Indigenous Australians Offered Apology

But is Being Sorry Enough?


At 9 this morning Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd addressed parliament with an apology on behalf of his compatriots for the removal of indigenous children of mixed descent from their families. He said sorry, and then he said it again. But in asking all Australians to look towards a mutually beneficial future he left unsaid the continuing dilemma of Australian sovereignty.

Rudd’s apology came 11 years after the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission released its report on the government-mandated abductions, entitled Bringing them Home. Until late into the 1960s, illegitimate aboriginal children who could pass for white were forcibly taken into state care and fostered into more ‘suitable’ homes. The oft-stated rationale was the imminent ‘death’ of the ‘aboriginal race’ – eugenics meets harsh paternalism.

Ask yourself what you would do if your children were stolen – what it would do to them, how you would feel throughout a bitter lifetime, how your culture would strain and fray if your relatives, your compatriots met the same fate.

So the apology was deserved, and a long time coming. The previous government had refused to say sorry, refused entirely to accept what then prime minister John Howard called a ‘black armband view of history’. And when the current leader of the opposition, who had been a minister on the rise in the Howard government, offered his version of events in parliament today it was difficult to tell who he was apologising to – stolen indigenous children or white settlers. Here’s the Brendan Nelson version of Australian history in full.

I mentioned in an earlier post that history-telling is judgmental, and that what we receive are versions. It’s up to us to determine whether those versions are credible.

It would seem that Brendan Nelson’s version of history is confused, indeterminate, unsettled. That’s probably because the tide of public opinion had turned towards an apology well before it was given. But even as the second-stringer today, Nelson couldn’t say sorry without mentioning that all those things which led to the stolen generations – the legal myth of terra nullius (that sovereignty and proprietary rights did not exist before white settlement), settler expansion, indigenous dispossession, warfare, disease, poverty and racism – might not have happened. At least they might not have been as bad as some people think, and the white people had a hard time of it too.

That brings me to something Kevin Rudd resolutely avoided mentioning – the larger baggage of colonialism Australia still carries. An historian once told me about the influence that the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Melbourne rightly had on federation in 1901 as the colonies became a commonwealth of states, a nation in the modern sense. Indigenous Australians had no input into that process, and weren’t even granted citizenship until 1967.

torres-strait-islander-flag.gifTwo important High Court decisions in the 1990s – the Mabo decision in favour of the Meriam people in the Torres Straits, and the Wik decision in favour of the Wik people of the Gulf of Carpentaria – established the current definition of native title with sufficient proof of continued occupancy and determined that it hadn’t been extinguished on pastoral leases. But in responding to the Wik decision with the Native Title Amendment Act 1998, the Howard government did its best to extinguish any title that clashed with pastoral concerns.

The problem here is not so much the notion of exclusive title or ownership, but that it has become attached to the idea of sovereignty. And what is sovereignty? Most people would argue that it is a state’s right to territory, to impose rules and maintain order. But that just isn’t so.

It’s fairly common knowledge that international treaties limit the capacity of most states to impose their will on subject populations. In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs Klaus Schwab, initiator of the World Economic Forum in Davos, points out something that is also becoming increasingly obvious, whether you like it or not. Corporations and NGOs are increasingly, and responsibly, acting in areas once monopolised by states in the name of sovereignty.

The modern notion of sovereignty began not far from this point – as the liberty of a people to self determination. In the hands of Jean-Jacques Rousseau it was a general will. Not the majority will, not a special recourse to minority concerns, but a liberty enjoyed by all. How could that be achieved in Australia, incorporating indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike?

That’s a question Australians need to think about because state concessions haven’t worked and the prime minister’s apology is at best partial and largely symbolic. Its effect will fade with time. What will remain, by and large, will be division and suspicion. Kevin Rudd appealed to a common destiny, to a future for all Australians, but he did so from within a framework of historical, legal, social and economic apartheid. How do Australians dismantle these barriers and assert their sovereignty inclusive of native title, indigenous presence and the legacy of settlement?

The difficulties will be huge, but at least we can now talk about them in our confusion. That’s one of the benefits of living in a puzzling world.

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