The national apology 11 years on

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As we approach a federal election it is hard to think of a more encouraging action by any government during the last 20 years than the apology made by the then prime minister to Indigenous Australians who had been removed from their parents.

Kevin Rudd delivers the national apology in ParliamentMuch has been said about that apology. It is worth reflecting more generally on why apologies properly made are so gratifying, and what qualities they must have in order to be proper.

Apologies are encouraging because they embody a decency that we long for. We try to build it into the lives of our children, but often fear that it is being lost in society. Apologies affirm a shared sense of right and wrong by which we can judge our lives and which we are called to pass on to our descendants

When we are teaching children a right way to live, we want them to learn three magic words: please, thank you, and sorry. If they make these words central in their lives and mean them, they will treat everything in their lives as a gift not as an entitlement, and they will be well equipped to form and heal relationships. If their lives are lacking in the reality of the three words they will be lacking in humanity. Of the three words sorry is the lubricant. It acknowledges the shared inevitability of failure to act well, and enables fresh beginnings.  

Apologies, of course, come in a range of shapes, from children dragged in by the ear to say sorry with rebellious eyes, to light-fingered gangsters sprung by the Big Man. Some are made out of love, others out of fear.

When frequent Confession was a central feature in Catholic life the subtleties of apology were analysed in detail. The importance of apologising face to face was insisted on. The confession was understood to be made to God through the priest. The embarrassment involved was argued to contribute to its depth.

Genuine regret — contrition — was also required. Its highest form, perfect contrition, was motivated by love for the person injured. Imperfect contrition was motivated by concern for oneself, expressed in shame or guilt at not living up to one's expectations or in fear of the consequences. Less discussed were the pathologies that might lead people to confess often: obsessiveness or seeking divine license to continue to act badly, for example.

 

"If learning to say please, thank you and sorry are the first steps in building a decent society, perhaps we need frequent in-service training in apologising and meaning it."

 

Finally, a sincere resolution to cut out the behaviour confessed was required. This was a test of the seriousness of the confession, although it was understood that human weakness would often overcome good resolutions.

Underlying the practice of regular apology through confession was the hope that people would by degrees become more sensitive to the squalid ways in which they acted, and would move from self-preoccupation to love of God and others. Apology was part of an educational discipline in the church, as it remains in families. Its effectiveness, however, rests on a sense of self-worth. If we lack that, habitual apologising can only reinforce our conviction that we are worthless.

When set against these standards, many apologies in public life will seem pathological. They appear to have been purchased in bulk from a PR factory or are more properly described as an expression of aggression in which the person apologised to is blamed for taking offence. In exchange for such apologies people seek a license to keep offending.

In social media, 'sorry' is a word seldom spoken. Warriors on Facebook and Twitter are typically stone-solid in their convictions, effortlessly deny facts that might argue against their certainties, and are self-righteous in destroying others' reputation or self-esteem. They are quick to move on but never look back in regret, never apologise. Relationships once broken are left in fragments.

It is a measure of the widespread dismay with such a sorry-free world that Australians look back with such joy the apology to the stolen generations. Conversely, the public acceptance of an apology-free world also explains why many critics cynically dismiss the 2007 apology as merely symbolic, no more than a top-shelf confection from the PR factory.

That view is strengthened by the evident lack of commitment shown subsequently by governments, bureaucracy and people more generally to engage face to face with the people to whom the apology was made and to change their patronising and destructive ways.

If learning to say please, thank you and sorry are the first steps in building a decent society, perhaps we need frequent in-service training in apologising and meaning it.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, national apology, stolen generations, Kevin Rudd

 

 

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Existing comments

It's a big word 'sorry'. Truly expressed, it incorporates St Paul's words "But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet show I unto you a more excellent way." Paul then proceeds with, I believe, his greatest and most humble treatise. There was emotion aplenty when Mr Rudd delivered that apology to Indigenous Australians. Change has been agonisingly slow, but he said 'we say sorry' and, more importantly, he meant it. It's true that we can endure any indignity, any slight if we can sense that an apology made is 'meant'. Of course, our nation has to keep working hard to mend but there has been a start.
Pam | 13 February 2019


