A truth and justice commission — the first of its kind in Australia — will examine the impact of colonization on Aboriginal people in the state of Victoria.
The commission will be modeled on a similar process established in South Africa after the collapse of apartheid, and others in New Zealand and Canada. In South Africa, a reconciliation body was set up by Nelson Mandela. It was similar to a court, where witnesses and victims could freely express their grievances and experiences during apartheid. The system of enforced racial segregation was in place in South Africa between 1948 and 1990.
Unlike other nations, Australia has never formally examined the full impact of past policies on its original inhabitants.
The Victorian state government has said now was the time for a proper examination of colonization on Aboriginal Australians.
They lost their land when British settlers arrived in 1788 and have suffered injustices ever since. During the early years of colonization, Indigenous people were massacred by Europeans, incarcerated and forcibly removed from their customary land.
Today, their life expectancy is lower compared to other groups in Australia, while rates of poverty, ill-health, unemployment and imprisonment are far higher.
The commission will have broad powers and will be able to compel witnesses to give evidence. Victoria has committed to signing a treaty with its Aboriginal communities.
Victoria’s deputy premier James Merlino says a truth commission is an important part in that process.
“This is long overdue. It is an acknowledgement that the pain in our past is present in the lives of people right now. It is a recognition that without truth, without justice, you cannot have a treaty. You cannot take that incredibly powerful step forward until we go through this process of truth and justice,” Merlino said.
Indigenous leaders and state officials said after 233 years of violence and dispossession they are committed to telling the truth.
Aunty Geraldine Atkinson is an Aboriginal elder.
“All those truths need to be told, the truths our elders had to endure, that our ancestors endured. Genocide, massacres — a whole range of truth that needs to be told,” Atkinson said.
The majority of the panel of five commissioners will be Aboriginal. Their task will be to record an accurate account of Victoria’s history of colonization and scrutinize both past and present injustices. Its report is expected next year.
Indigenous Australians make up about 3% of the population.