Justice, truth telling, and the Voice

This blog is by Dr Jessamy Gleeson, who reminds us that truth-telling is a core element of justice, and must be kept front and centre as The Voice referendum approaches.

The context of justice

In considering the importance of truth-telling and justice in a First Nations space, we need to understand the historic role of relationality, and reciprocity. Prior to colonisation, order was maintained across First Nations communities through complex webs of social obligations, relationality, and reciprocity. As Atkinson (2002) tells us:

“If people met their social obligations in relationship to others, they in turn would be nurtured in processes of reciprocity… In Aboriginal relationships, when conflict occurred, ceremonial processes were used to bring the contending parties together, to find ways in which people could live with each other under lore…In 1788 colonisation brought disorder and disharmony and a new law.”

Keeping law is more than just ‘following’ rules – it is, as Marcia Langton says, “a way of living that honours the sacred relationships we hold with our ancestors, and homelands” (2023). In recognising that many others that have spoken about truth and justice in a First Nations space, I wish to also briefly outline the importance of relationality and reciprocity. Relationality is our connectedness: the understanding that we are all linked, and do not exist in isolation. It also acknowledges that our connections go beyond that of exchange alone – they are built on a foundation of reciprocity, in which we each have obligations to one another. Typically, we might think of these obligations as only covering to ‘another person’, but the obligations also extend to all beings on Country, and Country itself. Together, relationality and reciprocity foreground what we owe one another, and the Country we are on. We cannot arrive at justice and truth-telling without also introducing relationality, reciprocity, and what we owe one another.

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Makarrata, truth-telling, and what we owe each other

I’d now like to turn to Makarrata, and the role of truth-telling. Makarrata is a Yolŋu term, and is named in the Statement from the Heart as the coming together after a struggle. The Statement from the Heart outlines that a “Makarrata Commission [would] supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.” It’s the second part of this statement that’s important here: that of the process of truth-telling.

Truth-telling is a process First Nations people have not previously obtained on such a broad scale. In itself, truth-telling is a process in which “the full extent of the past injustices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people [can be] …uncovered and revealed. It would allow all Australians to understand our history, and the impacts of colonisation. I will not reel off the many, far-reaching impacts of colonisation here – I don’t want to turn us into statistics, and it’s not my role to educate on this. Instead, I’ll emphasise that truth-telling is not something that has been achieved before on such a broad scale. We have seen forms of truth-telling in isolated instances: for example, the Bringing them Home report in 1997, and the 1991 report of the Royal Commission into the Deaths of Aboriginal People in Custody. But both of these instances quarantined the reach of colonisation within the bounds of specific impacts – the removal of children, and the western criminal justice system – and not the underlying causes of ongoing racism and discrimination. In short, we’re still looking at the trees, and not the forest as a whole.

In undertaking a process of truth-telling, First Nations communities are also provided with an opportunity to foreground resilience and strength; a truth-telling space can provide room for both a description and resulting impact of the many wrongs, and allow a focus on the strengths of the truth-teller.

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The Voice

To return to the concept of justice, this cannot be truly achieved without self-determination. The Voice is a method to enact this self-determination: it allows for our representation on a national level, and allows us to speak on issues that directly impact communities. It is not the only thing that needs to be done; voting ‘Yes’ lays the groundwork for other work, including the truth-telling I mentioned earlier.

If the form of justice I have discussed here was a patchwork quilt, then to my mind the ‘Yes’ campaign would be the first square; the second square would be Treaty, and the third square beyond that would be truth-telling. There are many other squares beyond this to add; but these foundational three set the tone, colour, and shape for the overall quilt.

In returning to relationality and reciprocity, I would invite each of you to consider what we owe one another. The Statement from the Heart asks for a Voice, a Treaty, and a space for truth-telling. Do we not owe it to one another to work towards Makarrata, and ultimately create a space for all First Nations people to take a rightful place in our own country? I hope so.


Dr Jessamy Gleeson is the Associate Director Teaching and Learning (IND) at the NIKERI Institute, Deakin University. She grew up on Wiradjuri and Dhudhuroa Country, and currently resides on Wurundjeri Country in Naarm.