The Day We Said Sorry

February 13, 2008 at 2:41 am (Uncategorized)

Wednesday 13 February 2008. Here it is. A rainy day in Sydney, but an historic day for the country. At last, at long, long last, our elected leaders have said sorry for policies enacted by previous governments that resulted in the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families. These Australians are known as the Stolen Generations, and they have been owed this apology for a very long time.

Paul Keating commissioned the Bringing Them Home report (I think in 1994) back when he was Prime Minister. By the time the report was finished, Labor had lost the election and the findings were handed over to Liberal PM John Howard, who went on to steadfastly refuse to apologise for the duration of his 11 years in office. Can the federal election really have been just a few short months ago? What a difference a change of leadership makes. It is hard for me to compare the two attitudes toward this long outstanding apology without getting emotional. Well, so what if I have a bit of a cry? It wouldn’t be the first time today.

I made the trip into the CBD of Sydney this morning to witness the live telecast from Canberra’s Parliament House on the big screen with my fellow saturated Sydneysiders. Clarence Slockee, an Indigenous Australian from northern NSW, opened and closed proceedings at Martin Place this morning, and he was wonderfully charismatic. It’s not an easy thing to manage humour, gravity, ceremony, and eloquence all at once, but Mr Slockee managed it. His electrifying singing, meanwhile, gave me goosebumps.

What is it about Indigenous song? It is so otherwordly, really haunting, and I daresay that’s the whole point. Indigenous culture is so deeply, fundamentally spiritual, is it any wonder their songs sound like they are coming from another place, from the Dreaming? It’s a very beautiful idea, and listening to Mr Slockee’s ethereal, powerful voice emanating through Martin Place, it was strangely (for me, someone without any faith in the conventional, organised religion sense) easy to believe, too. When he said his ancestors were there with us, all around and watching over us all, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians alike, it’s the strangest thing, but it honestly felt like they really were.

The atmosphere in Martin Place shifted from start to finish. The rain made us all a bit sombre. Then there’s the fact that we didn’t seem sure whether we were supposed to be free with our jubilation and relief, or just silently respectful of the many tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians whom the day is really about: the Stolen Generations. I can’t speak for any other Non-Indigenous person, but I can say I wasn’t sure what was appropriate behaviour or how best to show my support for the apology. Should I clap? Should I listen in solemn silence? Should I wave a trio of flags? I really didn’t know what was the most respectful way to conduct myself.

I just wanted to do whatever the right thing was. What was the proper etiquette for Non-Indigenous supporters? This is the thing: I really didn’t know – no PM has ever said sorry before! And generally speaking, we Non-Indigenous Aussies still don’t know anywhere near enough about the customs of Indigenous Aussies. This apology is for them; what if applauding the PM inadvertently caused offence to the very people we were there to support? It was an unbearable thought, and in the end I went for a combined response. I cried – silently, behind my sunglasses – as the PM read out old parliamentary policies for “dealing with the Aboriginal Problem,” I applauded loudly and let out several spontaneous whoops when the PM commended the motion to Parliament, I stared in growing disgust and absolute disbelief at Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson delivering his right of reply (I categorically refuse to spread his taint here), and I listened in awed silence to Clarence Slockee’s spine-tingling songs.

As Llew went off to a meeting after Mr Slockee closed proceedings in Martin Place, he said “It’s been a very long time since I last felt proud to be an Australian.” As a Non-Indigenous Australian, I think our new Prime Minister acquitted himself very well this morning, and I humbly hope all surviving members of the Stolen Generations and Indigenous Australia feel the same way.

This apology is only the very beginning of what still needs to be done to redress historical wrongs in this country. Everyone knows that. The facts of Indigenous Australia’s current existence scream out some pretty hard truths even without examining the past. We’re talking life expectancy, healthcare, housing, education, substance and sexual abuse; Indigenous Australians have been unable to gain access to the fortunate, prosperous life available to the majority of Australians. They are our First Australians, so something is definitely wrong with this picture.

For too long, sorry has seemed to be the hardest word. It’s been an effective foil for that other word: racism. In fact, there are many other uncomfortable words that have been hiding behind sorry, so hopefully now we’ll all start talking about them as unflinchingly as our PM spoke about appalling past policies this morning. I want so badly to believe we will all get there, together, and today, through the cheering, crying, and flag-waving, I simply wanted to say “I believe in this apology. I believe in you. I believe in the precious sanctity of your ancient culture and in the critical importance of preserving it through and for your people and all others who call Australia home, past, present and future. I believe the forced removal of Indigenous children was wrong. I believe in reconciliation. I am so sorry. And I am so very hopeful for the future of all Australians. Every single one.”

SORRY.

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