Keynote: How should we tell the truth about Australia?

This webinar is the first in the Australian Centre's 2022 Critical Public Conversations series: Undoing Australia.

Truth-telling is emerging as a central political dynamic in Australia. As treaty processes take shape in several Australian jurisdictions it is clear that truth commissions are going to be at the heart of future treaty negotiations. Victoria has already created the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, with the mission to ‘investigate both historical and ongoing injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation’, while Queensland and the Northern Territory have also signalled that truth-telling will play a significant role in their emerging treaty processes and Tasmania has committed to finding a pathway towards treaty and reconciliation. These new processes build on the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, which made an explicit recommendation for a Makarrata Commission that would ‘supervise agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’ (Referendum Council 2017). As Appleby and Davis (2018) contend, the demand for truth in Australia is explicitly linked to the hope for political transformation. Truth, it is hoped, will offer a way to understand what is at stake in future relations between First Nations and the Australian settler state. Linking truth-telling to treaty only emphasises such aspirations. As the Yoo-rrook Justice Commissioners have collectively argued, ‘There can be no Treaty without truth’ (Walter et al 2021).

Yet even as this new commitment to truth-telling emerges it is not clear that there is shared understanding of what truth might offer, and Australia has attempted to follow a treaty pathway before. International experience suggests that truth-telling rarely lives up to its promise. If Australia seeks to avoid such disappointment then there are questions to be asked. This paper explores some of the challenges and opportunities that truth-telling in Australia suggests, to ask the fundamental question: how should we tell the truth about Australia?


Professor Sarah Maddison is Professor of Politics in the School of Social and Political Sciences, and Director of the Australian Centre. She is particularly interested in work that helps reconceptualise political relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian settler state, including critical examinations of a range of relevant public policies. Her recent work has focused on the treaty process in Victoria, and she is currently working with the Australian Centre’s Deputy Director, Julia Hurst, exploring the role of truth-telling in treaty making. Sarah has also designed the Professional Certificate in Treaty, which includes the Preparing for Treaty series of Melbourne MicroCerts.

Sarah has published widely in international journals and is the author or editor of nine books including, most recently, The Colonial Fantasy: Why white Australia can’t solve black problems (2019). Her other books in the field include The Limits of Settler Colonial Reconciliation (2016), Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation (2015), Beyond White Guilt (2011), Unsettling the Settler State (2011), and Black Politics (2009). Sarah has led numerous research projects and was an Australian Research Council Future Fellow for 2011-14, undertaking a project that examined reconciliation in Australia, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Guatemala. Her current ARC project is exploring intersections in Indigenous and settler governance regimes.

Dr Julia Hurst is a lecturer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies and the Deputy Director of the Australian Centre. Her Indigenous heritage crosses Dharawal and Darug land. Her research explores fundamental questions of Australian Aboriginal identity in 21st century Australia, including the role of truth-telling in relation to treaty, and she has worked across academia, the arts and corporate sectors. She has worked as a social and cultural planner and social researcher. Her interests lie in storytelling, social justice and the arts, and she has successfully merged these projects over the years on main stage and community theatre, arts and cultural projects in Melbourne, Geelong and Western Sydney. Julia completed her PhD at ANU in Aboriginal History and she has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Indigenous and Development Studies and a Master of Urban Planning. With Associate Professor Sana Nakata and Professor Sarah Maddison, she edits the Springer book series Indigenous-Settler Relations in Australia and the World. She was a member of the ARC Linkage Project (USyd and ANU) Deepening Histories of Place: Exploring Indigenous Landscapes of National and International Significance and during this project she directed and authored an enhanced e-book entitled At the Heart of it: Place stories across Darug and Gundungurra Lands: A downloadable history.

The presenters have granted permission for this recording to be used for personal viewing and educational purposes.