Later this year Australians will be asked to vote in a referendum on a Voice to Parliament. Can this conversation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander constitutional recognition reconcile the truth of Australia’s past? Or have we embarked on a new era of reckoning with the risk that comes with a referendum?

In April 2022, Proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman and lawyer, Teela Reid sat down with Dr Simon Longstaff AO to discuss what reckoning means to her, what we need to make an informed decision on this vote, and what it means for us – collectively and individually.

Dr Simon Longstaff: When I think of reckoning, three things come to mind. Firstly, there’s ‘reckoning’ as in finding your bearings, dead reckoning. There’s another sense in which you reckon up the bill. And then there’s the third sense in which reckoning can be taken as a moment of recognition of one’s responsibilities and making us confront the reality of who and where we are, and what we’ve done. Perhaps we can touch on all three of those…

Teela Reid: My essay, Reckoning, Not Reconciliation, was born out of a frustration with the concept of reconciliation. I had attempted to dismiss it in some ways – whether that was to be provocative or just trying to grapple with my own sense of the world. The past three, almost four decades, has been defined in so-called Australia under this notion of reconciliation. And so, for me, as a Wiradjuri Wailwan woman, the life that I have been fortunate to live, had nothing to do with reconciliation, but it was in fact in spite of it. For me, having grown up in my community with the stories of my ancestors, my paternal and maternal lineages being hounded onto missions, laws passed so we couldn’t speak our native tongue, this notion of reconciliation kind of popped up. 

I remember growing up in that community and then walking into school where we were trained that this notion of reconciliation was to make us feel good. There was almost a sense of denial of the truth. I remember, for example, learning about the Anzacs and there were no soldiers that we were told about that were Aboriginal men or women. And then I’d walk home and my grandparents would sit me around the campfire and give me a whole different education. 

I remember just feeling really frustrated with the world. I want to unravel that and unpack this notion of reckoning. To me, it’s about everyone on this continent embracing the discomfort of the hard work we need to get done.  

Dr Simon Longstaff: How do you look at the obligations you have – in a structure where elders still are the most significant decision makers within a community – and the need to balance that cultural obligation with obligations arising in a structure like the law; where it’s about the quality of reason, the precision of language and the authority of precedent? 

Teela Reid: The western law is a discipline, it’s a practice. I vividly recall being at law school wanting to throw my textbooks up against the library when we were learning about Dicey’s rule of law where we’re all equal before the law. I remember thinking “How do I reconcile this with the stories that I know?” Clearly, the law has never treated my people fairly. There’s never been a fair go in this country for First Nations Peoples. So having those stories in my heart and in my spirit, I still took the opportunity that I was given to go to law school and now to practice law. It’s something I don’t take lightly at all, because I think we would be much worse off as a peoples if we were to take those opportunities for granted and not do the hard yards and live out those opportunities to empower our people.  

Dr Simon Longstaff: Can these different definitions of ‘reckoning’ exist side by side? Or is that a very significant tension in your life?

Teela Reid: It’s a constant tension, to be very frank. It is a very constant tension to not lose yourself as a First Nations woman in this place that’s now called Australia and you’re constantly walking a fine line. When I think about reckoning, it’s also about power. It’s about who has the authority to make decisions in different contexts while at the community level our governance systems operate in a very specific way. I think that’s what Australia forgets. We have very ancient governance systems here still very much intact. They might not be written in legislation or rule books, but they’re passed down orally through our ways of knowing and being. 

We have this higher order in Australia where there’s parliament, there’s states, there’s territories, there’s people making all these different decisions, but at the very heart of that, there is still the omission of the First Nations and there’s still an act of erasure in that. And the symbols are everywhere. It’s in the flag, it’s in the anthem, it’s in these ways that Australians speak their identity that I just don’t relate to. 

Dr Simon Longstaff: The concept of ‘payback’ is sometimes misunderstood as if it’s based in the need for revenge. Instead, it’s about those who have done wrong making restoring balance to the community – paying back what has been taken to those who have suffered loss. Is that the kind of reckoning that you have in mind – bringing it to that point where people recognise loss as a give and take? 

