconciliation” without making any concessions on sovereignty. A new Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) would spend nine years trying to persuade Aboriginal nationalists that this “document” was a treaty, while simultaneously convincing the Coalition and the public at large that it wasn’t.

This failure to honestly confront the central one-nation-or-two question constitutes a fundamental flaw in the reconciliation process to date. While the CAR promoted its vision of ‘a united Australia’, it simultaneously worked to ensure that Aboriginal nationalist ideas were not forgotten. For example, its 1995 submission Going Forward: Social Justice for the First Australians reports Aboriginal demand for reparations. While the document concedes “there would be little prospect of broad support” for such measures, it warns “that these issues should not be removed from the agenda of debate on indigenous policy matters” and should “be the subject of further broadly-based policy debate.”

In its final report, Reconciliation: Australia’s Challenge, the CAR speaks of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians as two parts of a single nation. Yet it also includes an “agreement or treaty” in a list of “things which remain to be done”.

Even the Uluru Statement, a clear expression of the Aboriginal nationalist agenda, nods to national unity with its appeals to “a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.” Similarly, RAL campaigned for the Uluru programme while simultaneously calling for “a shared national identity” and “national unity.”

Despite her candour in acknowledging discontent with reconciliation, Megan Davis probably did not intend to inspire any serious discussion on this point. Certainly, she and her Referendum Council colleagues felt it would be best if the concerns raised by “our old people” were kept out of their 5,000-word Uluru Statement and 180-page final report. The latter report even goes so far as to recommend a new “expression of national unity and reconciliation” in the form of a symbolic ‘Declaration of Recognition’.

The supposed torchbearers of the reconciliation project—the CAR, RAL and the Referendum Council—have played a significant role in platforming and even promoting Aboriginal nationalist ideas. It is relevant to ask to what extent the resilience of this ideology, demonstrated through the Uluru process and remote-area referendum results, is due to the reconciliation process itself.

In his 1991 report, Royal Commissioner Elliott Johnston acknowledged the overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote in 1967 as “the first step in the process of reconciliation” in that it “demonstrated overwhelming acceptance for the view that Aboriginal people should be part of the national polity.” Reconciliation means coming together: answering, in the words of Christian leaders in 1988, “the longing of all to belong.”

Last year’s emphatic ‘No’ vote settles one important question: most Australians continue to see reconciliation in terms of unity and inclusion. However, it would be folly to ignore the signs—whether in the Uluru Statement or the referendum returns in remote booths—that ethnic nationalism retains a base of support in parts of Aboriginal Australia. RAL’s own research shows that the number of Aborigines who agree it is “possible for all Australians to become united” fell between 2018 and 2022.

‘Now more than ever’ means more of the same. If RAL is to play a constructive role in the future, it must either embrace national unity, or cede its role to those who do.

Joe Stella is a PhD candidate at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations. His new paper, “Now more than ever: How Aboriginal nationalism defeats reconciliation”, is now available for download

22 thoughts on “Reconciliation Australia’s Two-Faced Activism

  • GG says:

    Reconciliation is by definition and practice, a two-way street.
    It is not, and can never be, the one-way street demanded by Aboriginal activists – many of whom clearly have English language comprehension problems. Their misunderstanding of “reconciliation” is that the word means total submission. It does not.
    Only when all Aboriginal activists make an unconditional, absolute apology to all Australians for their racist misbehaviour in the lead-up to the 2023 referendum, can reconciliation be considered. Until then, they and their followers remain out in the cold and rejected by 99% of the population.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      GG, that is true, but reconciliation has another meaning that could equally be applied. Before ‘reconciliation’ in the sense that you describe can be accommodated, Aborigines must first become reconciled to the fact that this country was colonized and, firstly, that this cannot be undone and, secondly, that it was overwhelmingly beneficial for that 800,000 odd people who call themselves Aboriginal.

    • KemperWA says:

      GG you are spot on. Minute by minute, hour by hour welcomes to and acknowledgement ‘reminders’ that I am living on someone else land is not reconciliation at all, rather it is browbeating.
      There is no need for any migrants to Australia to apologise for anything. Here is a thought, why don’t the Aboriginal industry acknowledge that all migrants to Australia, whether from 1790, 1910 or today, are in fact the biggest losers of their country, language and cultural heritage in the world. I will kick off first: I would like an apology from hostilely badgering Reconciliation Australia that they regret I cannot speak my ancestral language, partake in ancestral ceremonies or have any ancestral country to go back to or be on. (…crickets…)
      Imagine that!

