Opinion article

Moving from safe to brave: 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia

Reconciliation Australia CEO Karen Mundine discusses the findings of the 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia report and calls on business and government to take stronger and more meaningful steps towards reconciliation.

Reconciliation cannot just be about awareness raising and knowledge. The skills and understanding gained should motivate us into “braver” action. This is the challenge set out by Reconciliation Australia’s 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia report.

Drawing on the views of First Nations leaders, data from the 2020 Australian Reconciliation Barometer and examples of reconciliation in action from across the country, the report reflects on where we have come from, where we are today, where we need to be and how we can get there.

The good news is that Australia is making steady progress towards being reconciled. Our research shows that almost all Australians support reconciliation, with more than 90 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the general community believing this relationship is important. Significantly, more than 60 per cent of the general community want to do something to help improve reconciliation.

At a broader level, a huge network of organisations and individuals is driving change through reconciliation structures at grassroots, local, state, national and corporate levels.

There are 1100 Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) in non-profit, corporate and government organisations; 1200 schools and early learning services have a RAP. Since 1993, thousands of National Reconciliation Week activities have engaged millions of people. Meanwhile, support has grown for national campaigns such as Close the Gap, Change the Record, Family Matters, Racism. It Stops With Me and Black Lives Matter, and many local reconciliation groups and networks continue their work, some of which has spanned decades.

But while there are reasons to celebrate, there is still a long way to go. In interviews for our report, Indigenous leaders and other stakeholders expressed understandable frustration at the rate of progress.

This was especially the case on some of the key structural building blocks of reconciliation – constitutional reform, treaties, truth-telling, addressing the disadvantage gaps and racism. There was a clear view that politicians lag behind public opinion and are dragging the chain.

The issues that seem so difficult to progress are the “braver” issues. A braver reconciliation is one where we move our efforts from focussing on the preconditions for reconciliation, to focussing on more substantive change.

For reconciliation to be effective it must involve truth-telling, and actively address issues of inequality, systemic racism and instances where the rights of First Nations’ peoples are ignored, denied or diminished.

It must answer the invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

And as we move closer to achieving some of the key prerequisites—truth-telling, negotiations around treaties, and greater control by First Nations peoples over their own affairs—the reconciliation journey may become more difficult.

We saw again the predictable annual debate on 26 January, but each year it is obvious more Australians understand the difficulty of that date for First Nations peoples.

As Reconciliation Australia’s inaugural Chair Shelley Reys explained in the Sydney Morning Herald in mid-January, changing the date “has become a social movement of its own, as a growing number of Australians now understand and acknowledge the brutal impact that colonisation has had on First Nations families and communities”.

This debate demonstrates the importance of truth-telling in moving forward. Much of Australia’s telling of its history is silent on the occupation of Australia by First Nations peoples, covers up the brutal nature of colonisation and omits the resilience and contribution of First Nations peoples.

All Australians need to understand a full account of our shared history and its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies post-colonisation, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s contribution to the nation.

Encouragingly, as the 2021 State of Reconciliation report highlights, this is what Australians want. A clear majority— 89 per cent of the general community and 93 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—believe it is important to undertake formal truth-telling processes in relation to Australia’s shared history. Similarly, 83 per cent of the general community believes it is important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures to be taught in schools.

Reconciliation Australia knows that for the reconciliation movement to continue to build support, we must still allow for a safe space to start the journey – to learn, to grow, to make mistakes and to build skills and capability.

In this respect there is reason for optimism.

There is now a generation of Australians raised in reconciliation. They grew up with and take for granted Acknowledgements of Country, flying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, a more accurate account of our shared history and the importance of First Nations’ voices.

But our journey cannot end in this safe space. It is now that we must take on the substantive change that will propel us towards a more reconciled country. Australians are ready to take braver action, to realise the unfinished business and walk more purposefully towards a reconciled nation.

About the authors

Karen Mundine

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Karen Mundine is from the Bundjalung Nation of northern NSW. As the Chief Executive Officer at Reconciliation Australia, Ms Mundine brings to the role more than 20 years’ experience leading community engagement, public advocacy, communications and social marketing campaigns. Over the course of her career she has been instrumental in some of Australia’s watershed national events including the Apology to the Stolen Generations, Centenary of Federation commemorations, Corroboree 2000 and the 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention.


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