In 1997, the National Inquiry Into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families published its findings as Bringing them home, a report including fifty-four recommendations that adopt international provisions for responding to and redressing gross violations of human rights. Five components of reparation were identified by the inquiry: acknowledgement and apology, guarantees against repetition, measures of restitution, measures of rehabilitation, and monetary compensation. In the years since the report, the Howard government has failed to respond to these recommendations, and its much debated failure to apologise effectively illustrates an underlying denial of the fundamental need for reparation.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT and APOLOGY
The need to establish the truth about the past was recognised by the inquiry as an essential measure of reparation for people who have been victims of gross violations of human rights. Accepting also the need for acknowledgement of responsibility and apology, the inquiry further recognised that commemoration was an important part of the reparation process. Commemoration allows both mourning and the memory to be shared and to be transformed into part of the national consciousness.
The inquiry’s first recommendation, therefore, was for the recording of the testimonies of Indigenous people affected by forced removal policies, and it required Australian governments to provide adequate funding to Indigenous agencies to record testimonies. Indigenous organisations such as Link-Up have called for an Aboriginal oral history archive modelled on the Shoah Foundation, which was established to record the oral histories of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The Commonwealth Government responded with the allocation of $1.6 million for an oral history project, but this funding was allocated to the National Library with a demand for a ‘comprehensive’, ‘rounded’ oral history project—one that would also collect the ‘stories’ of missionaries, administrators, police, and adoptive and foster parents. The Commonwealth’s response misses the point of the recommendation, both in terms of Indigenous organisations collecting the stories and in the need to give priority to the telling of Indigenous stories as part of the reparation process. An Aboriginal oral history archive modelled on the Shoah Foundation has been reduced to a ‘rounded’, ‘comprehensive’ history of those who engaged in the processes, one in which the experience of those who were affected by genocide will be overridden in the interests of ‘balance’ by a history of those who carried out the associated policies.
Closely associated with acknowledgement of the collective and individual wrongs of the past comes the need for an apology. Recommendation 5 of Bringing them home called on parliaments and police forces to apologise, and for parliaments to agree to make appropriate reparations as outlined in the report. Apologies have come from all state parliaments—including a limited apology from Queensland—and the ACT government, from government departments in some states including the police, juvenile justice and community services, and from state governors such as Gordon Samuels in New South Wales. Local governments, including the cities of Wollongong, Melbourne and Brisbane, have also apologised, as have numerous neighbourhood centres. Apologies have been offered by non-government organisations and community groups such as the Australian Council of Social Service and the Federation of Parents and Citizens Groups, by churches including the National Assembly of the Uniting Church, Catholic Bishops of Australia and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, and by universities such as the University of Sydney. More than a million individuals have reportedly apologised, particularly through the ANTaR Sorry Books. As the debate about a national apology continues, personal apologies from individuals continue to be published in the letters columns of major daily newspapers. There has, however, been no apology from the Commonwealth or the Northern Territory.
In responding to the release of the report in his opening address to the 1997 Reconciliation Convention, the Prime Minister said that:
In facing the realities of the past, however, we must not join those who would portray Australia’s history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism, exploitation and racism. Such a portrayal is a gross distortion and deliberately neglects the overall story of great Australian achievement that is there in our history to be told, and such an approach will be repudiated by the overwhelming majority of Australians who are proud of what this country has achieved although inevitably acknowledging the blemishes in its past history.
An act of genocide here becomes a ‘blemish’ in a past history. Those who support principles of self-determination or use words such as ‘imperialism’, ‘exploitation’ or ‘racism’ become proponents of what John Howard often refers to as ‘the black armband view of history’.
In spite of such rhetoric, the groundswell of support for the stolen generations was much greater and more sustained than the government anticipated. By 1998 it had become apparent that popular sentiment called for some form of reconciliation. In August 1999, when Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway delivered his maiden speech in Parliament, he raised again the issue of the stolen generations. The government, given another opportunity to apologise, instead passed a resolution of regret. In both the resolution and the accompanying speech by John Howard, the essential elements for a national acknowledgement were again missing.
John Howard’s 1999 speech accompanying the resolution of ‘regret’ mirrored his 1997 Reconciliation Convention speech. Sentiments common to both speeches include the belief that present generations are not responsible for the actions of past generations; that it would be an injustice to judge the behaviour of past generations given that some of those who administered past polices had good intentions; and an emphasis, even when the specific focus is on past colonial practices, on great national achievement. In both speeches, and in the resolution of regret, past wrongs are described as merely a ‘blemish’ on an overall history of ‘great achievement’.
