Little is known about the attitudes of non-Aboriginal Australians to reconciliation and more research is critical before a referendum to decide if Indigenous peoples should be recognised in the Constitution, a Victoria University expert said.
Dr Tom Clark, a senior lecturer in VU's School of Communication and the Arts, said we still have only a limited understanding of non-Indigenous attitudes towards reconciliation in Australia.
"Apart from some very basic statistical research, nobody has taken a deep look at what non-Indigenous Australians think reconciliation is all about, or what it means for them," Dr Clark said.
"We're talking about the vast majority of voters in every Australian state and territory. Understanding how they relate to reconciliation could be the critical factor in a referendum campaign."
The Australian government will this year set up an expert panel to advise it on recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. The panel will report back to the government by the end of 2011 on the best path towards the referendum.
Recent research by Dr Clark and colleagues in Canada reveals a potential way forward for Australia. Canada's history shares many similarities with Australia's, including a national apology to Indigenous peoples in 2008.
"The research explores how Canadians understand the issues around reconciliation, using qualitative methods and intensive analysis of the language participants use to frame their opinions,'' he said.
The Toronto-based project has begun focus groups with recent immigrants as well as Canadians from long-established families. It finds a wide range of attitudes towards reconciliation, depending on background.
"Detailed analysis of participants' comments clearly shows that they all agree that reconciliation addresses real issues, even if they don't agree how to act on it.
"It seems non-Indigenous Canadians know they share a common responsibility for Aboriginal reconciliation in some sense. If we could demonstrate a similar attitude among non-Indigenous Australians, it would give us a much better chance of targeting the referendum campaign appropriately.''
Dr Clark will present a paper on the subject at the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association in New Zealand on 7 February.
For interview: Dr Tom Clark on 9919 2196 or 0432 754 238
Daniel Clarke, Media Officer,
VU Marketing and Communications Department
Ph: 9919 9491 or 0407 771 072