A column about the apology

Pinch yourselves, folks, because it’s finally going to happen. A mere eleven years after the Bringing Them Home report chronicled the devastation wreaked by the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families, the Commonwealth Government is going to apologise. Yes, really. On Wednesday, Kevin Rudd will move a motion of apology that will spark off a day of celebrations, with a free concert featuring indigenous artists that promises to be the biggest party in Canberra since Andrew Bartlett’s post-election wake.

It’s astonishing that it was so controversial, really. Despite what were acknowledged to be good intentions, the report found that the practice constituted genocide because it had the effect of wiping out Aboriginal culture. And you’d think that genocide, which is just about the most heinous action a government can take, might at least warrant a little apology. But no, John Howard refused to do it for a decade, citing the most spurious of arguments. And now that this sorry chapter in our history is being closed, it’s worth remembering what they were, because they’ve been restated by many prominent Liberals and talkback commentators as they wheeled out the same old lame excuses for not backing an act which is, quite literally, the least we can do.

Firstly, there was the legal mumbo jumbo about becoming liable for damages. Personally, I think damages are wholly appropriate, given the indisputable psychological damage that a government policy wreaked on children. If it were me in The Lodge, I’d be whipping out the chequebook, frankly. Or at least sending out a whole lot of bunches of flowers. But even Rudd seems to blanch at the prospect of compensation, the wuss.

Still, an apology has been enacted by every State and Territory Parliament without a single cent being paid out, so I’m not sure what was supposed to be so different this time. But more to the point, let’s remember how the legal system works, shall we. If the victims of a harmful act want to sue the perpetrator, it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s been an apology. Sure, it makes it easier to establish that the event occurred, but that’s hardly in doubt here. Civil cases don’t only become possible where the individuals, or state, have admitted their guilt. If anything, apologies show contrition, which tends to reduce damages. The argument’s mean-spirited and ridiculous.

Then there’s the intergenerational point that it’s inappropriate because it wasn’t us, it was our forefathers. This is a point of almost moronic obviousness. No-one thinks Kevin Rudd took Aboriginal children from their parents, but the institution he now heads did, and as the direct successor, he’s the one who needs to make the gesture. This whole issue will apparently be addressed in the wording in any case, but those like Nelson who make this caveat fail to understand the symbolism of governments apologising for their own past actions. The “comfort women” forced into prostitution in WWII sought an apology not because they thought the Japanese Government were involved, but because they wanted the record to be corrected. Both our country and theirs has often wilfully obscured the darker corners of its history, and a formal apology ensures that for the rest of time, the mistakes and misjudgements have been acknowledged by the body responsible.

The most rhetorically tricky argument is the one that it might be a distraction from actually solving the problems faced by Aborigines. This is the same approach Howard referred to as “practical reconciliation”. But if you want to help a sector of the population, you should start by listening to what they say they need. And Aboriginal leaders have sought an apology for a long time. If we are to encourage positively with their community, and develop a partnership that can actually address their standard of living, there can be no better way than an incoming government making a symbolic gesture that says we’re on board.

Besides, a stubborn government that refuses to make gestures of goodwill that cost it nothing is unlikely to get the substance right either, and so we saw with the Howard Government. There was plenty of symbolism on offer from the Coalition when there was mateship to be celebrated, or cricket to be played, but when it came to righting historical wrongs, John Howard was nowhere to be seen. The guy wouldn’t even take a stroll across the bridge for reconciliation, and we know how much he liked walking around Kirribilli.

On February 13, one of the darker chapters in our history will be formally closed. It won’t increase Aboriginal life expectancy, but for those who suffered so many years of inhumane treatment at its hands, it’ll be a welcome change for the Australian government to finally give them one measly day that might make them feel good.

Stubborn to the last as the nation consigns one of his most infamous policies to dust, John Howard has refused to honour Malcolm Fraser’s call for all previous PMs to attend the ceremony. On Wednesday, I’ll be donning a black armband just to spite him.

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