Following the speech, Mike Seccombe asked in the Sydney Morning Herald:
For what, exactly, did John Howard apologise yesterday? Murder, rape, starvation, dispossession, bigotry?
He never said. In a speech largely devoted to personal self-justification and a sort of national self-congratulation, the Prime Minister did not say sorry to Aborigines, he did not even hint at what he and the nation might be sorry for.
In fact, Howard had spoken for a considerable time before he even mentioned Aborigines. He was at such pains to avoid mentioning the horrors of the past—especially the stolen generations—that when he finally made his ‘expression of regret’ he actually described it as ‘generic.’[i]
John Howard misunderstands the two separate and equally significant dimensions to the apology, these being the private, personal, individual dimension of the apology and the public, national, collective dimension of the apology. He mistakes the issues of national trauma and personal trauma. As prime minister, it is his public rather than personal responsibility to provide an apology on behalf of the nation. A public apology facilitates acknowledgement of the collective impact that genocidal policies have had on the ongoing collective identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is the appropriate means of acknowledging the relationship between the past and the present. It acknowledges Aboriginal peoples as a group. Genocide is an attempt to erase a people. A public and national apology is acknowledgement of the group’s human rights and the group’s shared trauma.
Erasure occurs on a national level when the collective memory of a past is denied, diminished or eliminated. A willingness to make judgements about past acts is essential to refute racist attitudes and regret previous acts of violence and genocide. John Howard’s disavowal of the possibility of judging the past leaves his statement of regret logically and morally flawed. Reconciliation requires a review and judgement of collective truth and memory. With such a review, the denial of collective difference and equality is less likely. The capacity to recognise and value difference may require a willingness to empathise with the experience of others. It may be this failure of emotion that makes an understanding of the concept of self-determination impossible for John Howard and the coalition.
While the focus of public debate has been on an apology, it is willingness to reflect on and reverse the erasure of the past that underlies an apology and brings trust, recognition and acknowledgement. The Prime Minister’s expression of ‘deep personal sorrow’ when he is unable to provide a public apology reflects both the lack of sincerity in the personal statement and a failure to understand the difference between a personal and a public apology.
TRUTH, DENIAL and INDIGENOUS RIGHTS
Widespread public support for reconciliation and an apology, and the continued controversy over the failure of the Commonwealth to apologise are indicative of a national trauma much of which centres around the question of genocide and gross violation of human rights.
Genocide studies have suggested that genocide denial can include denial of history, rationalisation of motives and actions, and trivialisation of effects. We can see genocide denial operating on many levels in the coalition’s response to the national inquiry, including denial of the history of forcible separations, denial of the effects of those separations, denial that the policies and practices of taking Aboriginal children constituted genocide and a gross violation of human rights, and denial of contemporary responsibility to deal with this past and the effects of this past. Rationalisation is evident in comments by members of the coalition that Indigenous children taken from their families and communities probably ended up better off than they otherwise would have; that those who removed children were doing so for the children’s own good. Trivialisation can be seen in comparisons across space, culture and time that deny the unique history of colonialism in Australia. It can be seen in the failure by the Commonwealth to even consider the Bringing them home report seriously. Trivialisation can also be seen in arguments for refusing to apologise such as the following, proffered during parliamentary debate in the Northern Territory: ‘I am sorry the Titanic sank, I am sorry about World War I and I am sorry about the bombing of Darwin, but I feel no need to apologise for any of these occurrences’ (Stephen Dunham, CLP Member for Drysdale); ‘I regret the trauma that has been caused to all children and all parents who have been forcibly and wrongly removed and separated. I refer of course to those thousands of people, Aboriginal, European, Australian and British, I am not discriminating on the basis of the colour of people’s skin’ (Christopher Lugg, ClP Member for Nelson).
