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Telling truths

What will emerge from an Indigenous-led process of truth-telling?

Tim Rowse 10 September 2021 3458 words

Leadership: Pat Anderson from the Referendum Council with a piti holding the Uluru Statement from the Heart at the closing ceremony of the First Nations National Convention on 26 May 2017. Alex Ellinghausen/Sydney Morning Herald 

When the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for a national process of truth-telling, supervised by a Makarrata Commission, it left open the question of which stories would be considered truthful and in need of being told. Answering that question isn’t as straightforward as it might seem: as the four reports of Reconciliation Australia’s Reconciliation Barometer suggest, Indigenous Australians have differing views about history’s “truths” and their implications.

Australia’s colonial history includes stories of conflict and stories of cooperation. In the words of the final report of the Referendum Council, the organisation that endorsed the Uluru Statement, “the true history of colonisation” includes not only “the genocides, the massacres, the wars and the ongoing injustices and discrimination” but also “stories of how First Nations Peoples have contributed to protecting and building this country.”

Because each locality will have its own array of stories, truth-telling should be a regional or local process, writes Megan Davis, one of the influential drafters of the Uluru Statement, and her co-author Gabrielle Appleby. It should be “led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples working with non-Aboriginal people in that community.”

Which Indigenous actions should count as “protecting and building this country” will undoubtedly be debated. In an effort to promote more inclusive Anzac commemorations, for example, the federal government has highlighted the contribution of Aboriginal Australians to Australia’s war effort. But what of the trackers who helped Constable Bill McKinnon find Yokununna, the man he killed in the controversial circumstances recounted in Mark McKenna’s recent book, Return to Uluru?


Truth-telling has political significance, and sometimes it avows a political purpose. The Uluru Statement suggested a political context for truth-telling: “We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.” But ought truth-telling be “supervised”?

The verb has strong and weak senses. When Megan Davis agreed to contribute a comment for the cover of McKenna’s book and praised it as “an important part of Australia’s truth-telling canon” she was exercising a mild form of supervision. But some supporters of the Uluru Statement will expect more supervision than a book endorsement. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or SATRC, has been mentioned as an appropriate model of supervised truth-telling, most recently by Peter Baume, the Fraser government’s Aboriginal affairs minister, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

In some respects, the SATRC functioned like a court, forensically attaching responsibility for human rights violations to named individuals. From its creation in 1996, it received testimony both in public and confidentially, and awarded reparations to testifying victims. Perpetrators of violence could testify in the hope of receiving amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution. Some 7111 applications were made for amnesty, of which only 849 were granted.

Some Indigenous Australians have mentioned the SATRC respectfully but cautiously. When a parliamentary committee chaired by the Liberals’ Julian Leeser and Labor’s Patrick Dodson received submissions on how to respond to the Uluru Statement, the few who mentioned the South African approach included Jackie Huggins, speaking for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. She told the committee on 5 July 2018 that the SATRC — unlike Australia’s reconciliation process — had been “really strong in bringing evidence” and reminded them that Australia’s Stolen Generations inquiry (1995–97) had power of subpoena.

Responding to the committee’s questions, though, Huggins distanced herself from the congress’s submission: “We chose the model [of the SATRC] because it was the one that spoke to us at the time,” she said, adding that “we need to refine the model.” She didn’t provide any details of how it might be modified.

Other Indigenous people have been similarly cautious. In September 2018, Victoria’s treaty advancement commissioner, Jill Gallagher, said that she wished to “look at how it was done in South Africa” but made it clear that neither she nor anyone else involved in Victoria’s treaty process had committed to any particular model for a truth commission. It is too early to say whether Victoria’s Yoo-rrook Justice Commission (established May 2021) will adopt any of the SATRC’s processes.

When Leeser and Dodson’s committee sat on Palm Island in October 2018, James Cook University’s Lynore Geia mentioned the SATRC as an example worth considering. Declining to commit herself to this model, however, Geia said that truth-telling should be led by “a courageous prime minister to step out to get this going, with people behind him.”

As Patrick Dodson himself acknowledged at the committee’s Kununurra hearing, “Sometimes, when we get asked about truth-telling and the Makaratta kind of idea, people think of this notion of a South African–type truth and justice commission.” But that was not his preference, he revealed at a committee hearing in Sydney: “I think it’s more the question of getting an understanding across the nation rather than a commission that was to search for who did what and then bringing it to prosecution in some way.”

