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Does a referendum offer ‘us’ another chance to reconcile with ‘them’?

By Tom Clark and Melissa Walsh - posted Monday, 7 November 2011

In the leadup to a national referendum that would bring recognition of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders into the Australian constitution, there is remarkably little discussion of how or why non-Indigenous voters might feel any particular interest in the process.

That absence is dangerous. In the absence of widely agreed reasons to care, Australian history suggests it is unlikely that a majority of voters in a majority of states will vote 'yes' in the referendum.

Mindful of the danger, we have been piloting research this year, working with focus groups of non-Aboriginal students at Victoria University. Essentially, we first asked participants to talk about 'reconciliation' in the abstract, and then went on to discuss 'Aboriginal reconciliation.'


This project picked up on similar work being done in Canada, led by York University's Ravi de Costa, which has showed the possibilities of exploring non-Aboriginal attitudes towards reconciliation in ways that illuminate common points of interest between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The Canadian research reaffirms that these common points of interest are remarkably resilient in the face of political partisan divisions.

While our focus groups revealed largely predictable differences between people's positions, much more striking was a constant similarity between the ways participants framed the topic of Aboriginal reconciliation.

Our research suggests non-Aboriginal Australians consistently affirm a need for reconciliation that is not diminished by their differences of opinion about what forms it should take. As discussed below, we were able to observe this remarkable unanimity by focusing on the stylistic qualities of participants' speech.

Participants in our focus groups displayed a wide disparity of knowledge about Aboriginal culture in Australia. For native-born participants and immigrants alike, some people clearly possess a more intimate knowledge about Australia's Indigenous peoples and cultures than others.

Participants explained that most of their knowledge was based on academic study, or generated through the news media and films such as Rabbit Proof Fence, rather than through first-hand contact with Indigenous Australians.

Participants also expressed quite different views about whether and how to achieve reconciliation. Some believed symbolic moments such as the 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations were merely tokenistic, needing to be supplemented with measures such as compensation. On the other hand, others believed reconciliation should be confined to the level of token or symbolic gestures only.


For example, 'Roy' argued in support of Australia's 2008 apology, but nothing additional: "Once again do you mean compensation? Then no, it's not fair to people nowadays who didn't do anything, I think saying sorry was good, but I don't think it would be fair if we had to contribute ourselves, to something that wasn't our fault. Yeah, its awful, but this sort of thing happens everywhere, and the people who do it don't really apologise to generations later or do anything about it."

Such variances of knowledge and opinion were well known long before we ran our focus groups, of course. What is original in our research is the sense of a countervailing force from within, a drive for unanimity embedded in the differences. We picked it up in a stylistic feature – in the pronouns non-Aboriginal people use when discussing the topic of Aboriginal reconciliation.

Across differences of background and political viewpoint, all our non-Aboriginal participants consistently spoke about the business of Aboriginal reconciliation through a specific grammatical lens. All used 'we,' 'us,' 'our,' and 'ours' to refer to all the non-Aboriginal people in the country. They used an equivalent set of pronouns – 'they,' 'them,' 'their,' and 'theirs' – to refer to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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About the Authors

Dr Tom Clark is a senior lecturer in Communication at Victoria University, Melbourne, and the author of Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (Australian Scholarly Publishing).

Melissa is a researcher in the School of Communication and the Arts at Victoria University, Melbourne. Melissa’s background is in public and private history and memory.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Tom Clark
All articles by Melissa Walsh

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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