  • Jack Brown says:

    The western model for reconciliation is apology / forgiveness. It even figures in the Gospels.

    To apologise is not so much a grovelling mea-culpa but rather a diminishment of one’s position so as to invite forgiveness. It is an opening of a blockage whereby one party lowers itself and raises the other up, empowering them to offer forgiveness and thereby release resentments held.

    Rudd offered an apology which put the onus on Aboriginals to let go of their hurt and reconcile.

    However this never happened.

    Therefore reconciliation as understood in western terms is not on the agenda


    Reconciliation as it is expressed for Australians by the activist industry is the usual Marxist racket of the politics of envy. It is toxic, disordered thinking that never leads to contentment or character improvement. It eventually leads to disorder, violence and the destruction of society: the complete opposite of the stated aims of reconciliation of which there will never be enough. Was there much reconcilliation between the multitude of Aboriginal tribes before the so-called invasion of White Europeans? In reality, it would not matter who was here in the past, present or future. The mirage of reconciliation would never materialize except to fester in the minds of those operating on the Marxist stink of envy.
    The only viable and productive form of nation building for us is to aspire to be Australians one and all in proud unity under one national flag.

  • DougD says:

    In 1999, David Malouf and Jackie Huggins working for the Reconciliation Council, presented to Prime Minister Howard a draft Declaration of Reconciliation. It said: “as one part of the nation expresses its sorrow and profoundly regrets the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apology and forgives”. In 2008, Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made an apology. But so far as I know, no one has accepted it or expressed any forgiveness. All the apology produced has been more demands. Reconciliation, whatever it means, is as far away as ever. It’s main object seems to be ensuring the long term employment for those in the reconciliation industry.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Joe, interesting piece.
    One point, as I see it ; in 1967 the overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote was only overwhelming because we thought it would mark an end to the matter and we could all get on with our lives as one nation of Australians.
    If it had been put at the time as only a “first step in the process of reconciliation “it would never have received an “overwhelming yes” vote.
    This endless regurgitating of grievances and requests, that when granted simply lead to demands for more and more was the exact thing we thought we were consigning to the dustbin by voting “Yes” in 1967.
    Having been fooled in 1967 from my perspective we will not be fooled again…..unless we are cleverley lied to and can be fooled……… yet again.

    • Geoff Sherrington says:

      Peter Marriott,
      The 1967 Referendum is suspect because the Commonwealth presented essentially nothing of a No case. About 1985 IIRC, the National Library was able to find among its documents only a few token No lines on one document. Was it truly a Referendum or a big push-marketing exercise?
      Many of our current problems stem from governments imposing their preferences on the people, instead of acting to express the will of the people. Geoff S

      • John Daniels says:

        The concept that all Australian citizens should have equal rights and privileges was not hard to get overwhelming support , hence the very high vote for the 1976 referendum.

        The 2024 Voice referendum that would give extra rights and privileges to a minority of Australian citizens is why that referendum failed .
        I am amazed that 40% voted for it.

        Egalitarianism has been the ethos of this country since it’s its colonisation and the beginning as Australia as a Nation .The 1976 referendum changed laws that had excluded Aborigines from full and equal citizenship ,it was not an endorsement of a treaty or reparations or sovereignty .

  • RobyH says:

    Reconciliation Australia website “Reconciliation is not a destination, it is a journey”

    Obviously an endless journey …

  • pmprociv says:

    Thanks so much Joe, for a very clear articulation of the issues and challenges. As always, and as most of the comments above exemplify, the first obstacle is the definition itself. Reconciliation means a restoration of harmony between groups that have become estranged, implying they previously had been on friendly terms. “Is reconciliation what Aborigines actually want?” Good question; I’d guess, in places like Aurukun, Wadeye or Yuendumu, all that many of the young blokes really want is to obliterate their traditional enemies in endless feuds and vendettas. Beyond that, they want a guaranteed supply of cash, food, grog, smokes, drugs, vehicles, fuel, comfortable housing (maintained by someone else), mobile phones, and porn via the internet. And their predictably voting “Yes” in Albo’s referendum would have been for more of the same, thank you. Beyond that, I doubt that the broader community features on their radar. As for urbanised Aborigines, most would be as assimilated (now there’s another word made taboo by do-gooders) as the rest of us.

