IF you want to know what this country is capable of, then talk with Nathan Towney.
For him, the great things that can happen when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people work together are not just ideas. And reconciliation is not some unattainable national dream.
He is living proof of that.
Nathan Towney is the son of a Wiradjuri man and a non-Aboriginal woman, whose family ran a sheep grazing property in central NSW.
The Towneys lived in Wellington in a family home where the sum of two cultures and backgrounds was a lot of love and happiness. As a child, Nathan Towney had little idea of the enormous challenges and lack of opportunities so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people faced. He didn't feel any different to his non-Aboriginal mates.
"It was just never an issue with Dad's side of the family and my Mum's side of the family, because it was a reconciled household, and in the extended family," he says. "So I never felt that."
However, that changed for Nathan Towney in his late teens, when he moved to Sydney to play rugby league.
"It wasn't until I moved out of that community [Wellington] that I actually took the blinkers off and really, really understood what reconciliation meant as a nation," he says.
He felt the sting of racism, on and off the field. He realised some treated him differently, simply for being who he was. And it dawned on him that even in his hometown, the same access and opportunities were not open to all.
Nathan Towney set out to make a difference in his own way, to counter ignorance with learning. He studied at the University of Newcastle to become a teacher.
After a celebrated career in classrooms and as a principal, including being named Teacher of the Year at the 2017 National Dreamtime Awards, Mr Towney has returned to where he studied. He is the university's Pro Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous Strategy and Leadership.
Part of his role, Mr Towney believes, is helping bring Australians closer together. And he holds hope of a country where the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians is one of strength and equity, trust and respect.
"We've still got a long way to go, but we've definitely made inroads," Mr Towney says.
If there's a time to gauge just how far we've come and how far we're yet to travel as a nation, it is this week. National Reconciliation Week.
This year's theme has a vaguely COVID-19 ring about it: In This Together.
However, unlike the pandemic response, National Reconciliation Week is not about keeping our distance; it's about what Australians can do to bridge the gap, between each other, between the wrongs of the past and the hopes for the future.
To discuss the issue of reconciliation with the Newcastle Herald, Nathan Towney is joined by colleague Leah Armstrong. Her role is Director, Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation.
Prior to joining the university, Mrs Armstrong helped set up and steer local employment and business development corporation Yarnteen. A Torres Strait Islander, she has also been on boards and was a member of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Indigenous Advisory Council. And for four years, Leah Armstrong was the CEO of the national organisation, Reconciliation Australia.
Asked what a reconciled Australia looks like in her eyes, Leah Armstrong replies, "It's where we are accepting of everybody's differences, and that we acknowledge the strengths in one another, rather than looking at our negatives.
"And that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have equality."
They point out throughout Australia's history, equality was sorely lacking in so many government policies, in workplaces, and in community attitudes towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The pain of inequality, of discrimination and disrespect, has flowed from one generation to the next for many.
"There's a lot of research that can demonstrate the fact that intergenerational trauma is valid, and the impact of what's happened to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over generations has led to the current scenario," Nathan Towney says.
"A lot of the statistics are negative. You look at the high incarceration rates, the life expectancy, it's not good."
In 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised in Federal Parliament to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people for the "profound grief, suffering and loss" that had been inflicted on them, particularly on those forcibly removed from their families, the Stolen Generations, and their loved ones.
"The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future," Mr Rudd told Federal Parliament.
But more than 12 years on, in the opinion of Nathan Towney and Leah Armstrong, saying "sorry" has gone only so far.
"Unfortunately, I think there is a psyche in Australia that is, 'That's the past, get over it', which is very hard to do, if you don't actually understand how it continues to impact people," Leah Armstrong says.
"I really do think it was the start of a healing process," Nathan Towney says, adding that crucial word, "sorry", has to be turned into more action and greater change.
"How much further we've come along since that is debatable, depending who you ask."
To get a sense of how that journey is going, we talk about the "five dimensions of reconciliation", as listed on Reconciliation Australia's website.
The first topic is Race Relations.
