Why I am sorry


I am puzzled by the frequency of either of the following statements (or variations of them): 'I'm happy to support an apology to the stolen generations but I certainly take no personal responsibility.' Or, 'I do not support such an apology; I didn't do anything to them.'

Well, I'd like to place on record my sincere apologies for what I did to the Aborigines for much of my life. I'm 63, born and bred here. Fortunate — not proud — to be an Australian. I have never felt proud because, for one thing, I never earnt the privilege of being Australian. It was just luck. The same kind of luck that sees some people sail though life with good health while others suffer simply because they inherited a malfunctioning gene.

So why do I want to apologise to my black brothers and sisters? Because, especially in my early adulthood, I did not make any effort to understand what had happened more than 200 years ago when my ancestors arrogantly assumed control of someone else's country.

I lived for much of my life comfortably ignorant, until two decades ago when I pulled my head out of the sand, opened my eyes and, above all, opened my mind. I learnt to appreciate what it means to be Aboriginal. I learnt to respect their culture, their beliefs. I stopped making assumptions. I felt true shame for the role I had played if by no other means than my passivity. Sins of omission are as grave as the other kind.

To those who might respond that my generation was taught precious little Aboriginal history at school I would say that fact does not exonerate me. My youthful ignorance may have been excusable — the more so as the media of those days did nothing to dispel our prejudices — but I had no right to remain uneducated.

It is true that I had long felt anger and shame for the actions of those involved in taking Aboriginal children from their families. I would have killed, yes killed, had someone attempted to steal one of my own children. But I know a part of me back then would, on occasion, have tried to justify those thefts. I too would have said: 'The children will be better off, they will be educated like us (!), they will be away from the alcohol, the disease, the filth.' All the while conveniently forgetting who had introduced the alcohol, the disease and therefore the filthy living conditions. For I have long since learnt there were none of these before the ignorant and arrogant white man arrived.

I am not naïve. Today's Aborigines have, and rightly so, the same responsibilities the rest of us have to society and especially to their families, their children. And some, repeat some, have forfeited the right to remain parents. Temporarily at least. But in addressing these issues we must remember the root causes started more than 200 years ago. We whites have the greater responsibility to make things right by working with the Aborigines. It is about cooperation, not coercion.

So I thank all the Aborigines who graciously accepted Parliament's and my apology on 13 February. To those who were unable to accept Parliament's apology I say again I am truly sorry.

And lest some readers think I hate my ancestors, I don't. I admire their industry but I condemn their cruel, selfish, lazy racism. Just as I condemn my own.

Bill FarellyBill Farrelly is a retired Sydney Morning Herald subeditor.




submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you Bill. I am an oldie and very lucky to be born in Western Australia when it was a wonderful isolated place. All my family is from Ireland and it is a skin that sticks fast. I was lucky in the man I married, a village man from the west of Ireland. He moved around with his work. In 1959 we left Perth for Whyalla, then Alice Springs via Adelaide, then Mt Isa, Townsville, Darwin, then back to Adelaide.

We lived side by side with the Aboriginal communities in the Territory and from time to time have been able to make contact again. The Aboriginal woman taught me what is important with young children. While I might be worrying about whether the floor was swept or everything tidy, they held their young babies in their arms. The toddler could put his head on his mother's lap when he was tired and mother always had time for them.

How many years did it take for Europeans to move from the nomadic age and stage of their life to modern life? Thousands of years. We have expected Aboriginal people to come from the traditional life to modern life in about 50 years, and never ever asked them to teach us their knowledge of nature and another way of life with its values and ethics.
Margaret O'Reilly | 20 May 2008

Great article Bill. Only wish some current media journalists/shock jocks would have the same amount of courage and responsibility as you have shown in writing it. Sadly media did not only play a major role in shaping community's attitudes in days past but are still doing so at this time. We seldom here opinions of grassroots Aboriginal people on matters concerning grassroots Aboriginal people. Opinions are almost always canvassed from the 'well-known' Aboriginal people who are often handpicked, and in some cases, financially supported by Govts.

It's up to us - the people - to make the change we want and so desperately need in our country. Let's walk with Aboriginal people to ensure change DOES happen in our lifetimes as we certainly don't want the generations to come to have to deal with a legacy of what can only be described as racism towards our First Nations people.
cheryl kaulfuss | 29 January 2010

Wow that was brilliantly said! What a beautiful apology.
Charley | 29 January 2010

Thank you
Marvyn McKenzie Snr | 02 February 2010

Thanks, Bill. Excellent. You have spoken for many of our generation.

A few years ago my adolescent kids and I pondered what would happen if I deviously swindled John Howard out of everything he owned – properties, cars, savings, investments, superannuation – the lot. I lived comfortably on some of the interest, wore the track suits, then left everything to my kids.

Some years later, after both perpetrator and victim had passed on, the crime was discovered. Would John Howard’s kids be able to approach my kids and ask for the assets back? Could my kids say, “Hey, we didn’t do anything wrong”?

Alan Austin | 17 March 2011


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up