The Long Road to Reconciliation

stuart mcmillan and dennis corowa

It’s Reconciliation Week again. This year we’re remembering some big milestones.

Fifty years since the referendum that included First Australians in the census. Twenty-five years since the Mabo decision which overturned the legal fiction that Australia was a land without people when it was stolen by the British. Twenty years since the Bringing Them Home Report was handed down by Mick Dodson and former Uniting Church President Sir Ronald Wilson, which eventually led to our nation’s prime minister saying sorry to the Stolen Generations.

I think we’re overdue for another big milestone.

Indigenous leaders have taken part in an important meeting at Uluru to inform a future referendum question on constitutional recognition. My prayers are with those who gathered in the heart of our nation for this historic meeting.

Personally I’m hopeful that we have matured since our coming of age 50 years ago and we will honour First People as sovereign and negotiate treaties on just terms.

We certainly need some good news. The annual Closing the Gap report to Parliament confirms that the health, education, employment, wellbeing and safety of First Australians remain well behind other Australians. What’s most disturbing is several indicators show the gap is widening.

There is good news. More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are enrolled at university than ever before and Australian universities have ambitious targets to boost student and staff numbers.

Overall though it’s disappointing that, as a rich nation, we haven’t had the heart or sense of purpose to make greater progress on these entrenched issues with our Indigenous sisters and brothers. The ‘with’ is critical because we know from experience that imposed solutions are counterproductive and doomed to fail.

In my life, I’ve been lucky to have deep relationships with Aboriginal people. I have learned so much from them. They are my family.

In this harried age of short attention spans and insecurities, in which governments are prone to play on peoples’ fears and ignorance, it seems we lack an ability to listen and learn from First Australians, the most ancient culture on the planet.

Unfortunately the world of our First Peoples their law, culture and spirituality is still totally foreign to all but a few Australians.

I wish I could convey more compellingly the great enrichment I have been blessed with through my relations with Aboriginal peoples, so that more Australians would feel encouraged to take an interest.

Sometimes the road to reconciliation feels more like crossing the Nullarbor by foot.

While key social outcomes remain stubbornly slow to achieve, our momentum towards even symbolic acts of solidarity is even slower.

A formal reconciliation process was first established by the Australian Parliament in 1991.

The conversation about constitutional reform goes back even further. A Parliamentary Committee recommended the removal of section 25 of the Constitution as far back as 1959.

The National Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress Rev Dennis Corowa has lived through all of this.

“We are one of the oldest living cultures on earth and yet the time of change from 1967 to now has been so short, only one generation,” Mr Corowa said.

“For our people it’s like being let out prison and when people get out of prison they just want to go home. But for many they have been dispossessed of land and culture and oppressed.

“Our art and music have survived the social dislocation and been so successful because they are about the known, about our identity and about our culture. But managing the new world was unfamiliar and frightening. Set free but dispossessed, our people are still struggling.

“If we are going to close the gap which the dominant culture created, then the health, housing and education needs of our people must not be subject to political budget cycles and constant change.

“We need consistent, long-term funding and commitment of all governments to meet the real needs of our people right across this country.

“We need the governments of Australia to work with us as sovereign First Nation Peoples, not as a part of some mainstream department but as a separate and unique priority.”

It’s been clear to Uniting Church members for some time that reconciliation can’t be left to governments.

For followers of Jesus Christ reconciliation is a matter of justice which is much more urgent than this. We are all responsible for reconciliation in this nation.

In 1994, the Uniting Church made a statement entering into a Covenant relationship with members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

In 2009, we revised the Preamble of our Church Constitution to acknowledge Aboriginal and Islander peoples as First Peoples and foresaw, in the words of the new Preamble “…a destiny together, praying and working together for a fuller expression of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ.”

In 2015, the 14th Assembly determined that a significant priority in this triennium would be to explore with Congress what it would mean for the practices of our Church to recognise and affirm that First Peoples are sovereign peoples.

There is much work to do to advance this conversation, and indeed reconciliation, between First and Second Peoples across our Church.

So while we all note the important milestones that pass this Reconciliation Week, I’d urge all Church members to think about what you can do yourselves to bring about reconciliation in our lifetimes.

Seek out your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and get to know them. Take part in a walking on country journey or other opportunities to build relationships and to learn.

We still have a long road ahead of us to walk alongside our sisters and brothers in Congress.

On this week’s Friday Forum – What do you see as the main barriers to reconciliation?

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