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Apology anniversary as a time to reflect



In the years before then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008, politicians debated the value of the gesture. Some contrasted symbolic reconciliation with real reconciliation. Those of us with a theological bent were reminded of debates between Catholics and Protestants about sacraments. Whether in the Eucharist, for example, Christ was made really or merely symbolically present. In both cases opposing the real to the symbolic devalued the real power of the symbol to create a new reality.

Candles spelling out sorry on the front lawn of Parliament House in Canberra (Getty images/Andrew Sheargold)

All apologies are symbolic. They do not change the facts of past injury and insult, but enact a changed relationship with the possibility of further change in the parties involved. They affect relationships — those most cloudy but also most tangible of things. Apologies embody a way of relating built on respect. In doing so, they also acknowledge a moral code shared by both parties, and a shared acceptance that it has unjustifiably been disregarded.

They also imply a pledge to act differently in the future. The respect embodied in an apology is based in the recognition that both parties share a common humanity that lies deeper than the differences based on religion, race and wealth. All these things are expressed in the gesture of apology.

In the Apology to the Stolen Generations the Australian Government spoke on behalf of all Australians in recognising that it acted wrongly in removing Indigenous children from their parents. It recognised also that the reason for the removal was the disrespectful claim that its targets were defined, not by their shared humanity, but by their race. This disrespect caused lasting damage to the children and families.

It was of great significance that the Prime Minister made the Apology in person to representatives of the Stolen Generations and that they accepted it. His gesture stated that all Australians are equally entitled to respect, and that the government and all Australians are responsible to ensure that all Australians are treated equally, regardless of race and history.

The symbolism of the Apology embodied strong statements about the way we Australians commit ourselves to treat one another. They can never be unsaid. They can, however, be disregarded. For that reason the Apology continues to be important. It is a measuring stick by which both the conduct of government and the treatment of Indigenous Australians can be judged.


'The Apology, however, is not simply a marker of failure. It also points to small but precious signs of respect in the Australian community.'


The dignity, seriousness and non-partisan spirit of the Apology stands in judgment on the rancorous disregard of parliamentary conventions, partisanship and lack of seriousness and of courtesy in the years following. It also, of course, judges that of many preceding years. This behaviour embodies a deep lack of respect, which makes it natural to see apologies as a sign of weakness and a stratagem of last resort for deflecting blame. The polarising attitude can be seen in the words attributed to PG Wodehouse, 'It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them'.

The Apology has also set a standard by which to measure the treatment of Indigenous Australians today. In particular it highlights the disrespect underlying the election-driven Intervention that preceded the Apology, and the subsequent humiliating and disempowering measures directed against Indigenous communities. Though not driven as directly by racially biased ideology, too, the disproportionate rate at which Indigenous children are removed from their mothers, Indigenous children are incarcerated and decisions are made without proper consultation about Indigenous communities, indicate a serious institutional lack of respect.

This record also indicts the barrenness of the claims for real reconciliation when opposed to symbolic reconciliation. Without the change of heart and attitudes enacted in the Apology, Indigenous Australians will continue to be the victims of policy decisions made about them without their participation, and of administrative actions taken by people prejudiced against them.

The Apology, however, is not simply a marker of failure. It also points to small but precious signs of respect in the Australian community. The courage of young Indigenous Australians calling out discrimination and racial abuse, and the increased credence given them, for example. Also the significant number of Indigenous Australians who are entering the professions, the arts, and being employed in managerial positions is another candle in the darkness. At events and celebrations in the Australian community, too, it has become increasingly common to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Land, and for Indigenous Australians called on to speak at these events to longer be seen as guests but as hosts.

These things do not make up for the institutional disrespect suffered by Indigenous Australians. They are candles in the dark, offering us hope, that the spirit of the Apology may engender respect in the relationship between the first and the later Australians.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Candles spelling out sorry on the front lawn of Parliament House in Canberra (Getty images/Andrew Sheargold)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Apology Day



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Existing comments

One of the best stories I have heard of real, not bogus, reconciliation was an incident which took place on the NT/SA border. It concerned a meeting between the descendants of some Aboriginals and police in regard to a massacre - accepted as such by both sides - which happened last century. The actual meeting was not filmed. It was private. All the news said was that the meeting was held, forgiveness on behalf of the perpetrators was sought by their descendants and given by the descendants of the victims. This to me represented real, street level reconciliation without the drama. Perhaps this is the way to go?

Edward Fido | 12 February 2020  

An apology offers a chance of reconciliation. As referred to in Edward Fido's comment about a private meeting between two parties, the offering and accepting of forgiveness is ideally the way to go. Often the accepting of forgiveness is difficult. I would venture that one of the key words towards reconciliation is 'privacy'. The knowledge that the process is not turned into a drama but is kept sacred by the parties involved. This is intrinsic for respect to develop on both sides. And respect then grows into a whole community involvement.

Pam | 13 February 2020  

Actions mean most and speak loudest - there's much merit, I believe, in what Edward and Pam recommend.

John RD | 13 February 2020  

I am so pleased to be reminded of the anniversary of the Apology today. It provides me with an opportunity to reflect. I traveled especially from Wagga Wagga to attend in recognition of its significance at the time. The event is etched in my memory. I stood on the Parliament lawns with my brother and several friends with whom I had worked in times past, while in the Northern Territory. I remember as we left being spontaneously embraced by a young Aboriginal man from beyond Bourke who said words to the effect that now we are one. So while the event was public and dramatized in the Parliament there was deep feeling and personal encounter that occurred among those gathered on the lawns. Yet we still have so much to do. Thanks Andy.

Denis Quinn | 13 February 2020  

To me one of the most moving experiences of apologies given and accepted is the annual commemoration of the Myall Creek Massacre in northern NSW. On the Sunday in June closest to the date of the massacre descendants of those who perpetrated the massacre of defenceless women, children and old men assemble with the families related to those who died in a very emotional ceremony of commemoration. It remains a most significant symbol of reconciliation in a general climate of political statements in which the words rarey match the actions. I think of the platitudes expressed on the annual tabling of the Closing the Gap report. Promises to listen to First Nation Voices do not include acceptance of the Statement from the Heart.

Doug Hewitt | 13 February 2020  

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