    And it takes two to tango: reconciliation cannot be unilateral. When we look at the pervasive dysfunction in just about all remote Aboriginal communities (but even within the Aboriginal Industry itself), how can they begin to talk of reconciliation with the general community, before sorting out their own conflicts? With which groups should we reconcile? Or with the lot of them, but each group separately? It’s just like the call for Treaty . . . boom time for idle lawyers, preferably First Nations ones (e.g. Megan Davis), dreaming of an endless stream of easy money.

    The claim appears to be rooted in a need to preserve “culture”, another very loosely applied and exploited term, seeing that traditional Aboriginal culture vanished a long time ago, with only straggly remnants retained now for touristic or political appeal. The vast bulk of our indigenous people have fully appropriated Western culture (even the acclaimed artists fully exploit tools, materials, ideas and sales strategies provided by outsiders), becoming effectively assimilated. This has implications for the broader Australian community. If one group, based on real or imagined ancestry, is awarded special treatment, why stop there? In a multicultural society, every distinct group should have comparable rights, which can lead ultimately to only one outcome: a further splintering of our society along tribal lines, both indigenous and imported. Whatever happened to “Australian culture”? Or is national disintegration the secret agenda here?

  • Robert Kennedy says:

    For many years I have been concerned with “multi culturalism”, which separates Australians into groups of different cultures. Prior to Whitlam and Grasby foisting that term onto us, we were integrating into one race of people, Australians.
    The Aboriginal people were also victims of this multi cultural thing too, hence the “need” now to reconcile… When I went to school, anyone with a touch of aboriginal blood, would fight you if you referred to them as aboriginal. In those days no-one of white appearance wanted to be classed as an aboriginal.
    But, then it wasn’t profitable as it is now. Now you have full white people (Bruce Pascoe for example) claiming to be aboriginal to take advantage of the benefits available to that single group within our country.
    I am also amused by some of our high profile sportspeople, embracing their “culture”. I wonder how much they really know about the true aboriginal culture? It is well documented that some, if not all, were cannibals who ate their enemies after killing them in battle. Or ate babies that were either still-born or died after birth or were otherwise unwanted by the tribe.
    Of course, that’s only part of the unpleasant facts about their culture, there is a whole lot more well documented by various people over the first years of white settlement of Australia.

    • pmprociv says:

      Yep — and not only are these folk, some of whom are obvious frauds, encouraged to declare their racial ancestry at every opportunity, but to do it with conspicuous pride. Of what exactly are they proud? This is the basis of racism, taking pride in your ethnicity, implying superiority to all others. Our society is truly regressing . . .

  • Max Chugg says:

    Before the Referendum Albanese said, out of one corner of his mouth, that the Voice would only have advisory powers, that in the event of a dispute the government would prevail. Out of the other corner of his mouth came the comment that it would be a brave government that didn’t listen to the Voice.

    The Uluru Statement was more truthful than Albanese. “There was a concern that the proposed body would have insufficient power if its constitutional function was ‘advisory’ only, and there was support in many Dialogues for it to be given ‘free, stronger powers so that it could be a mechanism for providing prior and informed consent’. (P157.) ” “Any Voice to Parliament should be designed so that it could support and promote a treaty-making process. (P103)”

    Albanese lauded the Uluru Statement with its generous invitation to Australia to agree to the one-page document which, in reality, was a mere summary of a huge raft of demands including a percentage of land and water taxes, reparations for past, present and future “criminal” acts.

    Albanese said that he had not read the Statement. His refusal to provide details of consequences to follow if the Voice came into being left no room for doubt that he had indeed read the documents in full and, in that respect, intended, as he admitted, to implement them in full.

    NZ justice Mahon, referring to another matter, described the Voice exactly – “An orchestrated litany of lies.”

    • DougD says:

      Max, Voice and Referendum Question co-authors, Pat Anderson and Megan Davis didn’t shy away from the demand for power. Here’s Pat:: “It is not a big ask Yes, it has to have some power – and you will give us the power when you vote Yes.”. And here’s Megan :“ The voice to parliament is a structural reform. It is a change to the structure of Australia’s public institutions and would redistribute public power via the Constitution, Australia’s highest law. ” True to form, Albanese ignored this.

  • cel47143 says:

    How can I, as a descendant of English migrants who arrived here in the 1870’s, reconcile with the great- grandchildren, of a dear part-aboriginal friend, who have 1 ancestor in 16 who was a full blood aboriginal. These children have all the benefits of identifying as aboriginal, do not live ‘on country’, whatever that means, and appear to have little knowledge of their ‘traditional’ culture other than what is taught in school. Their mother, not her mother before here, were certainly not given to an older male member of the local tribe when they reached puberty. What reparation would I also be up for to accompany my apology for my ethnic background?

