Let’s talk recognition ... it’s the theme for 2011 National Reconciliation Week, and is fitting given developments over the past week. The Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians just released a discussion paper (see www.youmeunity.org.au). Sorry Day is 26 May and National Reconciliation Week begins 27 May. And in Victoria we’ve had a divisive debate about whether Ministers should ‘acknowledge country’.
At the heart of these developments is how best to recognise Aboriginal people as the First Australians and their unique contribution to our national identity and culture.
Recognition is important to us all. Being recognised as a valuable member of society, or for a specific contribution, makes people feel included and improves self esteem. Positive self-esteem contributes to mental and physical health and well–being.
For Aboriginal people, welcoming to country and paying respect to custodians are important protocols. They have been practised as law for over 40,000 years, reflecting their relation with the land and their welcoming of visitors. This practice was disrupted with the advent of European law 240 years ago, but the reconciliation movement of the late nineties saw its reinstatement, and it became widely used by non-Aboriginal people.
This acknowledgement represents the age-old Aboriginal custom and recognises the value and contribution of Aboriginal culture to our society.
Recognition, including through acknowledgement of country, is important for Victorian Aboriginal people. Recognition that Aboriginal people have survived. That they continue to practice and reclaim their culture within contemporary society. Recognition that they have suffered and continue to suffer the devastating effects of colonisation on their population, land rights, language and culture, and the ongoing impacts of child removal policies.
It is important to remember that Aboriginal people were not recognised as citizens of this county until forty-four years ago, let alone as its traditional owners. It wasn’t until 1993 that the notion of terra nullius was overturned by the Mabo decision.
Given this history, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people often feel invisible in their own land. Symbols of recognition, such as acknowledgement of country and constitutional recognition, affirm for Aboriginal people that their culture is recognised and valued by the wider community. This recognition carries a deep, heart-felt significance for Aboriginal people – it is not about political correctness.
The debate about Ministerial acknowledgements of country has raised important issues. Some people have experienced acknowledgements that seem tokenistic, or perceive political correctness if delivered without conviction. Sometimes acknowledgements are made out of a sense of obligation. Sometimes there’s difficulty pronouncing the name of the Traditional Owner group. These situations can be uncomfortable, but they are part of the journey we all must take. And they demonstrate the need for leadership.
All of us, including political leaders and MPs, need to increase our understanding of why acknowledgement is important to Aboriginal people. We need access to cultural awareness training, and opportunities to listen to and build relationships with Aboriginal people.
Public education and a renewed focus on reconciliation at the local level will also help to move the debate forward. With a deeper understanding and appreciation of its significance to Aboriginal people, acknowledgement of country at public events will be expected by the community, and not perceived as political correctness or tokenism.
Despite the tensions arising from this debate, there is cause for optimism for a more reconciled future between Aboriginal and other Australians.
Aboriginal people have been recognised as the rightful custodians and traditional owners of the lands and waters of Victoria in law and policy, including through the Victorian Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 and the Victorian Human Rights Charter.
The Victorian Government has indicated its commitment to ‘promoting and educating indigenous and non-indigenous Victorians about Australia’s shared history and the importance of indigenous culture and heritage' (http://www.premier.vic.gov.au/our-commitment/aboriginal-affairs.html). Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jeanette Powell said of the recent budget that it aimed to provide ‘opportunities for Indigenous Victorians to prosper through empowerment and self-determination’. These sentiments are encouraging, and the government has made a positive start through establishing an Indigenous Honour Roll to recognise the contribution of Aboriginal Victorians, and refunding Reconciliation Victoria.
Reconciliation Victoria, the independent peak body for reconciliation in Victoria that consists of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members, will be developing a Victorian reconciliation framework to provide guidance about these complex matters. We hear that people are reluctant to act because they are unsure of what is right. Yes, the reconciliation journey is long. It’s hard. But it’s crucial to our nation.
During National Reconciliation Week, as we start to consider Constitutional Recognition of the First Australians in readiness for a referendum in 2013, we urge all Victorians to explore what recognition and acknowledgement might mean for Aboriginal people. It is also an opportunity to talk about how to ensure recognition protocols are meaningful for both Aboriginal people and other Australians.