Towards Reconciliation: Is Forgiveness the Next Step?

As National Reconciliation Week begins and we celebrate twenty years since the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament, and over ten years since former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made The Apology to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, my thoughts turn to a question which has been burning within me since The Apology was made: why haven’t we achieved Reconciliation?

It’s a question to which there are as many answers as there are those willing to answer it. Fingers can be pointed in all directions: Government, institutions, mainstream society, even back at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Ironically, the majority of all these groups seem to want Reconciliation. So what’s the hold-up?

In his Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated:

“The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.”

One of the main criticisms of the Australian Government it that it has not done enough to improve – or facilitate the improvement of – the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The updated Bringing Them Home 20 Years On report provides a classic example: twenty years after the original report and we see little progress, yet the same rhetoric, the same arguments, and the same recommendations. Stop and think about that for a moment. Twenty years, and we’re still talking about the same things! Forget “moving forward with confidence to the future” – we’re stuck in neutral. Or maybe even up on blocks!

On that premise it could be argued that Reconciliation cannot proceed until the Government makes substantial reparations to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. While I believe that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would agree with that, I also believe that there is (or should be) enough evidence to suggest that unless there is a major shift in the Government’s priorities, that degree of change is unlikely to happen.

Does that mean we should give up on Reconciliation? Not at all. However, it does mean that we may need to alter our approach to Reconciliation, and consider the sequence of events that need to occur in order for us to start moving forward.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said:

“We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.”

At the time it seemed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – in general – had received the Government’s apology, in that it was both welcomed and valued, and seen as a huge step to improving race relations in Australia. However, I think what may have been lost over time is that Mr Rudd was not just asking for the apology to be received or accepted: he was asking for forgiveness. Maybe that’s what’s been missing from the Reconciliation process to date?

When two people have an argument, once it’s determined who is in the wrong there is usually an apology, a promise to make amends, and then forgiveness. Forgiving conveys an understanding that the apology and proposed correction have been accepted, and that things can move forward. It is not ‘forgive and forget’, and does not imply that the receiving party must ‘get over it’. If anything, it is important to recognise and recall past faults in order to facilitate current and future correction.

While I believe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples welcomed the Apology, I’m not convinced that, as a majority, we have expressed forgiveness. Further, I believe this is recognised, perhaps on a subconscious or unexpressed level, by broader Australian society, and inhibits the Reconciliation process. Not because non-Indigenous Australia doesn’t want Reconciliation, but because it’s waiting for us to say, “it’s okay, we forgive you, let’s work out how we move forward from here.”

The idea of forgiveness without prior reparations might be inconceivable to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For many – arguably all – the sins of the past still affect present-day lives. Many wounds are still open, and being stuck in the status quo does little to help them heal. We’re now fifty years on from the Referendum, twenty years on from Bringing Them Home, and almost ten years from The Apology: there is nothing to suggest those wounds will heal unless we do something different to what we’ve done in the past.

I’m not going to tell anyone that we ‘have to’ forgive broader Australia for the past – that’s not my place to say. What I will do is encourage all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to consider whether forgiveness is the next step towards Reconciliation. We need to have this discussion in our families, our communities, and our organisations. We need to ask ourselves, can we forgive? Are we ready to forgive? Is forgiveness what we need to do in order to strengthen the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, and in doing so, make Reconciliation – and all the factors that are included in achieving Reconciliation – a national priority for all Australians.

How else can we move forward?

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Leave a Reply