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First Nations: The Road to Reconciliation

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The Road to Reconciliation

"At its heart, reconciliation is about strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, for the benefit of all Australians.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Australia’s colonial history is characterised by devastating land dispossession, violence, and racism. Over the last half-century, however, many significant steps towards reconciliation have been taken. Reconciliation is an ongoing journey that reminds us that while generations of Australians have fought hard for meaningful change, future gains are likely to take just as much, if not more, effort." - What is Reconciliation? (Reconciliation Australia)

Take a look at these timelines: Healing Foundation's Timeline of Trauma and Healing in Australia and The Uluru Statement from the Heart History. Use these and the other resources on this page to learn more about the significant milestones and events on Australia's journey to reconciliation.

The State of Reconciliation in Australia

This video outlines the key facts from the 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia Report.

Mabo, a Voice and the Road Ahead

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the historic Mabo decision, we reflect on what's been achieved since the High Court recognised Indigenous land rights. Stan Grant and the panel discuss an Indigenous voice to parliament. (Q & A, ABC, 2/6/2022)

Video Resources

From Reconciliation Australia, this video outlines key facts in the 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia Report. This report is designed to assess the current status of reconciliation and outlines recommended actions for the progression of reconciliation.

Singer songwriter Mitch Tambo is a proud Gamilaraay man. In this episode of Q+A he discusses his perspective on truth-telling and closing the gap. "It's about what's inside of our heart, our Gii Dhuwi, our heart and our spirit."

(Panellists: Jennifer Robinson, Human Rights Lawyer; Mitch Tambo, Singer and songwriter; Dave Sharma, Liberal Member for Wentworth; Ed Husic, Labor Member for Chifley; and Randa Abdel-Fattah, Author and academic.)

Actor and writer Meyne Wyatt delivered this speech - taken from his autobiographical play City of Gold (2019) - to close an episode of Q+A. The episode focused on Indigenous deaths in custody and the global Black Lives Matter movement.

"'How are we to move forward if we dwell on the past?' That's your privilege. You get to ask that question. You want your blacks quiet and humble. 'You can't stand up, you have to sit down.' . . . Silence is violence. Complacency is complicity. I don't want to be quiet. I don't want to be humble. I don't want to sit down."

Journalist Stan Grant has written and spoken extensively about his identity as a Waradjuri man. 

In 2015 he took part in the IQ2 debate topic "Racism is Destroying the Australian Dream." His speech focused on the impact of colonisation on Indigenous Australians and argued that the 'Australian Dream' is rooted in racism. It has been widely acknowledged that his is one of the most powerful speeches ever heard at IQ2. Find the full transcript here.

Following his IQ2 speech, Stan Grant was invited to address staff of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to discuss his views on Indigenous Affairs.

Stan Grant discusses his book Talking to my Country, a very personal meditation on what it means to be Australian, what it means to be Indigenous, and what racism really means in this country.

26 January 1935 / 1946 - Invasion Day / Survival Day / Day of Mourning / Australia Day

On January 26, 1788 the British landed in Australia, claiming the country as a British colony. Many dates have been used to celebrate the foundation of Australia but by 1935 all states and territories were celebrating on January 26. Australia Day and its celebrations were officially declared as January 26 by the Commonwealth and state governments in 1946, and only in 1994 did it become a public holiday.

This date holds a very different meaning to First Nations peoples and the first official Day of Mourning was held in 1938. For First Nations peoples January 26 is a reminder of invasion, dispossession, and violence.

In an interview with the ABC's Fran Kelly, Stan Grant discusses his book Australia Day, which examines the indigenous struggle for belonging and identity in Australia, and what it means to be Australian. The book notes that Australia Day has become a "battleground". 

10 December 1992 - Redfern Address

Growing recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples civil rights also required an acknowledgement of the long-standing suppression of those rights by Australian society - its government and people. 

In December 1992, then Prime Minister, Paul Keating addressed a predominantly Indigenous crowd at Redfern Park in Sydney for the beginning of the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. In this speech he focused on the injustices suffered by Australia's First Nations peoples and acknowledged responsibility. This official recognition is considered a significant step towards reconciliation.

Results of a 2011 poll classified it as one of the most unforgettable speeches of all time.

