Australian politics this year has been dominated by the incoming Rudd Labor government’s commitment to offer a formal apology to indigenous Australians for discriminatory laws and actions of the past, most notably the policy of removing children from their families, with the ultimate aim of assimilating them into the white population. The policy, later referred to as creating the “Stolen Generation” was directed mainly at mixed-race children, since it was assumed that the remnant population still living in their traditional lands would “die out” within a couple of generations.
The previous Prime Minister, John Howard, had resolutely resisted an apology and in particular the word “Sorry” and the issue was one of the focal points of the culture wars that went on under his leadership. Continued resistance to an apology was the main reason the Liberals (= conservatives) passed over their most able remaining figure, Malcolm Turnbull, who supported an apology, in favour of the amiable but ineffectual Brendan Nelson, who indicated opposition, but was ultimately forced by public pressure to change his view.
The apology was the first business of the newly elected Parliament this week, and received the unanimous support of the House of Representatives, though given with obvious reluctance on the part of some Liberals. All of Australia’s previous Prime Ministers, except Howard, were present, and the TV coverage (at 9am) drew over a million viewers.
Apologies for various kinds of past national actions have been debated in quite a few countries in recent years. Perhaps because we’ve been arguing over the question for a decade or more, or perhaps just because I’ve followed it more closely, the Australian debate seems to me to have clarified some of the general issues.
Perhaps the most fundamental question is whether it makes sense to apologise for actions undertaken by past governments or previous generations, for which today’s Australians bear no direct personal responsibility. The best treatment of this issue came from Raimond Gaita who made the point that any moral position allowing pride in the achievements of our forebears and our community necessarily entails shame in their failings.
Then there is the issue of compensation. The government has been careful to state that the apology does not entail acceptance of compensation claims. Still, whereas the previous government was successful in fighting such claims in the courts, it seems likely that the apology and the related change in the stance of the government will improve the chances of similar cases in future.
More important than compensation of individuals affected by past policies is the need to improve the situation of indigenous people in Australia today, which is improving in some areas, but disastrous in others. After largely ignoring the issues for most of its term, the outgoing government launched a large scale intervention, initially directed at the problem of sexual abuse of children, but rapidly seen to entail a much more costly expansion of health and other services. In opposition, Rudd gave qualified support to the intervention, and now he needs to work out how to change it and how to make it work. In his speech on the apology he made a surprise offer to Nelson to form a bipartisan “War Cabinet” on the issue. Nelson was obliged to accept, but his supporters are now complaining about being co-opted.
The good news is that the problem is finally at the top of our national agenda, where it belongs. We need to capitalise on the sense of unity and reconciliation generated by the apology to ensure that the necessary resources are made available, and that we are not diverted once again into the politics of culture war.
fn1. A consistent egoist might disclaim both pride and shame in the actions of others. But such a person ought not to care about the actions of others (in this case the Parliament) in making an apology.