Healing, Reconciliation and Justice


Over the last two-hundred odd years, Aboriginal people in this country have been shot at, poisoned, brutalised, stolen, devastated by introduced disease, raped and massacred. But there’s no point getting all black-armband about it is there?

That said, a disturbing feature of the Indigenous justice landscape in Australia is the rise of warm, fuzzy words like ‘healing’ and ‘reconciliation’. These umbrella terms encourage people to take shelter beneath them, but don’t appear to illuminate a path towards a more just Australia.

May 26 used to be known as ‘Sorry Day’. A great many words have been written about whether an apology is due, who needs to offer it to whom, and when this should happen. The debate still rages. Meanwhile, Sorry Day has been renamed the ‘National Day of Healing’.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Hopefully millions of Australians will pause to reflect on the lot of our First Peoples. To stand in their shoes for a minute, as then Prime Minister Paul Keating urged us to do on that hot December day in Redfern Park back in 1992.

‘Healing’ seems too passive a term to employ in the battle for Indigenous justice. Before we can move forward, Australians must recognise we have a duty to address the problems of Aboriginal Australia. I doubt that the notion of ‘healing’ provides sufficient impetus.

I also wonder if the term ‘reconciliation’ has now become so frayed at the edges and bent out of shape that it has lost the power to move people.

The r-word served us well when the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) delivered its final report back in December 2000, and hundreds of thousands of people walked across bridges all around the country to demonstrate their support for ‘reconciliation’.

These marches weren’t just about service delivery and statistics. They were about matters of the heart and the spirit. There was a notion afoot that we wouldn’t be comfortable in our own skins until we had addressed the unfinished business.

That’s what reconciliation used to mean. At worst, the word now denotes merely a middle-class epiphany. Insight without action.

George Orwell was famously cross about woolly words, noting that they ‘fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up the details’.

In one of the ‘Alice’ books, Humpty Dumpty dryly observes that ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean’. Humpty knew that once you get lots of people throwing around a term and intending it to mean different things, confusion and inaction ensues.

The current federal government embraces something it is pleased to call ‘practical reconciliation’. Closer inspection reveals this to be a push for more effective delivery of health, housing and education services to Indigenous Australia. A worthy aim “ but worlds away from what ‘reconciliation’ used to mean.

Yes, delivery of these services needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But not in lieu of an apology for the wrongs of the past; not without recognition of these services as right, rather than begrudging welfare expenditure.

In the end, ‘reconciliation’ is only a word. And if it has stopped driving us in the direction of justice for black Australia, we should search for other more useful words to put in its place. Words that are clearer and carry a bit more zing: words like ‘rights’, ‘justice’, and ‘respect’.

The 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCADIC) went well beyond the matter of custodial health and safety. This formidable document ranged across the gamut of Indigenous disadvantage, examining the issues of self-determination, health, housing, land needs and economic opportunity. Sadly, its 339 recommendations appear to have sunk beneath waves of indifference.

The RCADIC and CAR reports combined to explode the popular myth that, while we’re all very sorry about the plight of Indigenous Australia, Sadly Nothing Can Be Done. The way forward has been identified.

Justice for Indigenous Australia is too important an issue to be shrouded in latte language. So let’s stick with the plain words and get on with the job.

Journey of Healing 26 May 2005 “ National Sorry Day Committee

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