An Apology Goes a Long Way
Australians have gotten away with blatant discrimination of the Aborigines for the longest time with its Stolen Generations policy. This racist policy was only rescinded officially in the 1967 referendum to change parts of the 1901 constitution. Australia had actually implemented a racist “genocide” policy that existed, some say, even until the 1970s.
Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s historic apology and attempt at reconciliation last week, however politicised, won him immense political approval according to polls at the expense of the opposition Liberal Party’s Brendan Nelson.
In the aftermath of The Online Citizen controversy recently, some of its editors have not been completely truthful at first about the remote dealings with a PAP MP, and their eventual explanations of events are short of a full apology and closure to readers. A political and public relations leap ahead in the game is squandered away as a result of the editors’ hesitation to be magnanimous.
February 19, 2008
Still confused about how to feel about the national apology to the stolen generations? You are not a moral lightweight if you feel a degree of confusion. In fact, you are experiencing what has been shown to be a common attribute of Australian attitudes on questions of indigenous policy.
According to research published last year by two political scientists, Murray Goot and Tim Rowse, internal conflict over indigenous issues is commonplace among Australians. In their book Divided Nation? Indigenous Affairs And The Imagined Public, Goot and Rowse demonstrate that “collective philosophical ambivalence” has been a constant feature of Australian attitudes on questions of indigenous policy, ever since polling was first done on such issues, in 1941.
Closely examining four emblematic episodes in Australian history, including the 1967 referendum in which more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to delete parts of the Constitution that discriminated against indigenous Australians, the authors demonstrate that deep cracks existed beneath the apparent consensus of support for indigenous equality. The 90 per cent vote was not matched by support for social integration between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
On other key questions such as native title, land rights and reconciliation, polling data repeatedly indicated not just a divide between sections of the community, but an internal division within individual Australians on indigenous matters. In short, we have a history of adopting complex and often conflicting views on questions of indigenous equality, responsibility and difference.
Given our historical pattern of confusion over such questions, there is little reason to think this trend of internal division was not permeating attitudes to last Wednesday’s apology. A flood of calls to talk-back radio across the country following the apology indicated a continuing degree of ambivalence, even defiance, about whether or not to feel guilt over past mistreatment of indigenous people.
If the apology was truly to represent a new beginning, to serve as the foundation for the successful acceleration of the reconciliation movement, it was incumbent on the leaders of the two main parties to help the public navigate what we can safely assume to be some very conflicted and confused views. Unfortunately, both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition failed in this task. Kevin Rudd’s speech was one of principle. It was primarily a speech to and for the victims of the stolen generations and the wider indigenous community. The message was one of rectification. To end the national silence and distortion of indigenous history, through an unqualified apology and the airing of uncomfortable truths.
For the purpose of righting wrongs to indigenous people and arguably for rectifying what Rudd saw as a damaging decade of ideological battle over the “truth” of these issues, the speech was highly appropriate. For speaking to the broader, possibly conflicted Australian community, this was not the speech.
Given the complexity of policy motives operating and the very crude awareness of Aboriginal history of many Australians, an appeal to the awfulness of certain actual removals and an unqualified apology was never going to be enough to guilt-trip Australians into clarity over this issue.
The Opposition Leader certainly did not shy away from referring to other dimensions underpinning indigenous policy in the 20th century.
“In some cases, government policies evolved from the belief that the Aboriginal race would not survive and should be assimilated. In others, the conviction was that half-caste children in particular should, for their own protection, be removed to government and church-run institutions where conditions reflected the standards of the day. Others were placed with white families whose kindness motivated them to the belief that rescued children deserved a better life.”
Tragically, that is where the list ended. As if nothing but good, yet mistaken, intentions were at work. For this explanation to follow Rudd’s direct quoting of past state and territory bureaucrats detailing their respective government’s policy goal to “eradicate” and “eliminate” indigenous people was nothing short of fraudulent.
Some will retort that the apology should never have been about educating ill-informed citizens or persistent denialists. They will worry that for too long the national agenda catered destructively to these community members. Yet, that is to miss the very point of reconciliation, a process of coming together between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in a spirit of true understanding. Through each failing to deliver a speech that could resonate with a wider Australia, both missed an opportunity to lay an even firmer foundation for reconciliation.
Instead, each leader committed a folly typical of the Howard era they wished to leave behind: the perpetuation of a one-sided national conversation for the sake of a particular ideological agenda. That is how nations are divided, not reconciled.
Angela Cummine is studying a Masters in Political Theory at Oxford University on an Australian Rhodes Scholarship.