What did appeal to Dodson was the treaty process being pursued at that time in South Australia. He liked the fact that it avoided the South African approach — which he characterised as “Let’s root out the perpetrators of these evils and bring them to court.” The Leeser–Dodson committee’s final report recommended that the federal government support truth-telling in non-judicial settings such as those organised by “local organisations and communities, libraries, historical societies and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander associations.”

If truth-telling is to be so localised in its settings, open in its thematic demands and collective in its notion of colonists’ liability, then a Makarrata Commission won’t be anything like the SATRC. Yet one feature of the South African model was retained in the proposal presented by Appleby and Davis in November 2018. The point of a Makarrata Commission, they wrote, is to “inform a renegotiation of the political relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the nation.”

Like Dodson and Leeser, Appleby and Davis envisaged a process that was decentralised rather than national, and not forensically aimed at pinning down individual liabilities. Their regional/local process would be “led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples working with non-Aboriginal people in that community… in conjunction with local councils, local history societies, or other local community groups.” They also envisaged a national role for the Makarrata Commission, which would collate and archive the products of the local/regional truth-telling and — subject to permission — make them public.

Appleby and Davis reported that delegates to the Uluru convention wanted truth-telling to fuel “a process by which… reparations and future relationships can be negotiated.” That renegotiated political relationship would result in “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in Australia’s constitutional structure, and the current governments recalibrating their relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through a Makarrata.”

What collated and archived truths would contribute to such a political result? It is possible to imagine that both themes of Australia’s colonial history mentioned by the Referendum Council — violent colonising and collaborative nation-building — could spur non-Indigenous Australians to make reparations. Whether Indigenous Australians had been violently coerced (as foes to be dispossessed) or merely exploited (as workers, collaborators in nation-building) the settlers could be motivated — by truth-telling — to make reparations and to negotiate new political relationships.

While Appleby and Davis didn’t say what they thought the themes of truth-telling should be, they suggested that the Australian public was not receptive. “There is a level of disaffection, disinterest and denial of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history in Australia.” Implicit in this claim is that the truths Appleby and Davis have in mind — most challenging to national complacency, most productive of reparations and recalibrations — are damaging to many Australians’ pride in their nation: the “genocides, the massacres, the wars and the ongoing injustices and discrimination” rather than Indigenous Australians’ involvement in “protecting and building this country.”


That the theme of truthful Australian history should be violent dispossession and its coercive sequels has also been the assumption of Reconciliation Australia whenever it has tried to measure what it calls Australians’ “historical acceptance.” For its Reconciliation Barometers in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020, Reconciliation Australia used an online survey to measure agreement or disagreement with the following seven statements about Australia’s past:

Government policy enabled Aboriginal children to be removed from their families without permission until the 1970s.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did not have full voting rights throughout Australia until the 1960s.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians were subject to mass killings, incarceration, forced removal from land and restricted movement throughout the 1800s.

Government policy in the 1900s dictated where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians could live and be employed.

Australia was owned by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities at the time of colonisation in 1770.

At the time of colonisation there were at least 250 distinct Indigenous Nations, each with their own cultural identities and custodial connections to land.

Frontier wars occurred across the Australian continent as a result of Indigenous people defending their traditional lands from European invasion.

The Reconciliation Barometer polls a “general community” sample and an “Indigenous” sample, but anyone who assumes that these two samples differ greatly in their “acceptance” of the above statements will be confounded by the barometer’s published reports. Although a large proportion (30 to 45 per cent) of the general community didn’t agree with these statements, a large minority of the Indigenous sample didn’t either. In 2014, 2016 and 2018, the proportions of Indigenous respondents who either disagreed with these statements or answered “not sure” were in the range of 30 to 40 per cent. If these statements exemplify truth-telling then we can’t assume Indigenous Australians will give unified leadership in affirming historical truths to their fellow Australians.

The gap between the general community and Indigenous respondents was greatest in relation to the statement that “Australia was owned by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities at the time of colonisation in 1770.” In 2014 and 2016, nonetheless, about three in ten Indigenous respondents were unsure about or did not accept this statement. (The barometer didn’t test acceptance of this statement after 2016.)

