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Apology anniversary as a time to reflect

  • 12 February 2020


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.

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