As Macquarie University marks Reconciliation Week, Professor Leanne Holt, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy), reflects on the nation’s path to reconciliation and the important question being put to all Australians at the 2023 referendum.
The theme for Reconciliation Week 2023 (27 May to 3 June) is ‘Be a Voice for Generations: act today for a reconciled tomorrow’. This theme invites all Australians to contribute to respectful conversations and actions that contribute to a collective, socially just future for everyone.
The dates of Reconciliation Week in Australia are significant: The successful 1967 referendum, which led to the removal of Section 127 of the Constitution referencing ‘Aboriginal Natives’ and referred to their exclusion in any census data relating to the Australian population, was held on 27 May. The referendum also sought to alter Section 51 (xxvi), which had previously permitted the Commonwealth to make ‘special laws’ relating to Aboriginal Australians. This referendum had the highest ‘yes’ vote of any referendum held in Australia, at 90.77 per cent.
Meanwhile, 3 June was the delivery of the Mabo decision by the Australian High Court in 1992. This was a significant milestone, challenging the British legal claim to Australia on the basis of ‘terra nullius’ (land belonging to no-one). It resulted in the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having an ongoing connection to the land as Traditional Custodians (or, for the purpose of this legal decision, Traditional Owners).
But the reconciliation movement in Australia also has roots in many other important milestones: the UN International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 1993 and subsequent introduction of a ‘Week of Prayer for Reconciliation’; the official launch of National Reconciliation Week by the Council for Aboriginal Recognition in 1996; the introduction of the Australian Government’s Reconciliation Policy in 2000, which followed the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s Roadmap to Reconciliation; and, of course, in that same year, the coming together of 250,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people to walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to support a better future for First Nations peoples.
This year we will witness another important milestone in our nation’s path to reconciliation. A referendum later this year will propose an ‘Indigenous Voice to Parliament’ be enshrined in the Constitution. The hope is that this Voice will give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a greater say in matters that concern them.
The referendum has stimulated much discussion both within Indigenous communities and across our country. As a university, we play an important role in this discussion. We are hosting or participating in several events that aim to promote respectful discussion and provide education on the issues surrounding the referendum. In the coming weeks, Macquarie will be launching a free microcredential for anyone who wants to approach the referendum from this educated standpoint.
In the meantime, as we move through Reconciliation Week, it is important to remember that reconciliation is a two-way relationship. It shouldn’t be left up to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to mark the Week. They are not the ones attempting to reconcile the past. It should be a shared responsibility to be celebrated together. I would encourage you to get involved and contribute to the conversation.
Recently I was asked, ‘Is it appropriate for non-Indigenous people to contribute to the education and advocacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs?’ The answer is yes, definitely. However, we must ensure these discussions are from an educated standpoint, are respectful and reciprocal, and are guided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices, experiences and perspectives. It is vital that all Australians speak up against racism and together stand up for a better future for all Australians.
Macquarie University’s Reconciliation Week events continue until Friday 2 June.