Reconciliation Australia must have been dismayed by such findings. Expressing a fear that respondents in 2014, 2016 and 2018 had misunderstood the question, it changed the wording. Instead of asking “Do you accept or not accept the following as facts about Australia’s past?” the 2020 barometer asked respondents to choose one of three responses to six “historical truth” statements: “I believe this is true,” “I do not believe this is true” or “I am unsure about this.”

The effect was noticeable. Across five of the six statements the proportion of Indigenous respondents saying they did not believe the statements was much lower than the proportions who, in previous years, had said they did not “accept” them. For many respondents, it seems (and this might not be surprising), “accepting” a statement is not the same as “believing” it. Importantly, though, two things didn’t change when the question was reworded.

First, the proportion of Indigenous respondents saying that they were “unsure” whether to believe the statements remained within the same range (15 to 25 per cent across six statements tested). Second, between 2018 and 2020 there was no change in the proportion of the Indigenous sample who declined to agree that “Frontier wars occurred across the Australian continent as a result of Indigenous people defending their traditional lands from European invasion.” In other words, about three in ten Indigenous respondents either did not believe this to be true or were unsure of its truth.

How are we to make sense of this level of disbelief or uncertainty? I suspect that some people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) didn’t affirm these statements because to affirm them has come to imply that one is taking a position within a morally and emotionally charged debate about blame, forgiveness and responsibility. The statements tested by the barometer are not merely factual: they are emotional and moral. To affirm a story is to arouse feeling and to engage in moral reasoning, and we may or may not feel good about where “I” and “we” stand in that story, and its implication of “me” and “us.”

Australia’s public culture is awash with stories that convey some idea of who “we” now are, what “we” have done, and what “we” can be. (Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in December 1992 artfully mobilised this pronoun.) As a long-term effect of the civic program calling for reconciliation, “we” has become a more complicated pronoun. Through the promotion of reconciliation, it has come to matter a great deal where each of us stands in an Australia evoked in terms of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous binary. Stories — about violence, resistance, cooperation — abound within our public culture. Each of us tells, hears or sees those stories as an Indigenous or non-Indigenous Australian.

The responses yielded by the Reconciliation Barometer encourage me to think of historical truths not merely as factual but also as implying identities and moral/political positions. I have in mind not only the statements used by the barometer to measure “historical acceptance,” each of which is a mini-narrative. In certain other questions we can also see the designers’ intuition that narratives — true or false — offer feelings, identities and intimations of moral agency to those who hear, read or tell them. The questions I examine here are about “forgiveness” and “responsibility.”

The data generated by posing these questions suggest that “history” fits diversely into Indigenous Australians’ moral reasoning about their own implication in Australia’s future. Let’s start with forgiveness.

In 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 the barometer asked:

In terms of the history of European settlement in Australia, which of the following statements do you most agree with? (a) The wrongs of the past can never be forgiven. (b) I don’t believe there have been any wrongs. (c) The wrongs of the past must be rectified before all Australians can move on. (d) There should be forgiveness for the wrongs of the past and all Australians should now move on.

This question addresses respondents not only as people who know the past but also as moral subjects using their historical knowledge as the basis for judging what the two parties to reconciliation can now ask of each other. Very few Indigenous respondents (2 per cent) chose (b), so nearly all believe that wrongs occurred. We don’t know what wrongs they had in mind when they responded to this question, but on the basis of knowing that the past includes “wrongs,” each respondent was given a choice of moral position.

Of the Indigenous sample, 13 to 16 per cent (across the four barometers) said the wrongs of the past can never be forgiven, 35 to 44 per cent said that the wrongs of the past “must be rectified before all Australians can move on,” and 39 to 50 per cent said “there should be forgiveness for the wrongs of the past and all Australians should now move on.” If the moral significance of the “wrongs of the past” to Indigenous Australians is as diverse as these data indicate, then it is less surprising that they don’t all affirm the truths presented by the barometer. If a large minority of respondents indicate uncertainty when asked about their “acceptance” of or belief in the seven tested truths, and if some (a smaller minority) simply declare their disbelief, this might be because the respondents are aware of how historical statements have been attached, in Australian discussions of reconciliation, to various positions on “forgiveness.”

A diversity of reasoning about the moral significance of the past is also evident in the data generated by the barometer’s questions about “responsibility.”

It is a familiar idea — promoted, in particular, by the Howard government — that Indigenous Australians are “disadvantaged.” The default framing of Indigenous people as “disadvantaged” has been criticised by some Indigenous Australians as a “deficit discourse” that prejudices our appreciation of Indigenous agency — the ability, duty and right of Indigenous Australians to take responsibility for themselves.

