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Reconciliation: a worthy and achievable cause or a political idea before its time?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Friday, 10 June 2022

Official policy suggests that reconciliation between Indigenous and other Australians needs to live in the hearts, minds and actions of all, for the nation to move forward.

National Reconciliation Week (NRW), which has just passed, each year runs from 27 May to 3 June. These dates commemorate the 1967 referendum and the High Court Mabo decision respectively, events which have been officially nominated as the two significant milestones in the reconciliation journey.

The desirability of reconciliation can hardly be disputed, given the many historic divisions, injustices and resentments between Indigenous and other Australians. At the same time it is also hard to avoid noticing that reconciliation seems to have lost momentum in this country, even though there is continuing goodwill concerning the concept.


Peak interest in reconciliation happened nearly a quarter of a century ago, when on 28 May 2000 about 250,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to show their support for the cause. Now, in 2022, NRW has passed with little notice. It has become a matter of annual routine and is now somewhat low key and stale. Maybe with all the other Indigenous celebrations (such as NAIDOC week, football's Indigenous Rounds, etc) there is an excess of Indigenous events.

Reconciliation Australia (RA) had been established in January 2001 to promote a continuing national focus for reconciliation. Its operational activities are primarily funded by the Commonwealth. Funding is also received from the BHP Foundation, corporate supporters, and private donors. For the year ended 30 June 2021, RA had revenue of $6.6 million.

Reconciliation has slipped from public prominence for a number of reasons. The main reason is that officialdom has ignored the deep-seated nature of disadvantages affecting our Indigenous population, creating the impression that "closing-the-gap" (a prerequisite for true reconciliation) could be achieved in less than a few decades. Policy realism has also been blinded by "quick-fix" ideological solutions that simply have not worked.

While in this country calls for reconciliation initially stemmed from the outcomes of key controversial inquiries, such as the "Stolen Generations" report and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, a key influence on Australia has been the experience of South Africa.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa was established by the new post-apartheid government in 1995. Its slogan was "healing our past", and its emphasis was on uncovering information about the apartheid era from both victims and perpetrators rather than on prosecuting individuals or on providing compensation.

After initially being regarded as largely successful, the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa ran out of momentum. This reflects the country's economic stagnation under the ANC government, and issues with corruption and governance. This has resulted in only the elites among the black population benefitting from ANC rule. The masses among the non-white population still feel aggrieved, while much of the white population has sought to emigrate. Long term reconciliation seems to be eluding South Africa.


Common features of both the South African and Australian reconciliation models are that they are largely government led ("top-down") processes, whose main shortcoming is that they "put the cart before the horse". In normal circumstances, tensions, that have arisen due to ethnic inequality and grievance, are solved over time by social mobility.

Such social mobility involving blacks in South Africa, and Indigenous people in Australia has been very slow. Consequently, we can expect reconciliation largely after we achieve much greater equality, and not before. This could even take a millennium to fully complete, when you bear in mind that in England people with Norman names are still measurably wealthier than others despite the Norman invasion being over a thousand years ago.

In my opinion, the reconciliation movement in Australia is headed in the same way as its equivalent in South Africa. It looks like it will continue to fade in profile, though progress will likely continue to be made in ways not currently acknowledged.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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