I am not sure if it is looking back through rose coloured glasses but I suspect that when Reconciliation (Confession) was a part of the Catholic tradition, we were more prepared to apologise for our stuff ups and transgressions- but as Andrew has mentioned that was before the advent of social media. Today, saying sorry is the hardest thing for many of us to do. I was very moved by Kevin Rudd's speech but at the same time very aware that words without actions are a empty gesture. Andrew you are correct to write that succeeding governments have done little to repair the damage caused to the "First Peoples". We have a very long way to travel towards a meaningful reconciliation. The circus in our Federal Parliament bears that out so well at present.
Gavin O'Brien | 13 February 2019


Again a worthwhile and challenging read. 'Sorry - what a little word with big feet. Reading through this article my thoughts turned to a question that relates to a dark institutional hole in our Catholic history. The system doesn't like saying 'sorry - we got it wrong'. What an impact it would have if Pope Francis, amidst all his concerns and worries, wrote a letter not just to the Catholics of Toowoomba, but to all the folk of that district saying, 'I'm(we) are sorry for what happened to Bishop Bill Morris. I can't change what's been done, but I'm sorry'. Talk about the decency we long for.
Paul Goodland | 13 February 2019


Thought provoking , Fr. Hamilton. I do believe that children learn more by what they see and not sure to what extent by what they hear. Policy manuals and guidelines have their part to play and yet it is leaders that set the example to work place culture. The word that comes to mind is Humility - HE took off his garment and used it to wash their feet. HE showed the way as they watched this humble deed. The Apology offered by Mr. Rudd has myriad implications at all levels- for himself , Australia and the rest of the world. It takes a lot of courage.
Susan Vasnaik | 13 February 2019


A great article. I immediately thought of how we have so quickly and nearly entirely avoided the Uluru Statement for the Heart. To me this indicates the ongoing value of our national commitment to reconciliation.
Gerard Bennett | 13 February 2019


Fr Andrew, have you ever considered why the apology was made ? With the benefit of cynical hindsight, Rudd may have made it to hog the moral high ground. Labor stands for the working man yet his wife Rein (AFR) Rein, who is married to former prime minister Kevin Rudd, ranked 10th on the BRW Rich Women list in 2014 had an estimated net worth of $135 million. She founded Ingeus in 1989 and it subsequently operated in 10 countries, with more than 70 per cent of its business in Britain where it had contracts with the government." Since sold for $220m. (AFR) The apology was an ideological PR coup from a PM who was condescending, out of touch and did not represent any sincere labor principles. Shorten is not much different. His first wife was very rich. His second very well off and daughter of the GG. Labor may be ahead in the polls. In retrospect the apology may have been a one off line. Certainly not endorsed by Punch up Abbott or Gold digger Dutton.
Francis Armstrong | 13 February 2019


To me the word "sorry" has two distinct , and very different meanings. "I am sorry" can mean either that I am sorry for you that something nasty happened to you, or I am sorry that I did it to you. Too often these different meanings are confused, or conflated. Even in discussions over the significance of this parliamentary sorry.
John R. Sabine | 13 February 2019


The National Apology to the Stolen Generation was a very important event in Australia's history. it was a very necessary part of the national healing and reconciliation process. Many say that saying sorry is only tokenism, but I remember that former PM John Howard could not bring himself to say that word. His approach to Aboriginal affairs were disastrous - the closing down of ATSIC, the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consultative body and the Northern Territory National Emergency Response (The Intervention) following the release of the Little Children Are Sacred Report. I attended a public viewing of Kevin Rudd's speech in Adelaide's Elder Park and was very moved by what he said. Afterwards indigenous and non-indigenous publicly embraced each other. There was a great deal of joy and there were many tears. I thought it sad, however, that neither the Rudd nor the Gillard ALP governments sought to go further eg to re-institute a national indigenous consultative body, make moves to instigate a treaty, amend the Australian Constitution to include reference to our indigenous peoples, give practical assistance to help indigenous communities (in consultation with them), ensure that all the recommendations of the 1991 Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commission be implemented to prevent further indigenous deaths in detention etc. etc. It would have been much more positive for Kevin Rudd to have undertake such initiatives instead of playing political football with asylum seekers like the LNP Coalition. I believe that we need to be working a lot harder on the Reconciliation movement to introduce the aforementioned matters if we are to be seen to be caring of our indigenous peoples.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 16 February 2019


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