When our new Prime Minister stepped up to the lectern on election night, his first pledge was, ‘I commit to the Uluru Statement from the heart in full’. It felt like a turning point in our country’s history.
I have spent most of my career working on processes that sought to advance truth and accountability. None has moved me as much as the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its call for Voice, Treaty and Truth.
Perhaps this is because I was born and raised in Australia and feel a sense of responsibility to address our country’s foundational injustice against First Nations People. Perhaps it is because of the thoughtfulness of the statement, the generosity of its ask. It has taught me so much, and it has empowered me to be part of the movement for change.
Over ten years ago, I was working in Solomon Islands, supporting their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Formal truth-telling processes are often run by the government with a top-down approach. I saw that while there can be many benefits from having the state recognise the importance of truth-telling, centralised, time-limited mechanisms can be unsatisfying for some. When the government has failed people in the past, they often do not have confidence in state-run processes. Also, truth-telling takes time, especially in communities that have a strong “stori” culture.
I returned to Australia and joined PIAC, doing work to support truth and accountability processes for war crimes overseas. The work focussed on Sri Lanka and sought to empower people on the ground with detailed and accurate information about possible war crimes and breaches of human rights. The aim of our projects on conflict mapping was to put truth in their hands.
But always, while doing this work, I was thinking about Australia. About our reluctance to tell the truth about our history. And what I could do to support this.
The opportunity to support truth-telling has come through Towards Truth, a project that maps legislation and policy that has impacted First Nations People since 1788. In Towards Truth, PIAC has combined our long-standing commitment to First Nations justice with our decade of work supporting truth and accountability processes for large-scale, widespread human rights violations. Through our partnership with UNSW’s Indigenous Law Centre and Professor Megan Davis we have found a way to support the vision of the Uluru Statement from the Heart for ‘truth-telling about our history’.
Understanding how laws and government policies have impacted upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a critical foundation for understanding and sharing truth.
Towards Truth will allow First Nations people to understand the actions or experiences of their families and ancestors in the context of the law and policy of the day. Why was their language lost? Why did a great grandparent not return home from domestic servitude? What happened to traditional hunting practices? How and why did a community lose access to a water source? Why didn’t previous generations vote? By exploring the database, people can see and understand the business of dispossession and disempowerment of First Nations People. As Professor Davis has noted, ‘this wasn’t done in secret – it was in our parliaments’.
At the same time, the project database, which will soon be made into a publicly available website, gives the entire community an opportunity to reckon with our past and present, and to understand how law and policy can be both a positive tool and a destructive weapon.
PIAC is proud to have accepted the invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart ‘to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’ And we are delighted to be joined by generous donors and pro bono supporters who are making this work possible.
Let’s all walk together.