This event started as the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation, a 1993 initiative of Australia’s major faith communities to observe the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established in 1991 under the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 (Cth) and launched the first NRW in 1996.
The dates 27 May to June 3 were chosen as they mark two significant milestones in the reconciliation journey:
- the successful 1967 referendum; and
- the High Court's decision in Mabo which rejected the doctrine that Australia was terra nullius (land belonging to no one) at the time of European settlement.
In 2000, approximately 30,000 people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of NRW, to show their support for reconciliation.
In 2001, Reconciliation Australia was established by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to promote and facilitate respect, trust, and positive relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the wider Australian community.
Each year NRW has a different theme. In 2021, NRW ran under the banner ‘More than a word. Reconciliation takes action,’ which urged the reconciliation movement towards braver and more impactful action (Reconciliation Australia, National Reconciliation Week).
NRW has the goal of educating the public on the shared histories, cultures and achievements of First Nations and non-First Nations peoples, and fostering positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities (Reconciliation Australia, National Reconciliation Week).
Benefits / Limitations
NRW has made significant progress in promoting substantive action for reconciliation (Reconciliation Australia, 20 Actions for Reconciliation in 2021). However, commentators have criticised NRW on the grounds that its promotion of action fails to create real change.
Taneshia Atkinson notes that NRW’s promotion of reconciliation misses the mark in failing to promote actual accountability for the injustice First Nations people face. Atkinson encourages people to get involved by attending First Nations-led community events, supporting First Nations causes, and supporting Indigenous-owned businesses (Taneshia Atkinson, Why the responsibility of reconciliation does not sit with First Nations People). Similarly, Jack Latimore proposes that NRW’s effect is to create a feeling of achievement in its participants without accomplishing any change to the structural racism faced by First Nations peoples (Jack Latimore, Reconciliation Week shouldn't distract from urgent issues).
A common thread among legal commentators including Paul Muldoon is that initiatives like NRW are driven by the white public not wanting to be seen as actively racist, rather than a desire to promote substantive accountability or structural change (Paul Muldoon, A reconciliation most desirable: Shame, narcissism, justice and apology).
Whether NRW continues to be an important initiative, Taneshia Atkinson says, is dependent on the voices and perspectives of Indigenous leaders and communities in moving towards a more respectful and harmonious future in Australia (Taneshia Atkinson, Why the responsibility of reconciliation does not sit with First Nations People).