Saying Sorry (May/Jun 08)

Friday, 01 April 2011 08:03

I was in Sydney last February when the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made his ‘sorry’ speech where he apologised on the behalf of all non-indigenous Australians to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal people for what they had suffered at the hands of previous Australian governments. He had spent much time in meeting members of the Stolen Generation, and he drew on what they had told him in writing his speech. Listeners were left in no doubt what he was apologising for. There was no hint of that patronising tone much loved by many politicians but a sensitive awareness of the kind and degree of suffering the Stolen Generation and their families had endured, and an honest regret for the actions by politicians before him. He set out a carefully thought through plan for righting the wrongs of the past.

In the letters and diaries of the first English settlers at Sydney Cove in 1788, the tribes whose land the settlers were taking without recompense were described as being remarkably healthy. However, Aboriginal people soon began to succumb to the diseases the settlers brought with them. Within a few short years the representatives of the British government were reporting that all the Aboriginals would soon be dead and no longer an impediment to the settlers. To speed this along, a sweep of the whole island of Tasmania was arranged to flush out and kill all the remaining Tasmanian Aboriginals. However, once the Blue Mountains of NSW were crossed, opening the way to rich grazing territory, the settlers spread westward. Few of these men were accompanied by white women. Many Aboriginal women were raped or stolen, but equally many formed long term relationships with white men. The Aboriginal population started to increase.

In the long history of the British Empire many Englishmen married native women, but the children of these marriages were never accepted as being English. Yet the mere thought that these children, who were labelled as ‘half-caste’, or ‘quarter-caste’, should live as the natives did was equally unacceptable. In Australia it became government policy to round these children up, take them from their families, and put them in orphanages to be trained as servants for the whites. The story of three of these children was told in the film ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’. The girls in this story did know who their family was, but young children couldn’t name their family, and, if later they asked their keepers who their parents were, they were told that their parents were dead or that their parents had given them away.

This government policy of removal was developed in each of the Australian states around the time that the British Government was ordering that every county and borough in Britain should have an Asylum for the Lunatic Poor. In Australia the policy of removal didn’t come to an end until the 1970s, which was when the Asylums for the Lunatic Poor, which many of Openmind’s readers knew only too well, began to close. Has anyone in successive British governments ever apologised to those who had suffered in these asylums?

 Kevin Rudd’s predecessor, John Howard, had adamantly refused to say sorry. He insisted that white Australians had nothing to apologise for. Why should they take responsibility for something their ancestors did? Yet Howard never missed an opportunity to share in the glory of the Australian soldiers at Gallipoli, Tobruk and the Kokoda Track, or of the brave settlers and the ‘Aussie battlers’ who made Australia great. Surely, if we want to take the credit for what our ancestors did, we should also take the blame.

Sorry Day on February 13 was a day of much ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra and much celebration across the country. Yet, within minutes of the ceremony ending, a radio talk show was inundated with calls from non-indigenous Australians declaring that they didn’t want to be included in the Prime Minister’s apology. In their way of seeing things, Aboriginal people received huge sums of tax payers’ money they didn’t deserve. It was a litany of ‘It’s not fair’. Hadn’t they suffered, and no one was apologising to them.

To make an apology we have to recognise that the other person has suffered at our hands. We can be so entranced by our own suffering we can be unaware of anyone else’s. If we say, ‘I’m sorry you’re upset’ we are not acknowledging their suffering, but just noting that they’re upset about something or other. In our apology we have to specify what we are apologising for, and we have to let the person tell us if we have failed to understand just what the injury was that we inflicted. Our apology must include both the promise to mend our ways and to make whatever recompense we can. A real apology requires a generosity of spirit which, alas, many people lack.