“My relationship with our creator is more alive now than ever, because of my relationship with Aboriginal people.” They’re words that have left my lips a thousand times. These days, they come almost as instinctively as I take breath. It’s the faith conversation after church, where I am asked about my ‘work’ with Aboriginal people in remote communities. ‘How are they doing?’ ‘What’s it like?’ people ask. ‘Do you think what you are doing is making things better?’ And so goes the white saviour framing of my engagement with First Nations people… The questions reveal a positioning of me as the helper and Aboriginal people in need of help. It’s Darwinian in nature and rises from the same historical context that sees pictures of blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus sitting in a field of lambs hang awkwardly on the walls of our church buildings.


Aboriginal people are almost always defined in deficit terms. We focus on ‘closing the gap’ (code for ‘become more like ‘mainstream’ Australia’), the over-representation of Aboriginal people in prisons, poor health outcomes and the list goes on. Of course, these are important justice issues. It’s a good framework to consider justice issues. It’s not so good for considering our relationships and engagement with first nations people. This Australia Day, we must consider a different way of coming together. We must become different, together.


Will you be part of a different future? History has happened, but the future is before us. The journey now must be grounded in genuine relationship. Here’s four things you can do that have been developed with Adnyamathanha man Clayton Cruse and Gubbi Gubbi/Darug man Stuart McMinn:


  1. Listen to first nations voices

Find space to listen to a variety of first nations voices by:


  1. Wrestle with this question

If you are a Christian reading this, then you have to wrestle with this question: ‘What was our creator doing here prior to the arrival of the first fleet in 1788?’ If you believe the heavens and earth were created and God placed people here on these lands and then left until the arrival of the British, it is likely that you will approach Aboriginal people from a framework where you are in power and needing to save. If you acknowledge that there was a creator who placed people in this land to look after land and waters, who had an active ongoing relationship with the creator (in other words, God was already doing some stuff), then you are more likely to approach these relationships as a learner, open to hearing from God through the custodians of this land.


  1. Speak out against racism

The impacts of racism are significant and there is no such thing as casual racism. Whether you’re at the beach, around a barbie or in the workplace – call it out.


  1. Move forward 52 weeks a year

It’s pretty frustrating when non-Indigenous Australians are only interested in First Nations issues on the 26 January and during NAIDOC week. Commit to continued learning and connection throughout the year.


In my darker moments, I’m not sure that most of us are ready for the change that needs to happen. It calls us to become more ‘grown up’ as individuals and a nation. It requires us to hold in tension the need to address the enormous injustices and position ourselves as learners who acknowledge the strength, resilience and knowledges of First Nations people. We really have nothing to lose by owning our individual and collective history and moving towards a place where we all acknowledge the ongoing contemporary contribution of Aboriginal people to our lives; we have everything to gain. Because of this, I am hopeful.



Phill Pallas

Phill is a Lecturer in Social Work at The University of Newcastle. Of Greek, English, Irish and Danish heritage, through relationship and ceremony, he has cultural and kinship connections with Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people. He lives on Darkinjung Country with his wife Monica and two daughters, Lucinda and Daisy.