The Non-Indigenous responsibility to engage: Scoping reconciliation and its alternatives

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  • The Non-Indigenous responsibility to engage: Scoping reconciliation and its alternatives

This workshop asks whether and how Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia might connect to the attitudes of non-Indigenous people in ways that prompt a deeper engagement with Indigenous needs and aspirations. It will ask invited participants to explore concepts and practices of reconciliation, considering its specific application in the context of Australia and of other nations that have undergone reconciliation processes. The discussions will bring together and complement current research approaches to the problems of responsibility and engagement between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Contributions made at this workshop will be collated into an edited collection published for professional and scholarly readers.

Background
Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is necessarily a fraught and challenging endeavour. Some consider the very expectation of reconciliation unhelpful, while many consider specific formal reconciliation processes in Australia and other countries to have failed. Yet the need for a more effective engagement between Indigenous and other Australians remains pressing, particularly in light of an anticipated national referendum on the question of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal andTorres Strait Islander peoples.

Reconciliation is a concept and practice that has been applied in many different contexts, from the immediate aftermath of post-apartheid South Africa, to settler colonies such as Australia and Canada, as well as societies fractured by deep historical division such as Northern Ireland. In different settings – with widely varying histories, populations, and intentions – divided societies have experimented with a range of mechanisms and processes intended to help them ‘reconcile.’ These mechanisms are concerned with changing relations between groups from one of antagonism and conflict to one of mutual respect and future cooperation. Originally emerging in the context of ‘transitional’ countries where recognising past wrongs was seen as an important means of supporting the transition to democracy, over time the politics of reconciliation has ‘migrated’ to established Western democracies as an influential framework for thinking about the continuing impact of historical injustice on oppressed and marginalised groups within those societies. Australia is clearly one such case.

With some notable exceptions based in political theory, scholarship on reconciliation has tended to take a narrow view of these processes, debating the merits of various approaches often based around the mechanisms of transitional justice (trials, truth commissions, reparations, peace agreements etc), and contesting the value of various goals (truth, justice, forgiveness and so on). In a similar vein, many commentators consider the formal reconciliation process in Australia to have been a failure, not least because, as Damian Short points out, the process was ‘underpinned by colonial assumptions’ based on ideas of the singularity of Australian nationhood. As Angela Pratt has argued, while the formal reconciliation process in Australia did introduce a new and broad ‘moral language’ with which to speak about issues of Indigenous social justice, it did not ‘help to resolve any of the questions these issues raised.’ In the wake of these debates there remains a pressing need in the field to identify, clarify and test the hypotheses and assumptions concerning efforts to improve relationships between divided groups through processes that fall under the banner of ‘reconciliation’.

Meanwhile, non-Indigenous Australia is only now emerging as a distinct category of scholarly work in this domain. Recent work has attempted to apply to Australia the ideas of postcolonial and critical race theory and in particular, whiteness as a corollary to concepts such as Aboriginality and Indigeneity. However, we suggest that whiteness does not adequately address the circumstances of the contemporary non-Indigenous inhabitants of a postcolonial settler-state such as Australia, and this workshop proposes to further interrogate these concerns.

Design of this Workshop
As we trust the above makes clear, this proposal draws on international evidence and new empirical data to examine the Australian experience of reconciliation, asking how reconciliation or its alternatives in Australia can connect to the attitudes of non-Indigenous people in ways that prompt a deeper engagement with Indigenous needs and aspirations.

We are proposing a workshop over two days, in which Australian and International experts, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, will explore concepts and practices of reconciliation, considering its specific application in Australia and in other arenas, taken in the context of original empirical data generated in a new ARC discovery project being undertaken by three of the workshop convenors, and other research approaches to the problems of responsibility and engagement between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. The program will be arranged around four core themes, which speak to the imperatives of both scholarly research and policy ‘on the ground’ (see 1.8, below):

  •  Reconciliation and its alternatives: Australia and international contexts.
  •  Political challenges for reconciliation in Australia: past, present, and future.
  •  Non-Indigenous understandings of the challenge to engage.
  •  Strategic options in policy and scholarship.

Presenters will submit written papers prior to the workshop, which we shall then circulate among the participants in the leadup to the event. Most papers will be scholarly in approach, however we shall expressly invite the policy professionals among our participants to write up their contributions in formats they are accustomed to. The workshop presentations will comprise introductions to those papers, aimed at facilitating discussion of their arguments. That means the majority of time for each presentation will be allocated to questions and discussion.

Dialogue during the workshop will be facilitated through a structured agenda, with four main themes: (i) background to the session – introducing the project, the participants, and contextualising reconciliation in Australia; (ii) the focus on non-Indigenous people as a particular constituency for reconciliation; (iii) frameworks that might engage non-Indigenous peoples with their responsibilities towards Indigenous peoples, historically, in the present, and into the future; and (iv) reflecting on how state and civic agents might steer public discourses toward greater engagement.

The workshop will take place over two full-day sessions at the City Queen St Campus of VU, with a dinner for all participants on the first evening at the nearby Celtic Club. Proposed dates are 7-8 April 2016.

Outcomes Expected
This workshop is intended to lead to outcomes of direct use to scholarly research and theory, and of real and lasting value to policy discourses around Aboriginal reconciliation. We shall ask all contributors to submit written papers prior to discussing them at the workshop, and these papers will be collated into an edited collection published for an interested public readership, both professional and scholarly.

For more information, please contact:
Mr Murray Radcliffe
Deputy Director
murray.radcliffe [at] assa.edu.au
+61 .2 62491788

Event Schedule

Supporting Documents

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335
  • secretariat@assa.edu.au