The barometer posed some questions that explore this ideological minefield. The questions that refer to “history” in relation to “responsibility” generated results — again — that illustrate the diversity of Indigenous reasoning about history’s moral meanings.

Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with two statements: “many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are disadvantaged today because of past racial policies” and “many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are disadvantaged today because of Australia’s colonial legacy.” The responses to this question among Indigenous respondents — like the responses on “forgiveness” — are relevant to those who advocate truth-telling as a vital part of a political transition.

A large minority of the Indigenous sample (26 to 32 per cent over four barometers) didn’t affirm that Indigenous disadvantage is caused by “past race-based policies,” and 33 to 40 per cent of the Indigenous sample didn’t affirm that Indigenous disadvantage is “Australia’s colonial legacy.” They either denied these propositions or were unsure.

If a high proportion of the Indigenous samples don’t attribute “Indigenous disadvantage” to the racist processes of colonisation, do they have an alternative explanation for “disadvantage,” or do they refuse the question’s premise that Indigenous Australians are disadvantaged? We don’t know because the barometer doesn’t ask respondents whether they see Indigenous Australians as “disadvantaged.”

To what cause did Indigenous respondents attribute “Indigenous disadvantage”? The barometer confronted this question by testing some historical propositions. Responding to the proposition “That past government policies are a cause of Indigenous Australians now lacking personal responsibility,” a large minority (20 to 29 per cent, across four barometers) said that they could not or would not express an opinion. Perhaps they were baffled when asked to link “past government policies” with Indigenous Australians’ “lack of personal responsibility.”

The barometer also asked respondents to agree or disagree that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are responsible for their own disadvantages today.” Again a high proportion (25 to 32 per cent) chose “neither agree nor disagree.” Between a quarter and third agreed — but what were they thinking? Were they “blaming” Indigenous Australians for the persistence of their “disadvantage” and implicitly urging them to make a greater effort? Or were they asserting a claim to empowerment?

We can only guess at the reasoning of those Indigenous respondents (41 to 51 per cent) disagreeing that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are responsible for their own disadvantages today.” Were they thinking about causes of disadvantage that are currently beyond Indigenous people’s control? Were they looking to others (particularly governments) to take enabling or rectifying action of some kind? The data remind us that the word “responsible” is the site of a contemporary political enigma — cleverly referenced by Noel Pearson’s phrase, “Our right to take responsibility.”

History’s emotional resonance and moral meaning are unclear, and they are not uniform across the Indigenous sample. Barometer data point to a disputed sense of colonial and Indigenous agency — an unresolved narrative of colonisation and reconciliation — that links past actions to the present and to the future. Were the Makarrata Commission to mobilise the truths that the Reconciliation Barometer has tested, they would be politically equivocal, not pointing Australians towards any particular “recalibration” of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationship.


Reviewing the barometer’s findings, I have confined my discussion to Indigenous respondents, for it is their leadership of truth-telling that will link “truth” to what Appleby and Davis envisage as a renegotiated political relationship. If Indigenous public intellectuals are to assume cognitive and moral leadership in truth-telling, then we need to appreciate the complexity of Indigenous views of the past.

From the Reconciliation Barometers 2014–2020 we can draw two conclusions. First, a minority (15 to 25 per cent of the Indigenous sample) are unsure whether they assent to a truth canon that refers only to “the genocides, the massacres, the wars and the ongoing injustices and discrimination.” Perhaps some Indigenous Australians would encourage “stories of how First Nations Peoples have contributed to protecting and building this country.” The barometer has never tested the frequency of “acceptance” or “belief in” stories about “protecting and building.”

If one purpose of truth-telling is to deal with emotional needs and to confirm established moral positions (rather than “search for who did what and then bringing it to prosecution in some way”) then a thematically diverse canon (as recommended by the Referendum Council) may be better than the narrower set of truths tested by Reconciliation Australia.

Second, we can’t predict what political settlement a Makarrata Commission would promote. The barometer’s data on “forgiveness” and “responsibility” suggest that, for Indigenous Australians, histories of the “wrongs of the past” don’t point towards any particular future configuration of responsibilities (Indigenous/non-Indigenous) for their recovery or to a single Indigenous view about the conditions of their “forgiveness.” •

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