What does Reconciliation look like?

By John Steley



What does reconciliation look like? Anthony Dillon put this question to me some years ago and I have reflected on it often. Do I have an answer? Well, I have to begin with a personal story. My father was a control freak, quite brutally so, although rarely physically. Like all his children I resented it and I carried that resentment around with me for decades until a friend gave me some coaching. My father joined WWII at the age of 19 as the captain of a Flying Sunderland, a large amphibious plane with a crew of nearly 20 people. He was primarily responsible for them living or dying and I know he had at least on near death experience. My friend pointed out that his authoritarianism was his way of preparing his children for survival in the dangerous world he knew. And as such was an expression of love!


Well, that was all it took – all that resentment just disappeared. It hasn’t changed my memory of him. It hasn’t made me like him. I just don’t resent him and that has released me from what was a self-imposed ball and chain. I knew it was self-imposed because my father had been dead for some years, so who was it who was doing the controlling? The only possible answer to that was me. I got to see that we are all victims until we choose not to be.


We all let people down at times, including those near and dear. When we do, it is important to speak authentically to those we have let down and clean it up. An apology isn’t essential, but it helps.


Well, we have had a truth telling in this country – Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech of 1992, thirty years ago. We have also had an apology – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology of 2008. It was primarily in regard to the Stolen Generations, although he extended it to all past wrongs.


The thing that has prompted me to speak of this now is I watched “Interlude in Prague” recently, a story about Mozart that mixes fact and fiction. To be honest I flicked in and out because it was pretty dreary. It was such a grotesque era of European history, full of pomposity, ludicrous fashion and falsity among the ruling class, with abject poverty and squalor for the poor.


It was set in 1788, the year the First Fleet arrived. Sheesh, you couldn’t get two more diverse cultures. No wonder they completely “missed” one another.


So this was the context in which Cook, just 18 years earlier, had declared Australia “terra nullius”. That was the basis on which British settlement was established and it was “validated” by Governor Bourke by proclamation in 1835. The 1967 referendum should have been “the final nail in the coffin” of this concept, but it still sticks in the craw of many and underlies a sense of inferiority.


But there is another matter, rarely discussed, that reinforces this sense, especially for Aboriginal Australians: the oldest living culture on earth never developed beyond hunting and gathering. Well, that wonderful series, First Footprints, has gone a long way to bridging the gap between the two cultures and revealing the genius of Aboriginal culture, an intelligence that has been beyond our understanding. As Jacinta Price says, a hunter/gatherer society is as worthy of respect as any other.

So what does reconciliation look like?

a) I believe our flag, our anthem and the date on which we celebrate our nationhood reflect and create who we are. As such, we must change their British focus to something all Australians can relate to;

b) We should formally disavow the concept of terra nullius and apologise for having adopted it and taking so long to disavow it; and

c) Acknowledge our two indigenous cultures as living national treasures and Aboriginal culture as the oldest living culture on earth.

In addition, we need to practise mutual respect and walking together.


Having said all of that, in its most essential form reconciliation is a personal thing. We are each responsible for our own lives. We have been living together for over 250 years. In the immortal words of Gough Whitlam, it’s time.


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