In the leadup to a national referendum that would bring recognition of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders into the Australian constitution, there is remarkably little discussion of how or why non-Indigenous voters might feel any particular interest in the process.
That absence is dangerous. In the absence of widely agreed reasons to care, Australian history suggests it is unlikely that a majority of voters in a majority of states will vote "yes" in the referendum.
Mindful of the danger, we have been piloting research this year, working with focus groups of non-Aboriginal students at Victoria University. Essentially, we first asked participants to talk about "reconciliation" in the abstract, then went on to discuss "Aboriginal reconciliation".
This project picked up on similar work being done in Canada, led by York University’s Ravi de Costa, which has showed the possibilities of exploring non-Aboriginal attitudes towards reconciliation in ways that illuminate common points of interest between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The Canadian research reaffirms that these common points of interest are remarkably resilient in the face of political partisan divisions.
While our focus groups revealed largely predictable differences between people’s positions, much more striking was a constant similarity between the ways participants framed the topic of Aboriginal reconciliation.
Our research suggests non-Aboriginal Australians consistently affirm a need for reconciliation that is not diminished by their differences of opinion about what forms it should take. As discussed below, we were able to observe this remarkable unanimity by focusing on the stylistic qualities of participants’ speech.
Participants in our focus groups displayed a wide disparity of knowledge about Aboriginal culture in Australia. For native-born participants and immigrants alike, some people clearly possess a more intimate knowledge about Australia’s Indigenous peoples and cultures than others.
Participants explained that most of their knowledge was based on academic study, or generated through the news media and films such as Rabbit Proof Fence, rather than through first-hand contact with Indigenous Australians.
Participants also expressed quite different views about whether and how to achieve reconciliation. Some believed symbolic moments such as the 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations were merely tokenistic, needing to be supplemented with measures such as compensation. On the other hand, others believed reconciliation should be confined to the level of token or symbolic gestures only. For example, "Roy" argued in support of Australia’s 2008 apology, but nothing additional:
"Once again do you mean compensation? Then no, it’s not fair to people nowadays who didn’t do anything, I think saying sorry was good, but I don’t think it would be fair if we had to contribute ourselves, to something that wasn’t our fault. Yeah, it’s awful, but this sort of thing happens everywhere, and the people who do it don’t really apologise to generations later or do anything about it."
Such variances of knowledge and opinion were well-known long before we ran our focus groups, of course. What is original in our research is the sense of a countervailing force from within, a drive for unanimity embedded in the differences. We picked it up in a stylistic feature — in the pronouns non-Aboriginal people use when discussing the topic of Aboriginal reconciliation.
Across differences of background and political viewpoint, all our non-Aboriginal participants consistently spoke about the business of Aboriginal reconciliation through a specific grammatical lens. All used "we," "us," "our," and "ours" to refer to all the non-Aboriginal people in the country. They used an equivalent set of pronouns — "they," "them," "their," and "theirs" — to refer to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
"Steven’s" response to the question "Do you think people living in Australia today have a duty to do something in response to this history [of the Stolen Generations]?" was indicative of this process:
"But I think it’s only because we are established now, we are a rich country, economically pretty stable. Yeah, if we were still struggling I don’t think much would change. If we were still struggling for our own survival, we wouldn’t really be caring about their survival, still. But now that we are stable, I think we should definitely fix whatever we can, or help out, maybe not fix, offer something."
In arranging the focus groups, we went out of our way not to prompt this phrasing or to lead any attitudes towards it. We wanted to hear what automatically flows from a group of non-Aboriginal Australians discussing Aboriginal reconciliation, because it says something about the ideological properties inherent in the topic itself.
In the question noted above, we used the phrase "people living in Australia" without demarcating between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. In his response, Steven assumed a division: the very idea of an "offer" emphasises the existence of two parties in negotiation.
While our participants clearly understood the principles of Aboriginal reconciliation very differently from one another, contesting them across a wide range of details, they showed a remarkably clear underlying agreement about who the parties to it were. Disagreements about differential guilt or of family migration history did nothing to confuse this agreement. What is more, the same "grammar of consensus" came through equally strongly in the Canadian research.
We do not pass judgment on the appropriateness of this grammar. There is no sense that it is reciprocated or mirrored when Aboriginal people talk about the same topic, for example. But it is important to note the sorts of concepts this grammar entails.
To frame reconciliation as a topic that concerns both "us and them" reflects an understanding of the term "reconciliation" as meaning there is some sort of business to be conducted between two parties. "We" share a structural interest in the question of reconciliation, which is a matter up for negotiation with "them."
This conceptual frame does not entail agreement about how to reconcile. Many sources indicate there is limited agreement in Australia about what reconciliation should involve; our participants exemplify this dynamic in their responses to the topic. At the same time, their comments show they are clearly aware of it.
On the other hand, the "us and them" frame does presume that the topic of reconciliation is a negotiation or settlement between two parties, and that all non-Aboriginal Australians combined form one of the parties.
If this attitude, which groups of undergraduate students in Melbourne share with students and others in Canada, is indicative of views across Australia more broadly, then it is a call for Australia’s reconciliation process to take urgent account of the points of common interest among non-Aboriginal Australians. It suggests the reconciliation process can make headway if it makes sense of "our" shared position, a position up for negotiation with the position of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders — which our participants presume is also a shared position.
That may seem much easier to describe in hypothetical terms than it is to enact in Australia as we approach the referendum, but it carries a clear political imperative. Researchers need to explore non-Aboriginal attitudes towards Aboriginal reconciliation much more broadly, using focus groups as well as other interpretation-based methods in communities across the country.
Such research is not a matter of counting voter numbers — that approach will of course get its moment — so much as finding the points of common ground. Good research can help the government and other supporters of the proposed referendum to minimise those points on which we have to count up opposed points of view.
The big catch is that it will take a genuine, concerted, and increasingly urgent effort to study the question on a national scale. But the government’s only alternative to such an effort is to push ahead with a referendum and hope for the best.
A detailed version of the authors’ findings will be reported to The Poetry and Poetics of Popular Culture, Online Conference at the University of South Australia’s Centre for Poetry and Poetics next week.
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