First things first: telling the truth about Australian history

L-R: Jill Eddington (chair); Henry Reynolds; Allan Clarke and Melissa Lucashenko


This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown. How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?

– an excerpt from Uluru Statement From the Heart

The First Things First panel began with a reading of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution and a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to supervise a process of ‘agreement-making’ and ‘truth-telling’ between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As many would know, the Uluru Statement was rejected by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as being inconsistent with democratic principles; but according to Melissa Lucashenko, whose latest novel is Too Much Lip, these ‘fine words’ of the Uluru Statement were doomed to fail from the very start.

Considering the importance of this document, and the potential for it to fundamentally change the position of the Aboriginal people within the Constitution, Lucashenko felt that there wasn’t enough time and preparation put in to make it work.

‘Even a sporting event like the Commonwealth Games, ‘the stolen wealth games’, had four times as much time and preparation than this piecemeal document had,’ Lucashenko said, disappointed anger showing on her face.

Allan Clarke, award winning investigative journalist behind true crime podcast Blood on the Tracks, agreed.

‘It was a bittersweet moment – they were touching words and made me feel quite emotional at the time, but after that initial reaction, the words felt empty.’

The statement was enacted by Indigenous delegates from around Australia, after a series of regional dialogues, and although there was a significant attempt at achieving a majority consensus position, both Clarke and Lucashenko felt that the meetings they attended were little more than a talk fest, with nice sandwiches.

‘No more “about us, without us”. We want collaboration, not consultation,’ said Clarke.

But Henry Reynolds, the Australian historian, whose pioneering work has changed understandings of the Australian frontier, believes there were dangers in rejecting it.

‘It plays right into the hands of the conservatives. If politics is the art of the possible, then we need to accept that this is what is possible now, and work with that,’ said Reynolds.

The concept for this panel came from the 60th edition of the Griffith Review, First Things First, which features an all-star Aboriginal cast of writers. First things first: before we can move forward, we need to sort out the bedrock issues that are at the heart of our identity as a nation.

Reynolds said this idea begins with understanding the ‘profoundly wrong’ way that Australia was settled.

‘The disaster that we see before us was pre-determined because of the way the English Privy Council described New South Wales “as a colony which consisted of a tract of territory practically unoccupied, without settled inhabitants or settled law”.

‘The Crown didn’t recognise the sovereignty of the Aboriginal peoples, and simply took the land, which was an enormous act of theft!

‘There was no treaty, and the flaw is an incurable one.’

Reynolds wants to take the whole issue to the International Court of Justice, which although non-binding, would exert international pressure upon Australia to resolve this historical injustice.

L-R: Allan Clarke and Melissa Lucashenko – pic: Natalie Foord

However, Lucashenko believes there is more foundational work to do before a treaty is possible.

‘Until we sort out our representation as individual Aboriginal nations and communities, how can we negotiate a treaty?’ asked Lucashenko.

As writers, they may not have the capacity to take the matter to the International Court of Justice or negotiate a treaty, but as truth tellers, they play an important role in getting the truth out.

‘It’s not my role as a writer to correct 200-plus years of genocide,’ said Lucashenko firmly. ‘I write novels to show people that we are a living culture, made up of actual human beings.’

Clarke has found that exploring new mediums such as podcasts has enabled him to overcome the resistance of mainstream Australia to engage with Aboriginal stories.

Blood on the Tracks tells the story of an Aboriginal teenaged boy murdered in 1988. For decades there was no action,’ said Clarke. Using the podcast medium, and publishing it under the Unravel True Crime series, we have managed to engage with a much larger audience, who are young, savvy, and want to know about our true history.’

A vast swathe of Australian history has been ‘deliberately forgotten or suppressed’, said Reynolds who found, as a history teacher, he was teaching history to Aboriginal children whose people weren’t even mentioned in the index.

‘We have a long tradition of white people who knew there was something very wrong about the way that Australia was settled. As far back as the 1820s, the people I’ve written about saw there was something wrong, spoke up and were hated for it.’

‘This should be everyone’s conversation, not just something that sits with us,’ said Lucashenko. ‘If you take the long view, they’ve been giving us beads and blankets since 1788, and it’s not good enough.’

Acknowledging the wrongs of the past, telling the truth about our history, and creating mechanisms by which our first nation’s people can flourish into the future is work for all of us.

Sara Runciman is a Southern Cross University Digital Media and Communications student. 

Southern Cross University Reporters