There’s a perception that Australia was created as a nation the moment Captain Cook landed. In fact it was claimed originally as a colony and only on the east coast. The rest that follows is an ad hoc, patched together chain of events based on a need for a place to dump prisoners, luck, disagreements, a private company, and policy on the run, until federation.
Even after Federation, it took more years for the current flag to fly over a new capital city to house Federal Parliament. Given the newness of the current look of Australia, it’s no surprise we haven’t come to terms with the true history of this nation. In my grandfather’s life time, we fought under two flags, South Australia was a colony and the federal government sat in Melbourne.
Growing up in South Australia in the 60’s and 70’s, our colonial history was taught at primary school as a minor subject, with some reference to Aboriginal people holding spears and greeting Captain Cook as he ‘discovered’ the land. I don’t remember ever being taught South Australian history at school.
The ignorance of the formation of our country in previous and successive generations to this day, has allowed for misinformation to take hold over public discourse. We are unable to sort fact from fiction. This was exacerbated with the outcry over history wars during the Howard years, which turned teaching our past in schools and universities into a political football.
Australia has to face the truth of our history and how it has impacted on our First Nations people, to mature as a country. Continuing to deny the past or minimise the generational discrimination in racist policy and actions, has paralysed debate.
We have seen the healing achievable from memorials and apologies, and other countries have shown how war trials, documenting events and testimonies of witnesses can offer a way forward.
There are several important objectives in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The first is recognising what Cook himself understood to be true, that the land was occupied when he arrived, and the people were self sufficient and wanted for nothing. This negates Bourke’s Proclamation of terra nullius.
The second is officially hearing and recording the impact taking land away from the First Nations people had on their lives, and their descendants since that time. Historical documentation, oral tradition and personal accounts can provide evidence of this impact.
Thirdly, reparation for the loss of land. This was dealt with in Zimbabwe by evicting colonisers from their farms. Fiji refused to renew land leases to Indian Fijians. Through force and stealth, with the backing of the law, colonisers forced Aboriginal people off their land. How would we feel about the same happening to us?
While we can acknowledge our part in the history of Australia from colonisation by invasion, and provide with collaboration, the framework for a detailed and just Truth and Reconciliation Commission, acceptable reparation and reconciliation can only be led by the First Nations people. Amendments to the Constitution form part of that reparation, but we are working backwards with the order of things.
Without frank acknowledgement of the injustices of the past, and the facts of prior occupation and the foundation of Australia, we won’t be open to the amendments that need to be made. That is, we will stop from being said what has to be said for true reconciliation.