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Time to sort out the 'us' and 'them' of reconciliation

Non-Indigenous Australians overwhelmingly agree there is business to sort out with Indigenous people, according to a new study. But researchers say not enough has been done to resolve what that 'business' is.

Victoria University researchers Dr Tom Clark and Melissa Walsh found near-complete agreement on the need for reconciliation, beyond the 2008 apology, among non-Aboriginal focus groups.

Participants had varying degrees of understanding of Aboriginal cultural and political issues; with few having had contact with Aboriginal people.

There were also differing views on what reconciliation actually meant, or whether Aboriginal people should be included in the constitution as proposed for the 2013 referendum.

But Dr Clark said one of the most striking features of the study was how regardless of background, time spent in Australia or their political views non-Aboriginal people saw themselves as one group in the debate and Aboriginal people as a separate group on the other side of the debate.

"All the participants used 'we,' 'us,' 'our,' and 'ours' to refer to all the non-Aboriginal people in the country and an equivalent set of pronouns "'they,' 'them,' 'their,' and 'theirs'" to refer to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples," Dr Clark said.

In arranging the pilot focus groups, researchers went out of their way not to prompt this phrasing.

Dr Clark said this language implied an idea of two parties meeting for negotiation, with an understanding that it would be sorted out along Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal lines rather than among all Australians as one group. Research in Canada has shown non-Indigenous Canadians using identical terms to discuss reconciliation in their country.

"If these pilot results are indicative of views across Australia, then it is a call for Australia's reconciliation process to take urgent account of the points of common interest among non-Aboriginal Australians," he said. "It suggests the reconciliation process can only make headway once it makes sense of 'our' shared position."

He said this needed to be used as a starting point for non-Indigenous Australians to get to grips with their position before the 2013 referendum.

"It will take a genuine, concerted, and increasingly urgent effort to study that question on a national scale," he said. "But currently the only alternative to such an effort is to push ahead with a referendum and hope for the best."

The research findings will be reported to The Poetry and Poetics of Popular Culture, Online Conference at the University of South Australia's Centre for Poetry and Poetics, 11 November, 2011.  

Available for interview:

Dr Tom Clark, Senior Lecturer

School of Communication and the Arts, Victoria University

(03) 9919 2196; 0432 754 238; [email protected]


Media contact:

Michael Quin, communications officer (research)

Marketing & Communications, Victoria University

(03) 9919 9491; 0431 815 409; [email protected]

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