The Importance of Saying ‘Sorry’

February 4, 2008 at 2:59 am (Uncategorized)

I received an email from GetUp this morning urging me to write to my Federal MP in support of Prime Minister Rudd’s intention to say ‘Sorry’ to Indigenous Australia’s stolen generations. I did. Here’s what I said:

Dear Mr Abbott
I am writing to you as a resident of your electorate. I hope you will support the Labor Government’s intention to say ‘Sorry’ to Indigenous Australia’s stolen generations. This is very much a bipartisan issue that transcends party lines. It is about the future more than the past, and it is a necessary step in the long road toward addressing inequities that prevail to this day. We as proud Australians should never be too proud to admit the wrongs of our country’s history.

Kind regards etc.

Then I wrote and reiterated the same message directly to the Office of the Prime Minister, because somehow I doubt Tony Abbott is going to support the apology. He doesn’t support most things I’m in favour of, so I daresay this will be another area in which I look to my federal member (and so-called “representative”) and find him painfully wanting. Howard’s refusal to say sorry is legend; Abbott is a devout Howard henchman from way back.

I think it’s a special kind of paranoia that prevents people like Howard from wanting to say sorry. It’s this dread fear they have of leaving themselves open to some kind of attack…perhaps it’s a hangover from his boyhood days… I always imagined Howard as someone who experienced bullying at school, more to be pitied than blamed, so perhaps he was always expecting the worst. Always looking over his shoulder instead of ahead. Actually this would explain a lot. But in political terms, the resistance to an apology was expressed in more nuanced terms. The threat of financial compensation claims was the one I heard most often: say sorry and they’ll sue. And it seems to me to be a fear of conceding an historical wrong; there will be consequences if we admit the stolen generations were, er, stolen. Well, you know, I hate to break it them, but of course there are consequences. There have been many, many consequences already, and one of these is a manifest national inability to deal with any of it.

Historically we are, as a nation, a pack of emotional, intellectual, and moral cripples. We’d really rather not talk about anything unpleasant, especially not whilst the cricket is on. Or the tennis. Or god forbid during the footy. People actually sneer when they say the word “intellectual” in Australia. People who do think exceedingly hard about what it all means, our national conscience and identity, are ironically treated like total cretins. So because the people who have kept the apology issue alive are sometimes perceived to be “the intellectuals,” it’s been a good flash point for directing ever greater hostility toward them rather than focusing on the actual principle of an expression of regret.

An apology is just that: an expression of regret. Am I sorry for various historical policies of the past? Damn right. Do I regret the fact that Australia has the stolen generations, the White Australia Policy, the systematic genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines and appalling refugee policies on its past and present books? You bet I do. Yes. Do I find it a sad state of affairs that talking about any of these things has often seen me and others virtually mocked by fellow Australians who either don’t want to or don’t know how to begin talking about them? Absolutely. I don’t understand the fear and mistrust and acute discomfort that acknowledging the wrongs of the past produces in people. What are they so afraid of?

How are we to face the future if we continue to have such contempt for things that are difficult or that we don’t currently understand?

Why is it so shameful to admit not only that the policy makers got it wrong then but that we haven’t come so very far since? The Little Children Are Sacred report is current; Indigenous policy in Australia no longer includes the forced removal of children from their families, but it is still a nightmare that does not work. Saying sorry won’t fix this. It won’t fix any of it. But it will be one small means of looking to the future and saying ‘There is regret, and now there needs to be improvement.’ Now comes the work.

It’s heartening to read that at the same time as he plans the apology, PM Rudd is also planning a summit to discuss a kind of cultural blueprint for the country’s future. And not the future of one election cycle, but the long-term future. With long-term failures comes the challenge of long-term corrections, and I think it’s something that needs acknowledging in many areas of Australian life (water, anyone?), but particularly in reconciliation and facing up to Indigenous inequalities, which include health, housing, education and life expectancy.

Knowledge is empowering – the more we know about each other, the more we will be able to do for each other. And one small step down that long-term commitment is expressing regret for what has been for many families catastrophic hardship and heartache, the repercussions of which are still being felt to this day. It’s not my fault, of course it’s not, but that doesn’t mean I’m not and shouldn’t be sorry it happened. I am sorry, I’m bloody sorry, and I know I’m not alone.

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