"We've got a fair way to go in race relations because there are significant amounts of racism still," says Leah Armstrong.
"Some of it is blatant racism, and a lot of it is unconscious bias as well."
Leah Armstrong and Nathan Towney believe there is still a "fear of the other" that shapes many non-Aboriginal Australians' thinking.
The way to break that down, they say, is through education, not just formally at institutions such as the university, but in other areas of everyday life, from workplaces to sporting teams.
Many of the themes in Race Relations are tied to another listed topic, Unity.
Reconciliation Australia describes "Unity" as being about valuing and recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures as a part of a shared national identity.
"I think there's a lot of goodwill around unity, and I think there's far more people with goodwill than not," says Mr Towney.
"There is a huge amount of goodwill," agrees Mrs Armstrong, "and the only thing is they're unsure of 'how'. 'How can I get involved? How do I do something?'."
Both say non-Aboriginal people can engage, and be better informed, by contacting Indigenous community organisations, or through books and movies, such as Rabbit-Proof Fence.
The idea of unity is strong in the theme of this year's National Reconciliation Week.
"When we think about 'In This Together', it's about being in this together to advance a reconciled Australia, that it recognises and values our individual cultural differences," explains Mrs Armstrong. "It's not that we're all going to be one culture."
When it comes to the topic of Equality and Equity, there's "still a long way to go", according to Leah Armstrong. As an example, she cites the rates of unemployment among Aboriginal young people.
"Prior to COVID, under 24-year-olds were close to three times the rate of unemployment of non-Indigenous youth," she says.
The fourth topic listed by Reconciliation Australia is Institutional Integrity. As Nathan Towney explains it, that means organisations not only have policies to address disadvantage, but they follow through, so that "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' knowledge, history, cultures, respect are at the forefront of the decisions they make".
He says Australia is getting better at that but has a way to go.
The fifth topic is Historical Acceptance.
Leah Armstrong says there is widespread acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past, but that is not the same as acceptance.
"You could acknowledge it and say, 'Yes, that's happened but I don't accept that I have anything to add in terms of changing it for the future'," she explains.
What disturbs both Mr Towney and Mrs Armstrong is the ongoing destruction of precious touchstones of Aboriginal heritage and culture, such as the clearing of important sites for buildings.
"There's a lot of these practices that go against our country healing, because it really does demonstrate a lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture when these things continue to happen," Mr Towney says.
"It's part of our fabric of being Australians. We're so lucky to have the longest living culture here. I just don't get a sense that everybody is as proud of that as what we could be.
"Once those things have gone, you can't get them back."
Leah Armstrong says greater respect for Aboriginal culture and knowledge would benefit everyone's lives. How to avoid another dreadful summer of bushfires is just one example.
"There's been a huge amount of calls about having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional practices for taking care of country," she says.
"But we're yet to see how serious they are about that.
"Unfortunately it's not until those sort of things happen to non-Indigenous people that they actually start to realise that we need to do something."
Leah Armstrong believes it will take a few generations before there is a reconciled Australia. But being involved in education, both have great hope that young Australians will push that journey along.
"They want to see change, and they want a just society, and they're very vocal about that," Mr Towney says.
Both Nathan Towney and Leah Armstrong are looking out for those small signs that will mean so much in telling them that Australia is closer to being a reconciled country.
For Mr Towney, one of those signs will be found on the rugby league ground, when a cultural dance, similar to the haka, is performed regularly by all Australian players before major matches.
"I would love for one of our non-Aboriginal players to be the one who actually says, 'Let's do this'," he says.
"And when those types of things are happening is when I'll feel as though we're heading on the right track and we've made some significant achievements."
For Leah Armstrong, the great indicator will be in how people identify themselves when they hear the word, "Australian".
"When we describe our culture - what is Australian culture - and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is central to that," she says.
"So how would you describe yourself as 'Australian'? What's your Australian identity?"
Leah Armstrong leaves a moment's silence, giving time for each of us to think about how we see ourselves, before she says, "That's when we're reconciled."
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