A song yet to be heard – Dreaming of a reconciled Australia

Sherry Balcombe 16 February 2021

The wait for Reconciliation continues for First Nations peoples.

The wait for Reconciliation continues for First Nations peoples.

I am often asked, ‘Why do we need Reconciliation between First Nations peoples and settlers in Australia?’ I don’t think Aboriginal people need to reconcile. I think the community must reconcile to the truth of this country.

Injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples are totally against the grain of the pride and honour that most Australians feel. This honour is an integral part of being ‘Really Australian’ and the treatment of Indigenous people is at odds with this vision.

There is a deep wound in the country and until we address it, it will continue to fester. If it can be addressed, we can move on as a nation together.

Generations forging a pathway

We, the First Nations peoples, want to welcome you! There have been numerous opportunities for you to share, experience, grow and learn from our culture. These opportunities are still there.

We have adapted to the changes over the past 250 years. We are now starting to find our voice in our own country.

So many of our past and present leaders have walked where no other person had walked. They marched in protest when it was looked down on, they protested when it wasn’t fashionable. They got arrested, they signed petitions, they lobbied governments, they started uprisings, they refused to continue to be oppressed. They stood up for what was right and just. They fought for the world that we as Indigenous people live in today. We are forever grateful for their sacrifices, for their courage and their strength.

Most of all we are grateful for our culture that they so tightly hung on to, which they preserved even though it was illegal: our languages, our dance, our ceremonies, our rituals, so lovingly passed down from generation to generation.

It is now the time of our generation to teach, to learn, to pass on the messages that are so sacred, so spiritual. These will bring a new awakening and gentleness to the Australian country and its people. It will cocoon you all in its strength and beauty, and you will wonder why it took you so long to embrace it.

I am inspired every day when I meet with young ones from all backgrounds who want to learn. They want to hear the true history; they are shocked at what happened and that no one speaks about it.

I have a dream that the next generation of leaders for Australia will tell their young grandchildren that they saw the deplorable things had been done to the First Peoples and they helped to change things.

Towards a Treaty

At the heart of injustice towards First Nations peoples is the lack of a Treaty. It reinforces the misconception of terra nullius – the legal fiction that there was no prior occupation before European settlement.

We are the only country among the 54 Commonwealth nations that does not have a treaty with First Peoples. You must ask yourself why?

A Treaty can give us dignity. It can help us decide what we need. It can help to restore our culture, our ceremonies, our rituals, and to find new hope for the future. It can give our young people pride in who they are.

In Victoria, the state government has begun working towards this end. The First Nations of have elected a First People’s Assembly. We are in a unique position in that we are able to look at historic treaties in various parts of the world. We can decide what will work for us.

Aboriginal people have been dispossessed of land, culture, language, family and ceremony for a few hundred years now but we are coming home. We are gaining strength. We are finding voice and we are navigating this world that we now live in. We know the only way to achieve anything for our people is to do it ourselves.

The Uluru Statement

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was significant because it was the first time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all around Australia came together with the intention of sending a clear message to the government.

They asked for two things:

  1. We have truth-telling about our past history; and
  2. A voice in our own country.

The Prime Minister rejected the two requests and tried to imply that we wanted another tier in government. That is the last thing we want.

The truth-telling was also brushed under the carpet, as it has been in the past. How long will long will it stay there? Is this the country that we want to leave our descendants?

We don’t want your backyards. We don’t want pity. We want education about the true history of this land, and honesty about the past. We want healing for all, restitution but most of all we want transformation! To be a true part of this country and not the unspoken story that brings shame and shock to those who hear it.

Echoing through the ages

There is a place in NSW called Lake Mungo. In the 1970s, human remains were found at the shoreline of the dried-up lake. They were the bones of elders buried with a ritual familiar to Australia’s First Peoples through eons of time.

The remains date back 65,000 years. Scientific investigation showed they had been honoured in a ceremony involving smoke and ochre. The ochre must have been carried from a distant place to this site. This is evidence of a civilised society. The remains were found in our backyard. We call those ancestors Lady Mungo and Mungo Man.

Is there still a question of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people not being the First Peoples?

We want to share our deep spiritual connection with this Land and all parts of it. It is just as sacred to us today as it has been since time immemorial. This is our true gift to the world.

When you become still and listen carefully, you can hear the song lines that connect us, and you can feel our ancestors calling in the wind.

Let’s work together for a brighter future not only for Australia but for the world. Let us make this country the envy of the planet with a culture so strong.

> Sherry Balcombe is Leader Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria, Archdiocese of Melbourne.




Education is the most valuable asset you can give any person, it is the one thing no-one can take away. For 20 years, the Opening the Doors Foundation in Victoria has helped families make a choice in their children’s education. Last year they supported more than 800 students from prep to year 12. In some dioceses, the number of Aboriginal children in Catholic schools has doubled since it began. These are amazing achievements. Unfortunately, as with many things, Opening the Doors has also lost most of its funding and is struggling to survive.

> Find out how you can support them here www.openingthedoors.org.au



Exploring the relationship between settlers and First Nations peoples.

1770 Captain Cook arrived in Botany Bay. The British Government claimed the land for the British Crown, declaring it terra nullius – that it belonged to nobody. It marked the beginning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dispossession.
1869 The Aborigines Protection Act (Vic) established a board to manage the interests of Aboriginal people. The Victorian Governor was given the power to remove any Aboriginal child from their family.
1897 In Queensland, the Director of Native Welfare was made the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children, even if their parents were still alive. Similar laws followed in other states and territories.
1901 Aboriginal people were excluded from the Australian Constitution at Federation – they weren’t even included in census counts. The states retained power over Aboriginal affairs until 1967.
1932 William Cooper established the Australian Aborigines’ League. The league put together a petition calling on the Australian Prime Minister and King of Britain to intervene to protect Aboriginal people from extinction.
1937 Following a national convention, Australian Commonwealth and state governments adopted assimilation as the national policy.
1938 On 26 January, on the 150th anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival in NSW, Aboriginal peoples marked a ‘Day of Mourning’.
1967 A national referendum amended the Constitution to give the Commonwealth power to make laws for Aboriginal people. They were included in the census for the first time.
1972 The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established in Canberra to campaign for recognition of land rights.
1976 The first land rights act was passed in the Northern Territory. Similar acts followed in other states and territories.
1992 The High Court’s Mabo decision recognised native title, shattering the myth of terra nullius. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were recognised as the legal owners of the land they occupied before dispossession.
1996 The first National Reconciliation Week was launched.
2008 The Australian Government formally apologised to the Stolen Generations.
2012 A campaign began to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution. A Referendum Council was established in 2015.
2017 The Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued following a convention of delegates to the First Nations National Constitutional Convention. Among other things, the statement called for a process of ‘agreement making’ and truth-telling.
2020 Victoria’s First People’s Assembly held its first formal treaty talks with the state government.


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