Opinion

Representation matters: Why you should care about Reconciliation Week

26th May 2021

This year’s Reconciliation Week (an event which runs from 27 May to 3 June every year) marks 20 years of Reconciliation Australia, and almost 30 years of Australia’s formal reconciliation process. This year’s theme is ‘More than a word. Reconciliation takes action.’

But what does this week really stand for? And why should you and your workplace care about it? You’re educated, informed and not a racist – perhaps you even consider yourself ‘woke’.

But are you anti-racist? Are you confident enough to recognise and call out racism and micro-aggressions? Do you even pick up on it?

Picture this: three blokes are having beers and talking about their upcoming camping trip. Their mate, who is an Aboriginal man and organiser of the trip, texts the group chat to let them know that he and his father will be fishing in a ‘green zone’ on one of the days as they’ve been invited by the local traditional owners.

One of the blokes looks up from his phone and says: ‘How crap is that? We don’t get to fish there. Imagine if we said to them: “You can’t drink at the pub with us”? He glances between the footy on television and the baby monitor showing his son, before looking to his mates for reassurance.

‘Mate,’ his friend says, ‘We did stop them from drinking at pubs. In fact, I think we went one better and stole their babies.’

‘But that was ages ago,’ the bloke says.

‘Nah, not so long – people are still alive to tell that story,’ his friend replies.

This is a very real experience from only a few days ago. It comes some 230 years since the First Fleet arrived. While the history of colonialism runs deep in Australia, it comes 23 years since the first National Sorry Day was held to commemorate the anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report and to remember the mistreatment of this country’s First Nations people as part of an ongoing process of reconciliation. It comes 13 years since Kevin Rudd’s formal apology to the stolen generations.

And yet comments like these still slip right off people’s tongues. 

The courage to say ‘Nah’ in the face of casual and blatant racism – especially to friends and colleagues – reminds us that action is important.

Reconciliation action plans (RAPs) are great if meaningfully attended to, but otherwise they are just words. When was the last time you and your company thought about your RAP and made sure that you weren’t just ticking off boxes? When was the last time you thought about how you can recruit more First Nations people? Can you recall the last time you really checked in on your First Nations staff?

The casual and blatant racism we face wears us down. We are never more tired than on weeks like this. So please, check in on your First Nations staff and friends. 

Quite simply, 230 years after the arrival of the First Fleet, First Nations people are overrepresented in all the areas of the law that no one wants to be, and underrepresented in the areas where we should be thriving. Having a First Nations solicitor, barrister, liaison and administration staff member can make all the difference for First Nations people when navigating the legal system.

Words are important. Now is the time to have the courage to put those words into action.

Melia Benn is a barrister and Chair of the ALA Human Rights Special Interest Group, and member of the ALA Criminal Law Special Interest Group. She is a recipient of the ALA Queensland Civil Justice Award 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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