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The moral challenge of accepting an apology

  • 26 May 2011

'I bear no ill will. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie.' –Gordon Wilson, after the death of his daughter, Remembrance Day, County Fermanagh, 1987

Societies approach apology and its execution by various means. The measure for what is apologised for inevitably lies in the gestures that accompany it. In the context of Australia's national Sorry Day, the urgency of this gesture never dies.

The traditional problems in the context of an apology for Australia's treatment of its Indigenous population surface annually. The wounds are truly, not so much skin deep, but sin deep. To atone for that sin is a permanent dilemma for both the victims and the perceived perpetrators.

Where, for instance, does such an apology rest in the context of the continuing National Territory Intervention?

In one sense, the Commonwealth action demonstrates a crude paternalism that undermines Indigenous autonomy and reduces the subject of rescue to the status of an invalid. ('We will save you, but you shall behave accordingly.') The rescued subject is, in a sense, idealised as weak.

But the same might be said about the entire modus operandi of social work: daily interventions are justified on the basis of 'helping' weak endangered subjects. Little thought is given to the intervener, whatever the mantra about empowerment might be on the day.

In another sense, doing nothing would have been equally disastrous, making any gesture of apology empty. Criticisms that the Intervention is merely land appropriation by Canberra's establishment are disingenuous. What is truly required, as the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd explained on 13 February 2008, is the pressing need to address 'life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity' among Australia's Indigenous population.

Paternalism, even if enacted out of guilt, can prove disastrous. Historically, we had such illustrations of this as the Aborigines Protection Act 1869, a Victorian statute that gave the Aborigines Protection Board vast powers to make laws for 'the care, custody and education of the children of Aborigines'.

The most controversial feature of the Act lay in its intrusive allowance for 'the removal of any Aboriginal child neglected by its parents or left unprotected'. The ghastly details were more than adequately tabled in the Bringing Them Home report from May 1997.

Where the victim is situated in the moral calculus tends to be the most neglected topic in reconciliation. Could it be ever feasible for Australia's Indigenous community