Begin with one truth

The joint statement describes it not as something new but something coming, something due to a people who have been waiting too long.

“Today has been owed for 233 years,” it says. “233 years of violence, dispossession and deprivation. 233 years of deliberate silence. Today we commit to telling the truth.”

The statement is signed by the co-chairs of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, the minister for Aboriginal affairs and the acting premier. It announces the establishment of a Yoo-rrook Justice Commission to “investigate both historical and ongoing injustices” committed against Aboriginal Victorians.

This is a first, although such bodies have operated elsewhere. It will be invested with the full powers of a royal commission. It will investigate the past and the impact of those structures on the present. It will reconcile not just people but history.

“We do so for the kids who never came home – and those who are still finding their way back. For those who were told they were not allowed to speak their own language, practise their own culture, know their own identity,” the joint statement says.

“For the families who lost loved ones in the massacres. For those who were made to feel like they didn’t belong to their own country. And for those who still feel this way. Today we commit to telling their truth.”

The absence of truth is a defining issue in our politics. The inability to accept the reality of colonisation is the reason so much time is spent inventing a national character. It is why the culture wars are so repetitive.

It is not just the lie of terra nullius – it is the countless lies told since to sustain this one. The lies about violence, about fairness, about slavery, lies that tear down trees and dynamite caves, lies that build prisons and let people die in them. In the past week alone, three Indigenous people have died in custody.

To avoid telling the truth, the nation performs its strange contortions. Realities are twisted, not just in Indigenous affairs but in all things. This original lie eats away at every part of the country. Too much of the nation’s imagination is wasted sustaining it.

The Yoo-rrook Justice Commission is a first step. It is the embrace of a recommendation embedded in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

A similar national commission is also needed. The treaty process under way in Victoria should be replicated federally.

A voice for First Nations people needs to be enshrined in the constitution. The knots tied in 233 years of lying need to be unkinked.

The Victorian commission makes clear that “its work will be for all of us”. It says – and this is its first truth – that “only by reconciling with our past can we reach for a fairer, more just future”.

Finally, that process begins. It will not be simple, and it will require a willingness to listen, but at least it has begun.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 13, 2021 as "Begin with one truth".

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