Many times recently I have heard people ask, “What exactly are we saying sorry for?” The media has quoted similar sentiments from Opposition leader Brendan Nelson and Opposition indigenous affairs spokesman, Tony Abbott. More recently the Opposition has agreed “in principle” to support an apology by the Australian parliament.
It is a simple fact that citizens of non-aboriginal decent enjoy the privilege of living in this country at the expense of the indigenous people. That alone is enough to apologise for let alone the shameful history of paternalism, discrimination, prejudice, racism, exclusion and deprivation that continues to this day.
But the “Sorry” statement is limited to just one aspect of our shameful past: the deliberate policy of governments, churches and others in authority to “breed out” by assimilation all traces of aboriginality. That is why the children of black mothers and white fathers were forcibly removed. It was thought the full blood aborigines would become extinct of their own accord.
There is a question here about who the white fathers were and their apparent silence about the injustices borne by their children and the mothers of their children. Perhaps it suited the fathers and the rest of “respectable society” not to talk about such things?
Another limitation of the “Sorry” statement, quick to be pointed out by the government, is that the statement caries no commitment for compensation. While free to make claims as individuals, as the “Bringing them home” report pointed out, few of the victims have the financial capacity or access to the legal resources that would be required to pursue such action.
The third limitation – a sop to those who feel no responsibility for official policies of the past – is to say that the statement is not about the personal guilt of individuals or even of the Australian people. It is merely an acknowledgement by this government of the policies of past governments and an apology for their actions.
But for anyone born as late as the 1950’s to claim “I am not guilty” or “I did not know” is an admission of ignorance. The same claim made by people born after the 1950’s is also an admission of ignorance. Why? Because while the current plight of the Aboriginal community is a direct outcome of the policies of the past, their plight is a reality now. And for the most part, white Australians of all ages continue to look the other way.
To ask, “What are we saying sorry for?” shows a lack of will to find out. To say, as Brendan Nelson has said, that the first sitting of parliament on February 13 has more important issues to address betrays the arrogance, indifference and insensitivity that has persisted for more than two centuries and created the very need to say, “Sorry”.
The 1997 Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) “Bringing them home” report has been widely available for more than ten years. For anyone who claims to understand the “Sorry” issue it is essential reading. Yet it is obvious that many people, including many parliamentarians, have not read it.
I urge everyone to encourage their colleagues, family and friends not only to support the government’s initiative on February 13 to say “Sorry” but to insist that the government adopt all of the recommendations of the “Bringing them home” report.
This is a real opportunity to ensure future generations have a better understanding of Australia’s true history. It is a real chance to end the endemic ignorance and denial that perpetuates the plight of Aboriginals.
But saying “Sorry” is a just a first step. Symbolically it acknowledges the wrongs that we wish to put right. The second step is to turn that wish into practical action that ensures the original Australians can enjoy the same dignity, opportunities and living standards that most of us take for granted.
“Bringing them home” report.