There is a battle in contemporary Australia for defining the ‘truth’ over the forced removal of Aboriginal children and the history of colonial policy, a battle exemplified by government response to the call for an oral history archive. The new truth in Australia is the truth bestowed by denial. As John Howard puts it, ‘I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one.’[ii] It is a truth that rests on a selective rejection of history. John Howard again: ‘I sympathise fundamentally with Australians who are insulted when they are told that we have a racist, bigoted past. And Australians are told that quite regularly, Our children are taught that.’[iii]
Much of the attack on the findings and recommendation of Bringing them home degrades the level of discussion to a question of ‘guilt’. Both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, John Herron, have been keen to assert that some of the individuals who were involved in forcibly removing Indigenous children believed that what they were doing was right at the time, and that even if it was ‘horrific’, ‘we can’t change the past.’ Thus the argument that ‘we should not feel guilty about the past’ has two further implications: there is no necessary link between the past and the present; and therefore, there is no inherent responsibility to deal with the effects of the past. Mick Dodson, the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, summarised this view as follows:
The constant reference to ‘guilt’ and ‘black armband’ versions of history are wilful exaggerations of Indigenous views, designed to caricature and obscure the proper examination and comprehension of the past and to denigrate our current assertion of rights as a form of emotional blackmail. This is a divisive and dangerous game.[iv]
Denial of genocide and racism has been a feature of comments made by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. His view that government policies of forced removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities needed to be put into ‘perspective’, and may have benefited children, is genocide denial on a grand scale. Denial occurs in the refusal to accept responsibility. The Commonwealth response to Bringing them home states, on its opening page, that ‘we do not believe our generation should be asked to accept responsibility for the acts of earlier generations’, yet as the report indicated, discriminatory legislation was not repealed until the 1950s and 1960s in most states and territories. Many of those affected by such discriminatory legislation are the same age or younger than the parliamentarians who are denying responsibility.
With denial of the historical nature of the interaction between coloniser and colonised in Australia has been a reinterpretation of Indigenous peoples in Australia as simply disadvantaged, under-privileged, ‘less fortunate’ rather than as peoples who have been dispossessed. The right of Indigenous people to cultural survival, to self-determination, and to control over developing solutions to the problems they face has been replaced by the coalition government with an essentially assimilationist view of Indigenous affairs. Assimilationist assumptions ultimately underpin the Commonwealth response to the Bringing them home report. These are the ‘practical and realistic’ measures they propose to address ‘disadvantage’. The Commonwealth response acknowledges that the government priority has always been improved outcomes in service delivery in areas of health, housing, education and employment rather than a recognition of the collective cultural, spiritual and political rights of Indigenous peoples.
For a Commonwealth government so keen to forget the past and move on, it is ironic that a refusal to apologise or to consider compensation ensures that several thousand of the stolen generations throughout Australia will be with us for many years to come, demanding justice through the courts on an individual basis, reliving their personal trauma and constantly reminding non-Aboriginal Australia of the effects of an overtly racist past. The recent ‘Motion of Reconciliation’ and statement of regret by the Prime Minister goes no way to changing this. Indeed, as the Prime Minister told the Parliament when speaking to the motion:
I have frequently said, and I will say it again today, that present generations of Australians cannot be held accountable, and we should not seek to hold them accountable, for the errors and misdeeds of earlier generations. Nor should we ever forget that many people who were involved in some of the practices which caused hurt and trauma felt at the time that those practices were properly based. To apply retrospectively the standards of today in relation to their behaviour does some of those people who were sincere an immense injustice.
The Australian people do not want to embroil themselves in an exercise of shame and guilt. The Australian people know that mistakes were made in the past. The Australian people know that injustices occurred. The Australian people know that wrongs were committed. But for the overwhelming majority of the current generations of Australians, there was no personal involvement of them or of their parents.
The twisted logic of genocide denial is evident in the Prime Minister’s speech. There is no specific recognition of the stolen generations in the ‘generic’ expression of regret. However, we have the explicit rationalisation for those who engaged in ‘some of the practices’: they did so in the belief that what they were doing was right; these events occurred a long time ago; and there is no need for any responsibility to be taken for these past actions. These are extensive rationalisations for ‘practices’ that are not even named in the ‘Motion of Reconciliation’.
The Bringing them home report noted that reparations were essential for reconciliation and cited a member of the Chilean National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, which had been established to investigate gross violations of human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship:
Society cannot simply block out a chapter of its history; it cannot deny the facts of its past, however differently these might be interpreted … A nation’s unity depends on a shared identity, which in turn depends largely on a shared memory. The truth also brings a measure of healthy social catharsis and helps to prevent the past from reoccurring.
In Australia we still live in an environment where the truth cannot be named.
[i] Mike Seccombe, ‘Grudging Howard’s regretful speech’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 1999.
[ii] John Howard, quoted in Mick Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Fourth Report (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 1996), p. 14.
[iii] John Howard, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 October 1996.
[iv] Dodson, Fourth Report, p. 15.
Image credit: spud murphy