Adjust size of text


Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

Lessons in truth telling from Yoorrook to Israel/Palestine

The Yoorrook Justice Commission heralds a new era in truth-seeking for Australia. JEREMIE BRACKA considers its importance, limitations, and the example it could set.
Jeremie Bracka
Print this
Woman with purple-grey hair

Yoorrook Justice Commission Chair Professor Eleanor Bourke (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)

Published: 26 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

The Yoorrook Justice Commission heralds a new era in truth-seeking for Australia. JEREMIE BRACKA considers its importance, limitations, and the example it could set.

Marathon runner David Goggins once cautioned: There is always light at the end of the tunnel, but only once your eyes stop adjusting to the darkness.”

For too long White Australia has been wilfully blind to its history. From inter-generational trauma to brutal massacres, Australia is gradually beginning to face its past.

In May 2021, Victoria established the Yoorrook Justice Commission. It marks the first time any Australian government has embarked on simultaneous treaty-making and truth-telling with Indigenous peoples. The Commission’s role is to listen to First Peoples’ stories and to establish an official public record of systemic injustices since colonisation.

It is an exciting and bold innovation which not only shines a light onto our dark past in Australia but could one day be a model for a truth and reconciliation process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Not unlike Australia, the problem for Israel/Palestine lies in the intricate ways in which wrongdoing is denied or justified.

In 1996, South Africa’s famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission eased the rainbow nation’s transition from apartheid to democracy. Over the past decade, truth commissions have also surfaced in mature democracies. In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its inquiry on the Indian residential school system. In 2020, Belgium devised a truth commission to examine its colonial past in Africa. Several truth commissions have also popped up across the US as a response to Black Lives Matters.

Why is official truth-telling so valuable? It might be because in post-colonial states, not only has the harm been inflicted on racial grounds, but it has been repeatedly denied. In 1969, Anthropologist William Stanner famously called on history to break ‘the great Australian silence.’ He observed that rather than acknowledge the attempted destruction of Aboriginal society, it was easier for Australians to see their country as a morally neutral fact – and then avert their gaze.

Connecting the Dots

Past inquiries and Kevin Rudd’s apology marked moments of national reckoning, but they only ever addressed one aspect of the violence at a time. There were Royal Commissions on Indigenous deaths in custody and the stolen generation, but they did not tell the whole story. They were never part of a comprehensive truth-telling process.

Yoorrook is mandated to ‘investigate both historical and ongoing injustices since colonisation across all areas of social, political and economic life’. This includes current child protection laws, criminal justice and policing, land justice, and the welfare system. Yoorrook’s wider approach is vital to grasping the totality of colonisation and its footprint. Over the past two years the Commissioners have heard testimony about incarceration for crimes of poverty, as well as the disproportionate use of tasers and strip searches of First People today. Currently, Yoorrook is looking at the historic and ongoing economic barriers to Indigenous Victorians.

Yoorrook is giving a platform to Indigenous Victorians to articulate their own harm and healing. Commissioners have travelled across the state to meet with hundreds of Elders on numerous Traditional Owners’ countries. Although Yoorrook draws its powers from the very post-colonial framework it seeks to hold accountable, the Commission remains independent. Both its mandate and practices are guided by the First People’s Assembly in consultation with Aboriginal communities.  

linking past harms with present realities is vital to reckoning with systemic injustices.

State Accountability

Yoorrook is also entering a new relationship with the Victorian state, as the entity responsible for much of the harm. In April 2023, Yoorrook Commissioners questioned state ministers and senior bureaucrats about Indigenous injustices in the criminal justice and child protection systems. This is the first time an Aboriginal-led Royal Commission has publicly held to account the authorities exercising power over First Peoples’ lives.

This is a radical shift. For decades, Australian leaders have used the vocabulary of ‘political reconciliation’ and ‘closing the gap’, rather than the language of state accountability and past atonement. Last year, seven government representatives made formal apologies for past and current harms against First Peoples. The Victorian Attorney-General, acknowledged that structural racism persists in the criminal justice system. Even the Minister for Police accepted that racially profiling is rife. After decades of denial, these on the record admissions are remarkable.

Challenges: Reach and Reform

It is too early to tell whether Yoorrook could impact the wider community. The Canadian experience provides a cautionary tale. Whilst its Truth and Reconciliation Commission operated for over five years, the average non-Indigenous Canadian remains unaware of it. If a sense of collective awareness about the past is not fostered, Yoorrook risks just preaching to the choir. 

Any successful truth-telling will also need to deliver on substantive justice. The Yoorrook Commission does not have the power to order reparations or implement reforms but the commissioners have stressed apologies without actions are hollow. They are making detailed recommendations and pushing state politicians to commit to bail reforms and land justice.

Lessons for Israel/Palestine

The Jewish community knows all too well about persistent persecution and prejudice, an experience which has only become more visceral since October 7. As Jews, we also appreciate the value in ritualised truth-telling.

But when it comes to Israel/Palestine, Yoorrook seems like a utopian hallucination. For now, the October 7 massacres and raging war in Gaza do not bode well for such efforts.

Long-term conflict resolution, however, will demand some kind of truth and reconciliation process from Israelis and Palestinians. To this end, the Yoorrook Commission offers valuable lessons.

Firstly, linking past harms with present realities is vital to reckoning with systemic injustices. As the Victorian experience demonstrates, facing the past is more than just documenting violations, it’s about exposing ‘implicit truths’ surrounding power, policy, and practices. One day, Israelis and Palestinians too will need to address history, not only because of its traumatic grip, but also because of the culture of impunity, asymmetry of power and human rights abuses it entrenches.

The prolonged Israeli occupation has created generations of soldiers at checkpoints, a complex bureaucratic, legal, and political regime, and hundreds of thousands of citizens living beyond its recognised borders. By the same token, Palestinians will need to account for their institutions and ideologies that enable gross violations like suicide-bombing, stabbings, and other atrocities to occur.

Not unlike Australia, the problem for Israel/Palestine lies in the intricate ways in which wrongdoing is denied or justified in practice. Whereas Palestinians sanctify attacks on civilians as legitimate resistance, Israelis dismiss military excesses and abuses as unavoidable security measures. What is needed then is not just access to the historical record, or assertions of fact, but a discursive assault on the very psychological foundations of the conflict.

The Yoorrook Commission has created space to validate First Nations experiences. Palestinians have also long urged acknowledgement of past injustices to restoring national dignity. Similarly, Israelis demand recognition of Jewish casualties, and their own collective right to exist as a nation-state. Hearing personal narratives through testimony could one day help erode blanket support for human suffering caused to the other side.

Finally, the Yoorrook Justice Commission shows the value in local truth-telling. Any Middle East truth-telling process will demand the involvement of civil society, local collaboration as well as trust-building measures, not just international pressure from lofty legal bodies.

Today, Australia finds itself at a critical juncture. Until now, national efforts to deal with its colonial legacy have been piecemeal and relatively ineffective. The Yoorrook Justice Commission is an excellent example of locally owned truth-telling processes with impact. It sets a valuable precedent for a national Makarrata Commission and could one day guide Israelis and Palestinians. Ultimately, truth-telling is a long-distance marathon, and it requires vision, patience, and perseverance - looking both backwards and forwards - to reach the finish line.

About the author

Jeremie Bracka

Dr Jeremie M Bracka is an Australian-Israeli human rights lawyer and academic at RMIT University, lecturing in constitutional law. Jeremie has worked as a legal adviser at Israel’s Permanent Mission to the UN Israel’s Supreme Court and at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


No comments on this article yet. Be the first to add your thoughts.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site