It’s National Reconciliation Week. A time to celebrate what has been achieved in Australia’s reconciliation journey to date. But perhaps more importantly, a time to acknowledge the unfinished business left to resolve.
For some people it can be difficult to understand why reconciliation is needed at all.
Last week in an historic meeting, over 200 Indigenous leaders from across the country came together at Uluru where they discussed the need for constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and empower Torres Strait Islander Australians in our founding document. More importantly, what that model for reform should look like.
It’s a tough conversation often filled with emotions born of dispossession and despair – it is not always easy to understand.
If you’d like to understand better why reconciliation and constitutional recognition is important, let me share a personal story with you.
It is a story about two men – my two grandfathers. And how the story of Australia is so accurately mirrored in the stories of these two men.
One was a blackfella, the other a whitefella. Both served Australia during WW2.
A Whitefella’s story
George Scott Milling was born in Inglewood, Western Australia in 1920 to Irish-Australian parents.
His family migrated to Australia in the 1890s seeking new opportunities in a seemingly young country, a land of opportunity.
The Millings were entrepreneurial. They took chances, worked hard and managed to create good lives for their families. They were good to Australia, and in turn, Australia was good to them.
During WW2, George joined the Royal Australian Air Force and spent much of his time in Northern Australia working in aircraft maintenance and recoveries.
Like most servicemen of that time, following WW2 George was acknowledged for his service to his country, received his medals and was financially supported by the RSL to access a returned serviceman’s home loan, among a range of other benefits.
The medals were symbolic recognition, and symbolism is important. The financial assistance was practical recognition, and this proved to be even more important.
George wisely used this benefit to purchase a modest house in Dee Why on Sydney’s Northern beaches, where he raised his young family. For the remainder of his life he made a career as an exploration driller and as Sydney’s house prices rose over the following decades it created a pool of wealth that benefitted the next generation of Millings.
A Blackfella’s story
Conversely, Bernard Robert Bray was born in Wowan, Queensland in 1918 to Aboriginal parents.
His family had lived on their traditional lands in the Dawson Valley region since time immemorial, until the arrival of European squatters in the mid-1800s.
He was a Yiman man and made a living as a stockman and ring barker. He worked hard, but his success was limited by the colour of his skin.
What followed for Bernard’s family was dispossession from their land, destruction of language, customs and culture, frontier violence, stolen wages and exclusion from mainstream society and economy over the following century.
Bernard was born when the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 applied which handed the Chief Protector enormous control over almost all aspects of the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland. The Act meant that Bernard was not afforded the social, economic and cultural freedoms that my other grandfather, George Milling, enjoyed.
Despite all this, when WW2 came to Australia’s doorstep, Bernard answered his country’s call and joined the Army.
Soon after he found himself in New Guinea, repelling the advance of the Japanese forces, in what has become known as the Battle of Australia.
When he returned home, however, he was never recognised for his service to his country. He never received his medals. He was never allowed into the RSLs. Unlike his white mates, he received no financial assistance for his service. He received neither his due symbolic recognition, nor due practical recognition. He was not even formally counted as citizen until the referendum in 1967.
The generational impact
Bernard died a broken man. He felt that Australia did not want him or his family to succeed. Unlike my white grandfather, who was able to hand down the profits of his serviceman’s home loan to his descendants, my black grandfather had little to bequeath. The difference in wealth and opportunity has carried on through inter-generationally. The white part of my family is better educated, wealthier and healthier. The black side still struggles to achieve the same outcomes in education, health and wealth.
These men were only two years apart in age, but they grew up in two very different Australias, and so did their families. Both men were worthy of respect and recognition – both symbolic and practical. Both were worthy of gratitude, freedom, opportunity and support to carve out a good life in the lucky country. But only one was ever afforded it.
The story of my two grandfathers demonstrates the way in which past injustice has inter-generational impact.
The fact is, Parliament could make those unfair laws and policies because they were authorised to do so under a Constitution that did not, and still does not, recognise or protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests or guarantee them fair treatment.
That is why I believe we need reconciliation and constitutional reform.
Addressing past wrongs
Meaningful constitutional recognition is important for both symbolic and practical reasons.
Symbolically, constitutional recognition must recognise the rightful place of the First Nations of Australia. Practically, it must ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians will be treated more fairly than in the past.
I think of the struggles of those black diggers; the sacrifices they made, the total lack of recognition they received, the incredible inequalities they lived through – and I hope we can make things right and fair. I also hope Australia can muster the collective courage and maturity to deal with the ghosts of our past, and empower the First Nations’ to take their rightful place in a fairer future.
National Reconciliation Week is important, but reconciliation is a journey, not an event. It is a journey all Australians must share, a journey that for many can be uncomfortable, arduous, painful and intensely personal.
But it is a journey so worth taking. The best victories are always the hardest fought.
But we are all worthy, and I believe that as a nation, we are ready.
Telstra recognises Australia’s First Peoples
Telstra is a proud and long-term supporter of RECOGNISE, the people’s movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia’s Constitution. Our company purpose is ‘to create a brilliant connected future for everyone’. Our vision for reconciliation is to see our purpose come to life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We believe that through connection we can all create social, economic and cultural change and achieve a brilliant connected future for Australia.
Read more about Telstra and recognition and inclusion for Indigenous Australia.