Paul Keating and Sorry Day's indulgence with a purpose


At the beginning of National Reconciliation Week, we observe Sorry Day as an expression of remorse for our historical mistreatment of the nation's Indigenous citizens.

Sorry Day has been on the calendar since 26 May 1998's first anniversary of the tabling in Federal Parliament of the Bringing them Home report. The report documented the forced removal of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families for much of the 20th century. The children who were removed have come to be known as the Stolen Generations.

There are a number of commemorative days that focus attention on the needs and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, such as National Close the Gap Day in March and Mabo Day on 3 June. Paradoxically Sorry Day is not one of them.

It is instead a day for non-indigenous Australians to dwell on themselves and their failures. To think about such important issues as how we can improve Indigenous health in this country is always a good thing. But actually it defeats the purpose of Sorry Day, which, if we are non-indigenous Australians, is all about us.

As an exercise in secular soul-searching, former Prime Minister Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern Speech does exactly what Sorry Day encourages all non-indigenous Australians to do. Its most memorable lines are not about Indigenous Australians at all, but the Europeans who stole their land, their children and their dignity.

We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. 

Keating says 'the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all'. By 'affects', he means that it penetrates not only our minds, but our hearts as well. So our action to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians is not based in ideology or something we think we should do to pay our dues. It's much deeper, something we want to do for the fulfilment of our own lives as well as those of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Importantly Keating implores non-indigenous Australians to acknowledge their guilt and then to quickly move on and 'see the things which must be done — the practical things'. Guilt on its own, he says 'is not a very constructive emotion' because 'what we need to do is open our hearts a bit'.

It is significant that Sorry Day comes at the beginning of Reconciliation Week, not the end. Timing and sequence are important. Those familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius will know that the First Week's dwelling on sinfulness is only a means to the end of making the person on retreat ready to be of service to others.

It's similar for National Reconciliation Week — Sorry Day is getting us ready to take whole-hearted constructive action that will help close the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Sorry Day, Reconciliation Week, Paul Keating, Redfern Speech, contrition



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Existing comments

Thank you Michael but there is still so much work to be done in this. We said “Sorry” to the Stolen Generations peoples but only 5 of the 54 recommendation of the 1997 “Bringing Them Home Report” have been implemented! We must go back to this report as there are too many A&TSI people and communities continuing to suffer- we have not fully addressed this. Then TODAY under current Federal & Territory policies A&TSI children are being removed from families and even their communities under alarmingly increasing rates. I urge readers to also look at “KEEPING THEM HOME” petition at The most recent data shows that the number of children being moved into out-of-home care in the Northern Territory has just about doubled since 2007. Two-thirds of these children are being placed with non-Indigenous families away from their communities. Elder Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, spokesperson for Yolngu Makarr Dhuni [Arnhem land] is calling for this trend to be reversed by INCREASING FAMILY SUPPORT SERVICES IN COMMUNITIES. He has written to the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Adam Giles, asking him for his support. We ask YOU to support Djiniyini’s Please sign: Keeping Them
Georgina | 27 May 2013

Hi I couldn't agree more with Georgina in her comments and Michael's summary statement "Sorry Day is getting us ready to take whole-hearted constructive action... " Would Eureka Street and its readers be prepared to act, to prevent history from repeating itself. Here is how you can help via the signing of the petition "KEEPING THEM HOME - Stop the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families" on Here's the link: We are asking the minster The Hon.Adam Giles to stop the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities. We do not wish to be silent witnesses to another tragedy imposed on the First Australians - a repeat of the Stolen Generation which we, as a Nation, apologised for in 2008. Please implement solutions to child neglect that are holistic, culturally appropriate and developed in negotiation with Aboriginal families and community leaders. Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has a right to enjoy their own culture. We ask that you: Increase Aboriginal-managed Family Support services in all Aboriginal communities including the establishment of Family Group Conferencing processes when there are concerns regarding child safety. and Reverse the decision that cut funds to the Community Sector. Further information can also be found on the concerned Australian website
Bernadette | 27 May 2013

Thank you Michael for you comments on reconciliation - and Georgina for reinforcing the need for continuing action in support of Aboriginal families and communities. As well as the increasing rates of removal from home there is also the increasing rate of incarceration and related deaths in custody, confirming your call for continuing action, in the first instance through implementation of the recommendations of the respective Stolen Generations and Deaths in Custody Inquiries.
Denis Quinn | 27 May 2013


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