5.14. Why is Truth-Telling important?
- Gabrielle Appleby and Megan Davis, ‘The Uluru Statement and the Promises of Truth’, Australian Historical Studies 49,4 (2018).
- Vanessa Barolsky, ‘Truth-telling about a settler-colonial legacy: decolonising possibilities?’ Postcolonial Studies, September 2022.
- Amy Dale, ‘From the heart: Enshrining constitutional recognition’,
- LSJ: Law Society Journal 79 (2021).
Why is truth-telling important?
Gabrielle Appleby and Megan Davis, ‘The Uluru Statement and the Promises of Truth’, Australian Historical Studies 49,4 (2018)
Despite there having been a range of ‘truth-telling’ processes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians historically, Appleby and Davis note that participants in the Regional Dialogues that led to the Uluru Statement recounted experiences of unrelenting violence and dispossession. The calls for truth-telling in relation to the Voice were not initially factored into but emerged from the Regional Dialogues. Appleby and Davis emphasise that the truth-telling that is sought is not just about coming to terms with history but is part of the need for political transition in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in Australia’s constitutional structure. The authors go on to explain Makarrata and how it would enact truth-telling as a process involving all Australians ‘coming together after a struggle’. The authors discuss the sophisticated and multi-dimensional views and aims of truth-telling voiced by the participants in the dialogues. They conclude that there must be truth-telling at a local level with participation by Indigenous and non-Indigenous local community members.
‘The dialogues reveal the promises of truth-telling
The call for a truth-telling in the Uluru Statement existed as one part of a larger call for structural reform that would include constitutionally guaranteed political participation (through the Voice to Parliament) and a process by which, informed by truth-telling, reparations and future relationships can be negotiated. This is also significant because it distinguishes the call in the Uluru Statement for a truth-telling from what the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has referred to as a “historical commission”. IDEA explains that historical commissions, in contrast to truth commissions, “are not established as part of a political transition and may not even pertain to today’s political leadership or practices. Instead, they serve to clarify historical truths and pay respect to previously unrecognised victims or their descendants”.
While much of the history that would be told in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander truth-telling would be historical, it does, in IDEA’s words, pertain to a political transition and today’s political leadership or practices. The truth-telling that is sought is part of the need for political transition in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in Australia’s constitutional structure, and the current governments recalibrating their relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander peoples through a Makarrata.
Holistically, what is being called for is a political transition, in recognition of the fact that Australia’s political transition at the start of the twentieth century excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.’
Vanessa Barolsky, ‘Truth-telling about a settler-colonial legacy: decolonising possibilities?’ Postcolonial Studies, September 2022, p. 3
The Uluru Statement calls for a Makarrata Commission to oversee a process of ‘agreement-making’ and ‘truth-telling’. It was in the regional dialogues held by the Referendum Council prior to the Uluru Statement that this demand for truth-telling was substantively articulated by dialogue participants. This article explores this grassroots call for truth-telling within the context of the desire for political transformation expressed by the Uluru Statement. Barolsky argues that truth-telling is conceptualised by regional dialogue participants as ‘an opportunity for First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians to participate as equals in a process of place-based dialogic engagement about the truths of colonial history’. This would be a ‘political encounter which would not assume an outcome of national or even local reconciliation’. The author argues these types of encounters may have the potential to create ‘local decolonising spaces in which more equal terms of association are negotiated. However, they could also be appropriated to pursue ideological forms of consensus that undermine this possibility, as occurred in previous periods of Australian history’.
‘While “truth-telling” was not in the original mandate of the government-appointed Referendum Council, established in 2015 to investigate “meaningful” constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Referendum Council found that “it was unanimous at every Dialogue”. Truth-telling was seen by regional dialogue participants “as a step on the journey for how they believed they could address current disadvantage and power imbalance on their own terms”. During these dialogues, participants asserted that truth-telling was a critical component of meaningful recognition and argued that, “a nation cannot recognise people they do not know or understand”. Therefore, they expressed the desire to “tell the truth about history in our own voices and from our own point of view. And for mainstream Australians to hear those voices and to reconsider what they know and understand about their nation’s history”. The type of truth-telling articulated in the Uluru Statement is significantly different to the forms of recognition previously enacted by the settler-colonial state, which was part of a legacy of state-driven and compromised recognition initiatives that failed to substantively recognise the colonial violence on which the Australian state was founded or its ongoing effects in the existing political formation. Compromised forms of recognition that seek to assimilate First Nations communities have been seen in several settler-colonial contexts. State-led processes of recognition in Australia and North America, for example, have been convincingly critiqued as an exercise in power, designed to assimilate First Nations communities within the machinery of state authority and effect hollow forms of reconciliation that fail to recognise past injustice or re-order the terms of political association. These forms of recognition, “granted” by the state, codify rather than overturn unequal political relations by offering limited forms of inclusion in an unreformed body politic to First Nation communities on terms dictated by the settler-colonial state.’
Amy Dale, ‘From the heart: Enshrining constitutional recognition’, LSJ: Law Society Journal 79 (2021), p. 28
Written four years after the Uluru Convention this essay argues enshrining a Voice to Parliament in the constitution would bring Australia in line with other countries, build a positive pathway to the future for Indigenous children, and be a nation-building development. Despite the Uluru Statement being rejected by then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, countless groups and organisations expressed their support. Dale argues that the proposal for Voice, Treaty and Truth was very consciously worded in that order because historically the enquiries that have ostensibly sought the truth about injustices have simply ‘collected dust’. Dale cites Davis and others asserting ‘first, listen to our voices’. The article concludes by discussing the history of the role of the legal profession in contributing a ‘pathway to peace’ for Indigenous Australians and by congratulating Megan Davis on being awarded the Sydney Peace Prize, and by urging the profession overall and politicians to step up to support the proposal.
‘The case for Constitutional recognition
… First Nations in other countries including the United States and Canada are acknowledged in their constitutions, which can then be used to exercise self-determination. In the Uluru Statement, the words “Voice, Treaty, Truth” were deliberately chosen in a particular order; “Voice” at the start and “Truth” at the end.
For decades, inquiries and reports have considered the “truth” behind the grave statistics of structural and systemic disadvantage concerning Indigenous people. Many recommendations for reform have instead collected dust and are recycled in later inquiries; a recent example being a NSW Parliamentary inquiry into treatment of Indigenous people in the justice system that urged lawmakers to adopt the recommendations of the 1991 landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that have largely been ignored.
Professor Davis tweeted in March 2021 “beware the state seeking ‘truth’ before substantive rights”. “So, in order to tell the truth, we’re saying: first, listen to our voices, ensure that our voices are heard every day, through an enshrined voice to Parliament”. Proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, lawyer and activist Teela Reid, who was involved in the drafting of the Statement, tells LSJ:
“The mandate in the Uluru Statement comes from a principled process involving a cross-section of the First Nations community who have said, ‘We want our voices heard first, in the democratic life of this nation, before we sit down and tell our truths’. Because for too long, we’ve already had so many truth inquiries and truth-telling processes. The Royal Commission to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody years ago was a forum to tell truth. In fact, there’s been a lot of state inquiries. And so often truth has been used as a roadblock to structural change. That’s why the sequence ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’ is so necessary. An organic conversation unfolded on the first day of [the 2017 Convention]. Mob were venting their frustrations that their communities had never been heard. And what come out of that was that here we are, again, stepping up to the plate, speaking our truth, and no one is listening. So, the first reform has to be this enshrined voice to Parliament. To ensure that our voices hold legitimacy in the democratic life of Australia”.’