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Research identifies barriers and enablers to effective truth-telling initiatives

UNSW Sydney / Reconciliation Australia 4 mins read

A new report highlights the need for significant capacity building to enable meaningful and safe participation in truth-telling. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples highlight truth-telling as a much-needed step toward recognition and reconciliation. But new research highlights uncertainty among non-Indigenous Australians about truth-telling, how it is conducted, and how to participate.

The report, Coming to terms with the past? Identifying barriers and enablers to truth-telling, undertaken by UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture researchers on behalf of Reconciliation Australia, explores attitudes towards, barriers to and enablers of truth-telling in Australia. Launched today, it finds significant gaps in the understanding of truth-telling between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians. It also highlights the need to carefully consider the aims of community truth-telling initiatives, establish protocols for safe and inclusive events, and build truth-telling and truth-listening capacity among participants.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians don’t always share a common understanding of what truth-telling involves, what it might achieve, and how to go about it,” says Dr Anne Maree Payne, co-lead researcher from the Indigenous Land and Justice Research Group in the UNSW School of Humanities & Languages. “This research identifies a need to demystify truth-telling and address some of the critical barriers to participation in truth-telling for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians that were identified.”

Reconciliation Australia Chief Executive Officer, Karen Mundine, welcomed the UNSW report as an important contribution to the evidence-base necessary to inform community truth-telling.

“At its heart, reconciliation is about strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous peoples, for the benefit of all of us,” she said. “And the foundation of any strong relationship is a shared understanding and appreciation of what has come before, and how this affects us all in the present.

“Truth-telling is a core pillar of reconciliation, a fact tirelessly advocated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“The referendum revealed to us that under the bedrock of mainstream Australian society’s good intentions, is a dangerous lack of knowledge about the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“But community truth-telling processes must be informed by evidence, and the importance of this new research is in identifying barriers and enablers to truth-telling and strategies to promote historical acceptance,” said Ms Mundine. “Critically, the report finds that truth-telling must be an ongoing process of dialogue and engagement, not a ‘one-off’ event or activity and that truth-telling must be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“The research emphasises that any processes must be trauma-informed and guided by culturally safe protocols,” said Ms Mundine.

 “Truth-telling offers a pathway to address the gaps we have in understanding and engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories,” says Prof. Heidi Norman, co-lead researcher from the Indigenous Land and Justice Research Group in the UNSW School of Humanities & Languages. “This report advances our understanding of truth-telling and provides best-practice guidance for successful truth-telling community events to motivate genuine and meaningful participation.”

Identifying barriers and enablers to truth-telling 

The research involved a literature review, media analysis of six weeks of news reporting about truth-telling, a survey (225 responses) and ten in-depth interviews to uncover truth-telling perspectives. A quarter of survey respondents identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and 20 per cent of those interviewed were Aboriginal people, and most participants saw themselves as supporters of reconciliation and truth-telling, and who were already highly engaged with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories.

The report found that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the impact of trauma and the need for cultural safety in truth-telling were significant concerns. They were also more likely to identify that truth-telling might emphasise divisions between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians and that participants might question or challenge the accuracy of the perspectives shared.

Although seeing themselves as highly engaged with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and truth-telling, non-Indigenous people in the study still indicated significant uncertainty about how to participate in truth-telling.

“Even among non-Indigenous people who see themselves as highly supportive of Indigenous issues, there is significant anxiety about participating in truth-telling,” Dr Payne says. “This uncertainty was around not knowing what truth-telling involves or lack of opportunity to participate, which highlights the need for basic literacy in the wider population about truth-telling.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were highly committed to truth-telling, although less likely than non-Indigenous people to agree that truth-telling might lead to justice. They also identified a range of motivations for participating in truth-telling, not just education of non-Indigenous people. 

“Non-Indigenous people were interested in attending truth-telling to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s stories,” Prof. Norman says. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more interested in truth-telling about their local community than non-Indigenous people and were also much more likely to be motivated to participate in truth-telling to share their own personal or family history or perspective.” 

Both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people said the main benefit of truth-telling would be a shared understanding of Australian history, which could potentially improve relations and deliver healing. Respondents agreed that truth-telling should involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s perspectives and recognise the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

“The strong consensus emerging from our research participants was that truth-telling in Australia must be led and supported by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities,” says Prof. Norman. “It’s important truth-telling not only engages with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s perspectives and recognises the continuing impacts of the past on their lives today but is something that is ongoing to achieve the changes needed.”

Building truth-telling capacity and engagement

The findings also highlight that community-based truth-telling initiatives need to include public education about what truth-telling encompasses and practical information about where, when, and how it will take place.

“To be effective, truth-telling processes must be realistic about the benefits and limits of truth-telling and build truth-telling and truth-listening capacity amongst both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants,” says Prof. Norman. “It needs to recognise that truth-telling may involve difficult emotions and the potential for conflict, and strategies need to be put in place to manage these.”

The report also highlighted the three dominant understandings of truth-telling: truth-telling to achieve justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, truth-telling to promote reconciliation and healing, truth-telling to challenge and change historical understanding, and a fourth category about the ‘how to’ of truth-telling. 

“While acknowledging the interconnections between these categories, we believe this framework is useful for considering the wide range of initiatives and events currently taking place in Australia under the umbrella of ‘truth-telling’,” Dr Payne says. It also helps to distinguish what cannot meaningfully be described as truth-telling.”

“Truth-telling is not a panacea that will fix every problem facing Indigenous communities.” Dr Payne says. “It’s one step that is part of a bigger journey towards recognition and reconciliation, not a destination in itself.”


Contact details:

Ben Knight
UNSW News & Content
T: 02 9065 4915
E: b.knight@unsw.edu.au

Al Harris
Senior Communications Officer, Reconciliation Australia
T: +61 409658177
E: al.harris@reconciliation.org.au

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