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Apology again

My post yesterday made two types of non-new claims about the apology to ‘all aboriginals’. My basic claim was that the only positive effect of the apology was to increase the likelihood of compensations. The negative effects of the apology are to provide white Australians with the false belief that something has been achieved and to reinforce a view of aboriginal society as a group of ‘victims’.

I cited Noel Pearson’s remarks in the comments thread following the post but one section deserves to be quoted in full – indeed the whole of the Pearson article is excellent:

‘But who will be able to move on after tomorrow’s apology? Most white Australians will be able to move on (with the warm inner glow that will come from having said sorry), but I doubt indigenous Australians will. Those people stolen from their families who feel entitled to compensation will never be able to move on.

Too many will be condemned to harbour a sense of injustice for the rest of their lives. Far from moving on, these people – whose lives have been much consumed by this issue – will die with a sense of unresolved justice.

One of my misgivings about the apology has been my belief that nothing good will come from viewing ourselves, and making our case on the basis of our status, as victims.

We have been – and the people who lost their families certainly were – victimised in history, but we must stop the politics of victimhood. We lose power when we adopt this psychology. Whatever moral power we might gain over white Australia from presenting ourselves as victims, we lose in ourselves.

My worry is this apology will sanction a view of history that cements a detrimental psychology of victimhood, rather than a stronger one of defiance, survival and agency.

Then there is the historical angle on the apology. The 1997 report by Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson is not a rigorous history of the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of families. It is a report advocating justice. But it does not represent a defensible history. And, given its shortcomings as a work of history, the report was open to the conservative critique that followed. Indigenous activists’ decision to adopt historian Peter Read’s nomenclature, the Stolen Generations, inspired Quadrant magazine’s riposte: the rescued generations.

The truth is the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of Aboriginal families is a history of complexity and great variety. People were stolen, people were rescued; people were brought in chains, people were brought by their parents; mixed-blood children were in danger from their tribal stepfathers, while others were loved and treated as their own; people were in danger from whites, and people were protected by whites. The motivations and actions of those whites involved in this history – governments and missions – ranged from cruel to caring, malign to loving, well-intentioned to evil.

The 19-year-old Bavarian missionary who came to the year-old Lutheran mission at Cape Bedford in Cape York Peninsula in 1887, and who would spend more than 50 years of his life underwriting the future of the Guugu Yimithirr people, cannot but be a hero to me and to my people. We owe an unrepayable debt to Georg Heinrich Schwartz and the white people who supported my grandparents and others to rebuild their lives after they arrived at the mission as young children in 1910. My grandfather Ngulunhthul came in from the local bush to the Aboriginal reserve that was created to facilitate the mission. My great-grandfather, Arrimi, would remain in the bush in the Cooktown district, constantly evading police attempts to incarcerate him at Palm Island but remaining in contact with his son and later his grandson, my father. My grandmother was torn away from her family near Chillagoe, to the west of Cairns, and she would lose her language and culture in favour of the local Guugu Yimithirr language and culture of her new home. Indeed it was the creation of reserves and the establishment of missions that enabled Aboriginal cultures and languages to survive throughout Cape York Peninsula’.

This cautious, balanced response is a different picture from the exaggeration and hypocrisy pushed by the those promoting the apology. The reality of aboriginal affairs is complex and not analyzable using simple guilt-based slogans.

Brendon Nelson made a more realistic speech than did Kevin Rudd and was booed around the country (though not apparently in Parliament) by the Labor Party rabble and the aboriginal denialists. In many respects Nelson’s statement, while imperfect reflects much the same view as Pearson.

It recognises the complexity of our tough historical roots as a nation. The brutality and the achievements and the specific costs to aboriginals that were associated with the emergence of Australia as a modern nation. It recognised that aboriginal children were removed from their parents for various reasons – often bad. It recognises the sadnesses to children and parents. It makes the obvious point that we are not responsible for these injustices at all and that aboriginal problems have complex causes.

‘Alcohol, welfare without responsibilities, isolation from the economic mainstream, corrupt management of resources, nepotism, political buck-passing between governments with divided responsibilities, lack of home ownership, under-policing and tolerance by authorities of neglect and abuse of children that violates all we stand for, all combine to still see too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living lives of existential aimlessness’.

Kevin Rudd’s win for the Labor Party at the 2007 election marks a return to glibness and hypocrisy in Australian politics. Australia is the worse for that.

5 comments to Apology again

  • conrad

    Big deal if the reality was complex. There are groups out there that were certainly outright victims, and I find it remarkable that peope are against the government admitting responsibility. If I was one of those groups, I’d be trying to get billions from the government for ruining my life. If any individual or private group did what happenened today, they’d be sitting in jail.

  • Anonymous

    Harry, did you listen to Rudd’s speech? He said, over and over, that mere words (the apology) were not enough and that real action which improves the lives of Aboriginal people is needed.

    Or to put in a language that you as an economist should understand, the apology was necessary, but not sufficient.

    Indeed Rudd has raised expectations that not only will something be done to try to improve the lot of indigenous people, on this occasion it will actually work, and that means dispensing with the shibboleths of the past.

    How is this inconsistent with what Pearson said?


  • Anonymous


    The apology was something that the vast majority of aborigines wanted and I, for one, am glad that it has been given.

    Mark U

  • Anonymous

    Stumbled across your blog today. What a releif to see a sane sensible response to Rudd’s sickly meaningless patronising PC speech. I will tune in regularly – a right wing academic???…no longer will I think this is an oxymoron.

  • Iain

    A good post Harry and I absolutely agree with your position on this matter.
    Also check out my blog as I have tagged you with a “why I blog Meme”

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