Taking the next steps for Reconciliation Week

Samaritans CEO

Reconciliation Week is celebrated around the country from 27 May- 3 June each year and presents an opportunity to reflect on Samaritans commitment to reconciliation, the organisations achievements so far and to identify the things that must still be done to achieve reconciliation with the nation’s first peoples, both within the regions we operate and further afield.

As we celebrate Reconciliation Week, I’d like to take this opportunity to show my respect and admiration for the strength and resilience of the Indigenous communities in Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) peoples; the oldest surviving culture on the planet.

This resilience is admirable because of the horrors this community has endured – being invaded, massacred, unrecognised, assimilated, stolen and now still facing higher unemployment and prison representation, but lower life expectancy and access to health care as compared to the rest of Australians.

This year’s Reconciliation Week theme is an important call to action: “Let’s take the next steps”.

Yes, there are many steps that must be taken and we can look back at history to see how the power of unity can enact important change.

Reconciliation week is framed by two significant historic events for the nation’s first peoples, which both have milestone anniversaries this year. The first is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that granted the Commonwealth power to make laws for ATSI peoples to address inequalities, as well as include ATSI peoples in the census. Prior to 1967, laws governing ATSI peoples differed by state. This included the right to own property, the right to marry without permission and even the right to be the legal guardian of their own children. The overwhelming “yes” vote by 90% of Australians resulted in citizenship rights for ATSI peoples that the rest of us take for granted.

The second event framing Reconciliation Week is the anniversary of the 1992 Mabo decision; a high court verdict that overturned the notion of ‘Terra Nullius’ – that Australia was found by the British as belonging to no one – and led the way for the Native Title system. This year marks 25 years since this historic court ruling. The decision was the first recognition of the unique connection ATSI peoples have to their land. Reconciliation Australia states that today, native title has been recognised in more than one million square kilometres of land in Australia.

These significant anniversaries are surely enough to draw our collective attention and ask why more has not been achieved since these landmarks.

We still see significant shortfalls in closing the gap; original targets were to address areas including life expectancy, unemployment and education, yet this year’s report from the Prime Minister shows only one of the seven key targets is on track. If we cannot keep our commitment to address the significant disadvantages ATSI peoples face, how can we expect to achieve true reconciliation?

For over 20 years, community and government have debated changing the constitution to properly recognise ATSI peoples. The government-funded national ‘RECOGNISE’ movement started four years ago, almost to the day. They have educated hundreds of communities through events and advocacy on the importance of recognition in preparation for a referendum. The RECOGNISE movement enabled Samaritans to host a regional community event to promote the path to recognition back in 2013 and yet here we are, nearly four years later and the next step still has not been taken.

The Referendum Council will deliver a recommendation in June to the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader on a vote for ATSI peoples’ proper inclusion in the constitution. Bi-partisan support in this area is a crucial part of taking the next steps toward reconciliation and I would strongly advocate that all political parties commit to this inclusion sooner rather than later.

So in the spirit of Reconciliation Week, let’s stand together and take the next steps: let’s properly recognise ATSI peoples in the constitution. Let’s close the gap. Let’s do better for this nation’s first peoples.