This is the third article in our series on Voice, Treaty and Truth. Read the other articles in the series here and here.
Australia has never been good at listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Despite the truths already told in trials like the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody or the Investigating the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their familiesgovernments have time and again ignored recommendations designed to address the impacts of Australia’s colonial past and present.
State refusals to respond to the truth have led to renewed calls for processes that will detail the impact of colonization on the daily lives of indigenous peoples. These calls were an important part of the Uluru Statement from the Heartwhich sought “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution” supplemented by “a Makarrata Commission to oversee a process of making agreements between governments and First Nations and telling the truth about our history “.
As lawyers Gabrielle Appleby and Megan Davis did noticedthe call for truth-telling in the Uluru Declaration is just one part of a broader call for structural reforms designed to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Read more: What is a treaty anyway? What could it mean for indigenous peoples?
Beginning in the 1980s, formal truth-telling processes (commonly referred to as truth commissions) emerged as a method of accounting for the past in deeply divided societies around the world. Perhaps the most famous example is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissionwhich aimed to address the gross violations of human rights during apartheid.
Truth commissions such as this one are generally temporary, state-sanctioned investigations that typically last from one to five years, with a mission to investigate certain events and specific violations over a period of time. This usually involves collecting testimonials from victims and (sometimes) perpetrators.
It is only relatively recently that truth-seeking processes have been used in response to colonial violence by settlers, particularly through Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissionwhich arose after a class action lawsuit on behalf of the approximately 150,000 First Nations children who had been taken from their families and placed in residential schools.
The Uluru Declaration is not the first time First Nations on this continent have called for truth-telling. Since colonization, Indigenous peoples have insisted that Australia should not look away from their experiences of dispossession and survival.
However, when these truths have been told, they are all too often denied, defensive, or even aggressive. For example, when the Stolen Generations investigation pointed to evidence of the forcible removal of Indigenous children who it found to be in violation of the UN Convention on Genocide, there was an immediate conservative backlash. The Howard government rejected the inquiry’s findings in one of its first salvos against what Conservatives called a “black armband” view of Australian history.
There’s a reason settler governments are reluctant to tell the truth. First Nations often seek the truth as a means to change an unsustainable status quo, reshape society’s attitudes to improve their own future prospects, and reassert their own sovereignty and their right to self-determination.
As the non-Indigenous Canadian political scientist Courtney Jung has done arguedwhile settler governments may try to use the conclusion of a truth commission to “draw a line through history”, First Nations try to build “not a wall but a bridge” by telling the truth to “draw history into the present , and to make connections between past policies, current policies and current injustices”.
Whose truths? Which truths?
In general, First Nations peoples seek truths that address three main themes: story and memory; trauma and healing; and responsibility and justice.
We have described this potential as “the promise of the truth”, in which telling the truth leads to some kind of agreement between indigenous peoples and settlers, rather than being a process centered on the state and its violence.
The promise of truth is that it will change national narratives and produce a new, shared collective memory that recognizes past crimes; it will contribute to the healing and rehabilitation of indigenous peoples harmed by colonization and dispossession; and it will force settlers and their institutions to take responsibility for the harms of colonization.
This approach contrasts with what we have termed the “colonization of truth,” in which telling the truth is seen primarily as restoring the colonists’ colonial state while covering up ongoing injustice. When truth is colonized, it can reproduce stories that restore aspects of the settlers’ legitimacy and treat injustice as if it were exclusively past. Alternatively, this version of the truth may treat First Nations people merely as victims and tell stories of harm and trauma without offering redress. Or it may suggest that the demand for accountability and justice has been met simply by engaging in truth-telling, rather than viewing truth-telling as a starting point for a fairer future.
So the truth is complex and what it can achieve in the Australian context is not yet clear. As the treaty processes progress in various Australian jurisdictions, the commitment to telling the truth seems likely to form part of future negotiations. This close connection between treaty and truth is unique to the Australian cause and confirms the strong belief that truth has transformative potential. We do not yet know whether the coupling of truth and treaty will produce the much-needed transformation in relations.
Victoria, which announced a commitment to the treaty in 2016, is the most advanced jurisdiction in testing this proposal. In 2022, Victoria founded the Yoorrook Truth and Justice Commission (Yoorrok is a Wemba Wemba word meaning “truth”), marking a new era in Australian truth-telling focusing on the history of invasion and colonization of First Nations territories. Until the creation of Yoorrook, no previous commission, royal commission or inquiry into colonization in Australia has included the word “truth” in its official title.
Yet the truth is not a straightforward proposition. “Truth burns,” as native academic Marcia Langton put it on recently. Sometimes telling the truth is painful and directly related to harm and injustice.
Read more: The Voice: what is it, where did it come from and what can it achieve?
The truth is tricky. It can seem like there is room for new insights, while at the same time closing it down and reinforcing the colonial status quo.
In the end, telling the truth is awkward but necessary, as change is inevitable in any relationship. But here lives the possibility. As new truths unfold on this continent, we have a chance to imagine what it might mean to be in a relationship that doesn’t reveal the truth about First Nations lives, or the truth about how Australia came to be denies.