By John Heard
On Wednesday, February 13, 2008 the Parliament of Australia formally apologised to the Stolen Generations, those aboriginal individuals separated from their families under a policy of forced removal and relocation. This policy was supported and enforced by previous Australian governments and populations.
This apology, I know, has been resisted in some places and no place has produced more opposition than Western Australia.
It is also true that Western Australia is a population centre for indigenous people and that the Western Australian Government apologised in 1997.
Perhaps then, at least among non-aboriginal Australians, entrenched opposition to an apology has three (non exclusive) potential sources: racism, superior experience / expert opinion and / or pride. This is because, following the Church’s lead, it is hard to imagine why people of good will would persist in rejecting an apology now.
We can certainly deal with the racist without crediting his putative arguments.
If anyone opposed the apology because he has warped ideas about the intrinsic value and equality of human beings, it need barely be re-stated that such opposition is irrational and unorthodox. It is un-Australian.
The task before Australians who support the apology is, then, to apply the rigours and beauty of the culture of life to racist ideology. As Catholics, we are called to do this sort of work everyday.
But the vast majority of opponents are not racist, so what else motivates them?
I have some time for the idea that ongoing experience with aboriginal people lends certain groups superior knowledge, making it more difficult for them to stomach an apology. This source of opposition is much more profound. Certainly, it is true that some people – especially in the West and the North – have a better understanding of the plight of indigenous people.
Many of them reject an apology because they think it is waffle. They rightly resist symbolic nonsense that allows the rest of the nation to feel good, while either ignoring or else permanently delaying some real struggles, including the ongoing fight for indigenous land rights and community well being.
To such people I say hold on. Keep the faith.
Those others of us who share your concerns about practical reconciliation and related issues (for instance, closing the egregious gap between indigenous and non-indigenous health and standards) view the apology as a concrete first step. It is seamlessly joined to an ongoing, compassionate and hard-nosed campaign of reform.
By apologising formally we indicate that we will not cut and run. Opposition on this point, then, should give way. Good people everywhere will ensure that the most humane and sage recommendations from the Bringing Them Home Report will be implemented. This apology will only strengthen our hand.
It is also true that some individuals, in particular in law enforcement and the legal profession, know too well the trouble indigenous individuals sometimes present to the good order and flourishing of local communities. I have great sympathy for the Perth magistrate who sees the same criminal return, time and again, to court. I applaud those who are working hard to overcome the entrenched culture of child and alcohol abuse that continues to threaten so many vulnerable young people in aboriginal settlements.
But it would be narrow-minded or worse to treat the problems that contribute to the genesis of such socially inept, criminal individuals as incorrigible. And, while it would be silly to claim that all aboriginal people are – by dint of their race – worse off, it would be short-sighted and mean to pretend that many of them are not indeed doing very badly, and for reasons that have much to do with flawed government and non-aborigine efforts.
Finally, there is our pride or better yet, the need for a proper reckoning with history.
Unlike some apology supporters, I do not think we have any authority over or access to the motivations and intentions of previous generations, and alongside prominent Aboriginal lawyer and activist Noel Pearson, I affirm and celebrate the contributions of those Christian missionaries who devoted their lives and talents to lifting the first nations up to Christ.
We need never apologise for good will, for the very Christian desire to help others.
As I understand it, however, the formal apology carries no such connotations and anyway, the vast majority of indigenous Australians would not welcome these. Many indigenous Australians continue to benefit from Christian care and embrace, with love, their Catholic faith.
Opposition on this final ground is, then, similarly overcome. It simply does not apply.
Nothing stands between good people, compassionate Western Australians, Australian Christians, Catholics and good people everywhere and a heartfelt and sincere remorse for the wrong that was done in the past in the name of Australia’s governments, social institutions, etc.
For these reasons, I encourage you to join with me. Let us stand together in solidarity with the first nations and support the national Parliament, with the Prime Minister and with all Australians of good will, in apologising to the Stolen Generations.
Let all indigenous Australians who have suffered know now, at last, how truly, corporately and publicly sorry we are and how resolved we continue to be that nothing like this should ever happen again.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.