The anatomy of an apology

Twelve years after the ‘Bringing Them Home‘ report, 16 years after Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, 18 years after the High Court rescinded the doctrine of terra nullius, and 41 years after their removal from the flora and fauna list, there will be an apology to Indigenous Australians for past injustices. It’s probably no surprise to anyone reading this that I’m in favour.

The ABC has recently started allowing comments on some stories on its site. The comments there are mostly (but not entirely) negative. So on the off-chance that anyone is reading this who isn’t in favour of an apology, let me dissect the usual reasons given for such a view:

  1. ‘We have nothing to apologise for’…
    1. … because it didn’t happen. [It happened. Even the people who did it admit it happened.]
    2. … because we didn’t do it, it was our grandparents, and we aren’t responsible for their actions. [No, not personally liable, and no one has claimed that we are. But if we’re going to claim ‘those brave wounded heroes of Suvla’ and the ‘rats of Tobruk’ we’d better be prepared to claim the people who put the arsenic in the flour too.]
    3. … because it was for their own good, to give them a better life. [Try arguing that it’s a good government policy to compulsorily acquire the children of anyone earning less than, say, $20,000 a year, to place them in orphanages and give them jobs as servants of rich people.]
    4. … because it was a different time and standards were different. [Yes. And so let’s show just how much we reject the benevolent bigotry that embraced those policies. Let’s show just how different those standards and that time was.]
  2. Terrible things happened, but if we apologise,
    1. we admit personal responsibility… [no we don’t. Admitting that the government of the day had policies which were racist, and perhaps even acknowledging that those policies have had effects which continue to the present, is not of itself an admission of responsibility. Come off it. We know who drafted the legislation. We know who passed it. We know who enacted it. AND we know who repealed it.]
    2. and financial liability. [This seems to me to be incredibly petty and mean-spirited. But if we want to talk money, how about repaying the wages that weren’t paid, for a start?]

If anyone has any other reasons, let me know.

Do I think it’ll change things? To be honest, no. Australians are great at “forgetting”. But it’s the first concrete action that’s been taken for a very long time.

3 responses to “The anatomy of an apology

  1. The argument that Australia should not apologize for fear of creating financial liability is legally ludicrous. In every country with a legal system descended from that of England, and in most if not all others, the state can only be sued if it consents to be sued. This descends from the sensible reasoning that the Crown cannot be sued since it is the Crown that dispenses justice. In the unlikely event that existing Australian legislation would permit suits for damages by aboriginal people, the government need merely pass legislation to prevent such suits. Furthermore, an apology can easily be worded in such a way as to avoid an admission of legal responsibility.

  2. There have been some cases over the last few years. There is an ongoing ‘stolen wages’ claim (the Queensland government ‘invested’ wages of Aboriginal people on their behalf for about 15 years and never paid anything). There was also a genocide case but it failed because a) there’s no state/national genocide law, although there is international law that Australia’s a signatory to; therefore the Supreme Court didn’t have the authority to try the case; b) there were details about the two plaintiffs which I can’t remember.

  3. What a fantastic summation of the tired old arguments. My only point of difference would be my wholehearted belief that it WILL make a difference. As a father to 3 young Aboriginal children who have been born and spent their first years under the rule of a hateful government, I relax that now I can explain the truth and bring the beginning of a healing generation to manhood knowing that the first step towards reconciliation are being taken. I am typing this in a Melbourne house with visiting friends and relatives from Aboriginal communities in Far West NSW and North QLD. I can not begin to convey the joy, exhilaration and sense of national monumental change in our house at the moment. This is all a very very simple gesture but it will mean everything to people who have very less complicated ways of speaking the truth.

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