I was busy last Wednesday morning, otherwise I may have gone into Federation Square to see the instant televising to an attentive crowd of the opening of Parliament and the apology speeches. As it was, I got home from some job-seeking errands that morning and switched on the Internet. I accessed an audio-visual recording on a news site, but rather than watch, I simply wandered around the house listening, like in the days of hearing important news over the radio. The speech was well-written and nicely delivered by the Prime Minister Mr Rudd. I even appreciated much of the speech of the Opposition Leader Mr Nelson, despite its equivocations. Overall I was cheered all day (otherwise a very mixed day) because this is something that I have been wanting for maybe a decade.
There has been some discussion then and since on the nature of the apology and its reception. I was involved in a few such discussions and want to make some comments arising from them. To start with – the nature of the word “sorry” and whether it was an apology. For every person who chose to say sorry that day (e.g. on Facebook profiles) it may well simply signify that “I share in your sorrow”. If I tell a person that I have lost a loved-one in a car crash they are likely to say “I am so sorry”. Why? They never killed my relative but they do feel for me and wish it were otherwise. So that may well be a satisfactory definition of what “sorry” is for me to say. But for the Government it is more than that.
The composition of the Federal Government may change but the Commonwealth of Australia is a legal and political entity with a continuous existence since 1901. With that in mind, the apology given by the PM was an apology in the sense of that entity acknowledging its past mistakes. The forced removal of children and separation of siblings from one another (whatever the circumstances or motivations at the time) is now recognised as a wrong thing to do and it was something done with the approval of the Federal Government. Someone objected to this on the grounds that such responsibility is “non-transitive” and dismissed the continuous existence of the Federal Government as one entity as a legal fiction. But the thing is that the Federal Government and the nation-state of Australia are legal fictions so I figure they can do fictional things.
A lot of supporters of the apology have expressed concern at the existence of many Australians (a significant minority) objecting to the apology. I however am relaxed by the whole thing. Ever since the tabling of the Bringing Them Home Report there has been a growing number of us who were saddened by the reticence of the then Government to make the recommended apology. Others however were supportive of such reticence. Now however our roles are reversed – we are happy and they are sad. That is fine by me. That is the nature of politics in a democracy. Nobody gets everything the way they want it. How many like me did things such as display bumper stickers saying that we never endorsed Australian involvement in recent wars? If we can be conscientious objectors then how can we deny that to others? I would only say to the objectors that the apology – like the forced removal in times past – is now an historic fact that cannot be changed – better then to move onto other issues of more concern and relevance to you.
So why is an apology so important? I know of some who think that the most well-crafted of speeches will do nothing for living conditions in (say) remote Aboriginal settlements. They may be right. But in focusing on just ‘practical’ reconciliation I think they are missing something: Feelings are an ever-present part of the lives of every person. An insult of whatever vintage can linger and fester in the memory of a person or group of persons. Think of incidents in your own life and relationships. Society is just a network of human relationships. Some experiences once internalized can have a big impact on behaviour and self-perceptions. And they also impact on those who made the insult to start with. An apology can start to change feelings - what is more practical than that?
Over this action of the new Federal Government I for one am stoked.