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‘Sorry’ - only the beginning

Text by James MULHOLLAND

Latest update : 2010-10-27

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd swept to power in November on a wave of idealistic promise. Reconciliation with indigenous Australians proved a pivotal issue, and on Feb. 13 the government intends to make good on its promise to say “sorry”.

For ten years, John Howard’s conservative government refused to make an official apology on behalf of the nation for the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the beginning of the colonisation of Australia, notably the “Stolen Generation” – indigenous Australian children who were forcibly removed from their families by the government from early in the 20th century until the 1970s.

During his election campaign, Kevin Rudd vowed to promote reconciliation by saying “sorry” to Australia’s first inhabitants in order to begin the healing process and help all Australians to move forward together.

“The intention is to build a bridge of respect between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia,” Rudd said recently on Australian television. “(Then) we can get on with the business of closing the gap in terms of life expectancy, education levels and health levels between indigenous and non-indigenous communities.”

Barbara Livesey, chief executive of the non-profit organisation Reconciliation Australia, sees the apology as a historical moment for Australia.

“The apology will represent a maturing of us as a nation when we are able to acknowledge the truths of our past, recognise the mistakes we have made and move forward,” Livesey said to FRANCE 24.

“It will provide a very important foundation in building the kind of relationship we need to go forward. One of Reconciliation Australia’s indigenous directors, Mick Dodson, describes reconciliation as a jigsaw puzzle, and the apology is the corner piece of that puzzle. You can’t complete a jigsaw puzzle without the corner piece, and once in place, it allows you to work on the other pieces.”

A life expectancy 17 years shorter

An integral part of this puzzle centres on the lingering effects of the treatment of the Stolen Generation. Many indigenous Australian children were housed in dreadful conditions and many more endured physical and sometimes sexual assault.

Aborigines today still feel the psychological, cultural and social side effects of this divorce from their parents. National studies show a higher incidence of sickness and lower levels of education among affected families, as well as subsequent problems of depression, delinquency and drug and alcohol abuse.

The life expectancy for an indigenous child is seventeen years less than for a non-indigenous child. One of Reconciliation Australia’s main ambitions is to reduce this gap.

But while “sorry” would lay the foundations to address this shocking divide, Livesey believes the government, and indeed the rest of Australia, needs to put its money where its mouth is.

“We will need to see the government – and others, because it’s a responsibility we all share – backing the apology up with resources for the healing process and for the services that need to close the gap in life expectancy,” she says.

Though the simple declaration would have a significant cathartic effect for many Aboriginals and is a step in the right direction, a word is just a word, and will seem like a mere political exercise if not backed up with legal responsibility.

The issue goes much deeper than money, but the prime minister’s flat refusal to consider compensation has drawn criticism, and has already been labelled by some as his first broken campaign promise.

Rudd may have closed the door on compensation on a national level, but Livesey praised initiatives being undertaken in certain states like Tasmania, where indigenous population levels of over 5,000 were decimated to just 300 between 1803 and 1833.

“The Tasmanian government has already put in place a compensation fund for members of the Stolen Generation and Western Australia is doing something similar,” says Livesey, adding that, according to some estimates, a compensation fund would ultimately work out cheaper for the taxpayer compared with lengthy legal battles in court.

Reconciliation on the cards

According to a Sydney Morning Herald survey conducted in January, 40% of Australians are opposed to an official apology from the government. While not against the idea of reconciliation, many Australians feel an official apology would amount to admitting guilt for crimes committed in the past.

The apology is to be expressed on behalf of the Australian government – not on behalf of the nation as a whole –and Rudd has told Australian media he wants the Feb. 13 apology to be a bipartisan effort between his Labor government and the Liberal/National opposition coalition.

But the inclusion of the political opposition is not yet certain. Opposition leader Dr Brendan Nelson declined to commit before seeing a complete version of the proposed apology.

"I have great difficulty with the idea of intergenerational responsibility for the good or not so good things in the past," Dr Nelson told the Sydney Morning Herald.

As is evident in other indigenous peoples’ plights in New Zealand and North America, true reconciliation can take generations to achieve. It can only be done with education and the encouragement of a genuine awareness and appreciation of other cultures, and through the realisation that Aboriginal culture is an integral part of Australia, advocates say.

“We need a comprehensive, long-term national plan,” says Livesey. “Our prime minister, Kevin Rudd, is talking about bringing together the best and brightest people from around the country – outside of government – to look at a number of challenges facing our country, including issues regarding indigenous Australians.

“So we hope this long-term national plan (...) will bring in resources from outside the government, because as a nation it’s everyone’s responsibility. This is about nation-building for us here in Australia.”

Date created : 2008-02-10