Friday, 15 February 2008

Saying Sorry

The whole of Australia is full of yesterday’s formal apology to the Stolen Generation made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on behalf of the Australian Parliament. It was inspiring to see the parliamentary gallery full of black faces including lots of people who’ve fought for an apology for years, and to see them giving a standing ovation at the end of the apology speech.

Nonetheless, not everyone is happy. Of course there are plenty of Indigenous Australians who say “OK Mr Rudd, now what are you going to do?” or who see it as empty words when there’s no compensation fund to go with it. Who could blame them? More disturbing are those people who say the Stolen Generation thing is a beat-up, that most of the kids were taken away for their own good. That won’t wash. Just because people had good intentions that doesn’t make their actions right.

More interesting are people like veteran Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey, a strident opponent of an apology. He was very caustic in an interview after the apology, saying ironically “hooray, we’ve fixed the problems of Indigenous people now, little children can sleep safe in their beds, kids will reach the same educational standard as the rest of the community, remote communities will be safe happy places, Indigenous life expectancy will no longer be less than that of the rest of the community!” or words to that effect. In other words, he’s saying an apology is pointless because it doesn’t solve all the pressing problems that exist in the Indigenous community.

This is a really strange response. I’m sure Mr Tuckey doesn’t oppose improved dental care because it won’t do anything to fix heart disease, or oppose keeping our peacekeeping force in East Timor because it doesn’t do anything about Islamic terrorism. Of course the apology won’t fix child abuse or living conditions on remote communities. It’s not a response to that, it’s a response to the wrong done to the Stolen Generation.

It’s tempting to just think that Mr Tuckey is so stupid he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I think there’s more to it than that. There are two basic views about why Indigenous people experience social problems. One is that their society has been damaged by the British invasion and subsequent 200 years of domination. Indigenous people have had their land, their wages and their children stolen – how could they not be damaged? If you believe that this is the case, the solution to Indigenous problems is restitution – apologise for the wrongs done and then right them by giving the land back, paying unpaid wages and re-uniting families. At least, if things can’t be put back the way they were, compensate people for their suffering and loss.

The other is that Indigenous people are responsible for their own plight – they drink irresponsibly, neglect their children, mismanage Government funds, are lazy and dishonest. Thus, the solution to their problems is increased intervention in their lives – alcohol bans, quarantining of welfare payments, increased policing of communities. That’s the view Mr Tuckey has, and the view John Howard expressed while Indigenous community leaders turned their backs on him in that famously awful speech a decade ago. Mr Howard used to call it “practical reconciliation” as opposed to “symbolic reconciliation”, but really it was just an inability to see the white contribution to Indigenous problems.

If the second view sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s the way of thinking that led to the Stolen Generation. Aboriginal children, the argument went, are better off away from their families because their families were incapable of giving them a good life. White families or institutions can do better. A generation of pain and hurt says this approach is wrong.

Of course we need to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can’t ignore child abuse or poor living conditions, low life expectancy or high unemployment. But nor can we ignore people’s hurt, the legacy of our and our ancestors’ ignorance and insensitivity. There’s no point saying sorry if you go straight back and repeat the same behaviour.

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