National Reconciliation Week

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By Daniel Wilson

For tens of thousands of years people have been leaving footprints in St Kilda. It’s been home to the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation.

Reconciliation Week serves to acknowledge this cultural heritage and encourage reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the broader community.

National Reconciliation Week is celebrated across Australia each year between 27th May and 3rd June. The dates commemorate two significant milestones in the reconciliation journey; the anniversaries of the successful 1967 referendum and the High Court Mabo decision.

The precursor to this week is Sorry Day, 26th May, when we reflect on the sad and painful history of the Stolen Generations and recognise moments of resilience, healing and the power of saying sorry. It was on this day in 1997 that a parliamentary report revealed that between one in three and one in ten Aboriginal children were removed from their families as a result of government policy.

While Sorry Day has been a commemoration ever since, it wasn’t until 2008 that then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally offered an apology on behalf the government. “We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians… For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.”

The forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children began as early as the mid-1800s and continued until the 1970s.

Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, Australia in the 1960s saw a string of campaigns calling for equal rights for Aboriginal peoples. Emblematic of this movement was Freedom Ride which occurred in February 1965.

Led by the late Charles Perkins, a group of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous students from the University of Sydney travelled around towns by bus to expose discrimination, rally people against the injustice of segregation, and give a voice to Aboriginal peoples.

The Freedom Ride served as an inspiration for (and a precursor to) the 1967 Referendum, where Australia overwhelmingly voted to allow Aboriginal people to enjoy the same rights and protections as all other Australians.

The anniversary of the 1967 referendum marks the first day of Reconciliation Week. The week culminates on the anniversary that the High Court of Australia recognised Eddie Mabo as the traditional owner of his land, giving him native title, and thus overturning the long standing convention of Terra Nullius, which described Australia as nobody’s land until the British Empire came to claim it.

Native title is effectively the recognition at law of the right of Aborigines to inherit land from their families.

During reconciliation week local governments organise a range of events that serve to celebrate our cultural heritage and encourage reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the broader community.

The theme this year was ‘change it up’, designed to inspire the next generation to act. What will you do to change it up for 2015?

Mayor Amanda Stevens said this year’s Reconciliation Week has the largest program of events that our city has ever hosted for the week. “We hope these activities will inspire the wider community to ‘change it up’ this Reconciliation Week and bring us a step closer to equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” Cr Stevens said.

“Reconciliation can only be achieved if it’s supported by the entire community. By hosting a greater number of small grass-roots events this year, we hope to make more people aware of the reconciliation process.”

While local programs like these are invaluable to the process, there is a growing chorus of voices calling for a more significant statement: Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s constitution.

In 2010, the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard appointed an expert panel to present a proposal for Constitutional Reform. The panel was co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson, former Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and a former Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and winner of the 2008 Sydney Peace Prize, and by Mark Leibler AC, a prominent leader of the Australian and international Jewish community and Partner in a leading law firm.

In 2012 they suggested the addition of several sections to the constitution including that it recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first occupants of Australia; acknowledges the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters; respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and acknowledges the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Panel also called for a recognition of languages that recognises English as the national language of Australia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage.

Parliament passed the Recognition Act committing itself to a referendum to change the constitution by 2018. A Joint Select Committee of the Parliament led by Liberal MP Ken Wyatt and Labor Senator Nova Peris has been leading detailed community consultation and cross-party discussions on the final model, taking up from the work of the Expert Panel in 2012.

A Polity Research study conducted in March found that if a referendum were held now it would pass. The study was commissioned by Recognise, part of Reconciliation Australia supporting the movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution.

It found 75% of all Australians and 87% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say they would vote yes. A majority of people in a majority of States intend to vote yes, which is the crucial threshold for a referendum to pass.

Support for changing the constitution is broad across party lines. Two-thirds of Coalition voters would vote yes in a referendum held now.

Recognise joint campaign director Tanya Hosch said the findings should give even greater confidence to community and political leaders that Australians were eager and ready for our chance to vote to include recognition and get rid of discrimination.

“This confirms that when you ask them to make this decision in a democratic vote, our fellow Australians are prepared to say yes in the sort of overwhelming numbers that would absolutely carry this referendum,” she said.

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