An apology for what?

For any non-Australians in the audience, the new Australian government is doing what the previous lot refused to do: apologise on behalf of the parliament and government of Australia to the indigenous people of Australia for the forced removal of children from their families for approximately 100 years until 1969.

I want (as should be little surprise to anyone who knows me) to abstract away from the specifics of this a little. When is an apology for some past injustice warranted?

Should we hold the actions of the past against the moral standard of today, especially if those actions were held to be just at the time? If the answer is ‘yes’, how far back in history is it acceptable to apply our outrage? We don’t judge the Romans for having sex with children or the Aztecs for their human sacrifices – we simply view them as having taken place in an environment of ignorance.

The Aztecs were not only a long time ago, but also from a different cultural heritage to us. The Romans were a long time ago and also our cultural ancestors, so we can’t simply say that we only judge our own.

So where (and why) do we draw a line in the sand?

If someone can explain that to me, then I can happily endorse the apology (I already accept it). People who argue that since we didn’t do it (after all – we weren’t around then) we shouldn’t apologise are missing an important point: The government and the parliament of Australia were around then and did play an active role. The difference between the (wo)man and the office is important here. The office of the government of Australia did the Bad Thing. If it is right to judge the past against the moral measures of the present, then it is also right for the office of the government of Australia to apologise. The particulars of who is occupying that office now is of little consequence.

The only way out, from my point of view, is if there were a significant change of constitution in the intervening period, so that it might be legitimately said that the government of today is not in any way the government that existed at the time. Is that why we let the Romans off the hook? We would judge them, only they don’t exist any more?

Back to the particulars: I don’t really mind whether we call it tyranny (although I think that choice of words is inflammatory) or whether Labor supporters want to poke fun at the Coalition (although I think that at least some of the Coalition’s concerns are legitimate). I think that the apology is a symbolic gesture that, on its own, will help not at all. I think that the Aboriginals of Australia have complaints (most but not all of them legitimate) far deeper and wider than the stolen generations and that the stolen generation issue simply became an emblematic focal point.

The apology is no skin off my nose and if it makes people feel better for a while, go nuts. But don’t try telling me that it’ll do a damned thing to improve the lives of Aboriginals in Oz. For that we need real policies of support from the government and real acknowledgement of the realities of the world from the Aboriginal community.

Update:  I got an excellent response from a good friend of mine.

8 Responses to “An apology for what?”


  • Tyranny is tyranny – and removing children from their parents due to their skin colour is a tyrannous act.

    The goal of republican government is to remove all tyranny from the system. Consequently past tyrannous acts need to be recognized as such.

  • I’m not denying that it was an act of tyranny (in the sense of oppression, not in the sense of a single ruler), only that the word “tyranny” is one with massive emotional and judgemental baggage in the same way as “genocide”. Its use may be justified in a literal sense, but it will rarely serve to improve the situation in a world of real politik.

    In any event, I accept the pragmatic necessity of an apology even if I do not fully accept the moral obligation to apologise today for something that was honestly believed to be just at the time.

  • A lot of the Stolen Generation are still with us, people born all the way back to the 1920’s, so are their children, so are some of the people responsible for doing the brutal, forced separation of children from parents, so are some lawmakers who did not stop the practice–e.g. J.W. Howard entered Parliament while this awful practice still went on.

    I watched Rudd’s whole speech this morning, as did an early customer, and was moved to tears at times.

  • Thomarse,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I recognise the contemporary nature of the consequences of the stolen generations and I am glad that you found the speech moving. As I mention in my later posts (#2 and #3), I believe that if an apology is to be given, it must be a sincere one, probably backed with remuneration.

  • Well, hopefully and maybe better, solid spending on better housing then education & health. All done with lots of prior consultation with each community which is where the NT Intervention errs. I was never impressed with Jenny Macklin before but She did a shitload of consultation and really needs a full share of the credit for the apology. Hope it keeps going like that.

    A customer later that day, when I mentioned the apology, said he had not been a Labor fan said he was very moved by the Apology and now saw the need of it. Think lots of small-l Liberals looking much more kindly on Rudd & the ALP.

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