Teela Reid: It’s about the reconciling of the balance. There does need to be compensation, there does need to be these tough decisions and reparations for what First Nations Peoples have lost there.  

The other way in which I see it, there is a level of discomfort that comes down to this truth telling notion that we’re going to need to embrace. Where Australians are at now – each one of you are advocates, you’re campaigners. You have agency in this movement. Reckoning is going to be a really difficult process, unlike reconciliation where we’ve all felt good with our wraps, our cupcakes and our teas. No, this is going to be quite difficult. 

For so long, for 250+ years, as a nation we’ve avoided that discomfort that comes with trying to heal these wounds. Because you might not see the physical wounds, but they’re very deep and they’re intergenerational. When we think of reckoning, we’re all going to have to step up to the plate. And often what happens in a truth telling process, it’s that First Nations Peoples get the onus of having to speak our truth, when in fact white Australia needs to speak its truth. What did your ancestors do to my ancestors? Let’s start to have an open dialogue and take responsibility for that pain. Because I don’t think that we can heal until we reckon with the discomfort and the pain that I think as a nation is going to take many years to get through. 

Dr Simon Longstaff: Whatever the result, the proposed referendum on a Voice to Parliament is going to be an extraordinary moment. What are your hopes at this point? 

Teela Reid: I hope that people are willing to step up and be engaged and make informed choices for themselves in a conversation that should absolutely be based on the facts and not one in which we should be enlivening racism or anything like that. I do believe it’ll pass. I think there is so much goodwill in the Australian community. 

If you look at history, the most successful referendum in 1967, shows that Australians actually feel very deeply on this issue. I’ve travelled to lots of different parts of the country, and engaged with fence seaters or people who want to protest to these kinds of conversations. By the end of it, you sit down, you listen, you work through these conversations and people’s hearts really get it. 

Dr Simon Longstaff: Is this a beginning of a new set of possibilities in this country? 

Teela Reid: I do believe it is. We all know the Uluru Statement has called for a First Nation’s Voice. One of the things I am grappling with both in the legal sense and the moral sense, it’s the enormous compromise our people have to make decade after decade after decade for this nation to just have a breakthrough. It happened with land rights. The Barunga Statement was gifted to Hawke. Hawke promised a treaty, he gave the nation reconciliation. It’s probably why we’re three, four decades behind right now. I don’t think that Prime Ministers like Hawke should be revered for what they’ve done. Even around when Whitlam came in for his short time in power, there were decades of activism and movements that were demanding big things, big changes. And it was only because of that activism that within those three, four years there was able to be this watershed moment of legislation and changes. 

One of the things I am grappling with both in the legal sense and the moral sense, it’s the enormous compromise our people have to make decade after decade after decade for this nation to just have a breakthrough.

And so here I am thinking now, there’s another compromise being made. Perhaps this is more my moment of having to grapple with the way in which compromises are made in the political space.  

I hope that everyday Australians are able to take this opportunity this year to actually reflect and educate themselves on the bigger picture and part of the story to this. Because we’re only really seeing it through that one little kind of myopic lens now that there’s going to be one ballot box and you’re going to be voting yes or no. But there is so much more to this. 

Simon Longstaff: Are you optimistic that people understand this? Can we resolve the question of legitimacy? 

Teela Reid: I do believe it’ll pass, yes. I think there’s so much good faith and goodwill in the people. The strategy behind this movement is correct. Going to the people and not the politicians is what changed this nation. At every single turning point the only reason it’s on the national agenda is because of everyday Australians. It won’t be easy. I think that people shouldn’t get complacent about where we are now. Between now and the ballot box, every single one of you is going to have start your own campaign. Take this extremely seriously. For someone like me, it doesn’t stop. 


For everything you need to know about the Voice to Parliament visit here.

This is an abridged version of In Conversation with Teela Reid. Watch the full discussion below.