  • Twyford Hall says:

    A substantial number of Aboriginal people voted NO to the voice. Of those who voted YES, there is anecdotal evidence that many voted the way they were told to and did not understand what the referendum was about. ;The NO victory was not a rebuff to Aboriginal peoples; rather it was a kick to the Aboriginal industry which has taken billions of taxpayer dollars and delivered little.

    And the only way to close the gap is assimilation. If government treats people differently according to race, it will achieve outcomes which are different according to race.

  • David Crowden says:

    Until there is a “Yes” vote, or a Treaty that acknowledges Aboriginal People existed before 1788, Reconciliation is the process of learning, empathy, and healing together that every Australian needs to go through.

    The fact that there was a No, suggests that most Australians have not yet completed the Reconciliation process. Thus, it remains an ongoing stage of much needed education for non-indigenous Australians.

    Dogmatic attempts to twist the narrative to rationalise a lack of engagement in the process of Reconciliation is unhelpful. Significant problems need to be addressed for Australia to move forward and there are steps that need to be taken and it’s only a matter of time before they do happen. The question is “which side of history will you be on?”. Frankly, persecution or rationale for inaction of the front of restoration and peace is rarely seen in a positive light by history.

    Racism needs to be eradicated in all its forms, including systemic issues raised in the article, but also casual racism (eg. Thinking it is ok to undermine or argue against Reconciliation from a non-indigenous perspective).

    As non-indigenous Australians we are ally’s of Aboriginal People. If you are not an ally, get out of the way and stay out of the conversation. Understand, if you believe the process is already complete, you are the problem. Many Aboriginal People are simply not yet receiving the respect, support, education, and health care needed to flourish in modern Australia. We should be able to commit to ensuring that every Aboriginal Person is given access to the things they need to succeed. It’s a small population and one that needs help.

  • KemperWA says:

    Firstly, Mr Crowden, are you indeed joking? Secondly, how dare you say my right to argue against government backed browbeating should be eradicated. I don’t require any ‘much-needed education’ or nor am I ‘part of any problem’. Maybe you would like me to repent to all affected for Germany’s part in the world wars? Should I repent to the UK for the impact of the Anglo-Saxon migration? Hang on, my maternal ancestry is Italian, maybe you would like me to repent again to the UK for the impact of Roman conquests? How far back would you like me to repent? How will I have the mental strength to get out of bed in the morning David?
    Your sentiment is very similar to the YES letter addressed to my mother from Federal Labor Member for Swan Mrs Zaneta Mascarenhas, as follows; “This means too many Indigenous people are being left behind and don’t have the same chances as everyone else, with lower life expectancy, higher rates of disease and infant mortality, and fewer opportunities for education and training.” Her letter referenced many ‘teacher, Elder Professor so-and-so’, ‘health educator so-and-so’, all successful Indigenous Australian who had voiced to her (remember she is their representative member of parliament), that they wanted a voice to parliament. The irony!
    After my heart rate subsided and I caught my breath, I wrote back to Mrs Mascarenhas. I asked why she addressed a letter to my wheelchair bound, toothless and incontinent mother dying in a nursing home from frontal lobe dementia, after she had been removed from the electoral roll (and our family home) due to mental incapacity 15 years prior? I also mentioned that two of her three non-Aboriginal children had died before the age of 40. First son from schizophrenia and drug abuse on the streets and youngest daughter from suicide aged 22. After my younger sister’s first attempt to herself, she called the police. They put her in the back of a paddy wagon, straight to the psychiatric hostel, in with older mentally ill men for several days. No support, success or flourishing happening in my family.
    It is exactly your arrogance and patronisation of Australians as to why the majority of us are fed-up to the brim. This constant shame mongering and harassment, disguised as reconciliation, is just that. Hence it is absolutely ‘ok’ for us to engage in conversation regarding this article.
    Maybe you would like me to ‘get out of the way’ and ‘stay out of the conversation’ like my sister did hanging behind our front door? How can I go through your hallowed ‘process’ and ‘learning’, ’empathy’ and ‘healing’ to people I have never wronged, when my own life is destroyed? Where is my help?
    I will always fight for your right to freedom of thought and speech, which you believe I should be denied. but you sir, and the government and academic elite don’t get it. You just don’t get it. Leave us alone.

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