Bringing Them Home

13 February 2008 - National Apology to the Stolen Generations

Although a national apology for the atrocities of the Stolen Generations was recommended by the Bringing Them Home report in 1997, it was not until 2008 that it actually happened. Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's first order of business when Parliament opened on February 13, 2008 was to make a formal public apology to those First Nations peoples affected by the Stolen Generations, acknowledging and apologising for the laws and policies of previous governments that had caused such harm.

This event consolidated Australia's commitment to reconciliation.

In 2015 Kevin Rudd presented the 2015 Australian National University Reconciliation Lecture. This lecture explores the role of symbols in our cultures and identities, as well as the fundamental need to link symbolic national gestures, like the National Apology, with actions and measurable outcomes, such as the Closing the Gap strategy to overcome Indigenous disadvantage. Also discussed is the current state of reconciliation and steps to take to progress the reconciliation process. These are acknowledged to be the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution and the need for certain constitutional reforms. 

The full text and key quotes from this lecture are available via NITV.

27 May 1967 - Referendum

On May 27, 1967, a referendum was held to change the Australian Constitution. Before this happened First Nations peoples weren't included in the official census and each state or territory was allowed to make their own laws with respect to First Nations peoples. This meant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

  • Weren't counted as people or citizens of Australia
  • Had different rights (e.g. to own property, vote, look after their own children) depending on where they lived

The referendum was held to change these clauses, to include First Nations people among the Australian population, and to allow the Commonwealth government to make laws that applied to all First Nations peoples wherever in Australia they lived.

90.77% of Australians voted YES to these changes.

3 June 1992 - Mabo Decision

The Mabo decision was an important turning point in the fight for Indigenous land rights. 

British colonisation claimed land from First Nations peoples under terra nullius. Their assumption that the land was not 'owned' by the First Nations peoples who lived there and thus had no rights to it enabled the Europeans to claim it as their own.

In 1992 a group of Meriam people (traditional owners of the Murray Islands (Mer) in the Torres Strait) led by Eddie Koiki Mabo challenged this legal principle. Explaining how the Torres Strait Islander peoples customs and beliefs follow their traditional system of ownership, the people of Mer called upon the High Court to determine the true owners of the land. 

Their ruling acknowledged that First Nations peoples held sovereignty over their land before the British arrived, meaning terra nullius should not have applied, and thus those rights still existed. This decision led to the Native Title Act of 1993 which enabled First Nations peoples to begin reclaiming their traditional lands.

The story of Eddie 'Koiki' Mabo is told through the film directed by Rachel Perkins. Rated: M (Year level ClickView restrictions apply). 

26 May 1998 - National Sorry Day / National Day of Healing

The first National Sorry Day was held on May 26, 1998 - the first anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report being presented to Parliament. This report was the result of a government inquiry into the removal of First Nations children from their families (the Stolen Generations) and recommends an apology and reparations be made to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for this practice.

National Sorry Day is a day to acknowledge not only the trauma and grief suffered by those of the Stolen Generations but also their strength in surviving. In 2005, it was renamed (although both names may be used) as the National Day of Healing. This change reinforces the event as a time to reflect on how all Australians can play a part in the healing process needed to achieve reconciliation.

26 May 2017 - Uluru Statement from the Heart


In May 2017, the First Nations Constitutional Convention was held at Uluru. This Convention, and the intense regional dialogues that preceded it, resulted in the adoption of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This Statement is a unified plea to the people of Australia for constitutional recognition. Key concepts include constitutional reform, an acknowledgement of First Nations sovereignty, an established voice to Parliament, commitment to truth-telling, and a Makarrata (Treaty) Commission.

Voice, Treaty, and Truth will help Australia move forward in the journey towards reconciliation. Learn more by exploring the Statement's official website.

2023 Referendum - A Voice to Parliament

One of the key pillars of substantive reform called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a Voice to Parliament – a representative mechanism to advise Parliament on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples enshrined in the Australian Constitution.

On 14 October 2023, a referendum was held to consider establishing the Voice in the Constitution. The referendum was not carried.

Our thanks to The Hutchins School (Tasmania) for generously allowing us to copy and adapt content from their Road to Reconciliation Libguide page.