The sorry history of Australia's apology

Ambivalence on the journey towards an apology to Indigenous people

Professor Robert Manne 

Professor Robert Manne

First published in The Guardian on 27 May 2013.





The historical process that eventually led the Australian state to offer an apology to its Indigenous inhabitants was protracted, sometimes bitterly resisted and in several details rather puzzling.

To explain the process it is best to begin with two observations. First, settler societies find it peculiarly difficult to apologise to those peoples whose conquest and pacification is the condition of their existence. Those who settled in what became the United States of America have found it easier to offer apology to those they transported as slave labour from Africa than they have to the native Americans that they dispossessed. The settler Jewish population of Israel has never felt that an apology is due to the Palestinian Arabs. And as for Australia, until relatively recently the British settlers and their descendants have struggled to speak truthfully about what the creation of the new society entailed: the near-destruction of Aboriginal society. Sigmund Freud explained the reason for this moral blindness clearly: “It is universally admitted that in the origins of the traditions and folklore of a people, care must be taken to eliminate from the memory such a motive as would be painful to the national feeling.”

Second, insofar as settler societies do hold in memory the conquest and pacification of the peoples who stand in the way of the building of a new society, it is because of the armed resistance to conquest that the Indigenous populations had been capable of mounting. The military struggle between the white settlers and the native populations has always been a vivid part of American popular culture. New Zealand settlers have never forgotten their wars against the Maori. In Australia, the small Indigenous clans were not capable of fighting the kind of war seen in the US or New Zealand. As a consequence, both the process of the dispossession and the recognition that this was a morally serious matter dropped out of national memory.

The first person who saw this clearly was the anthropologist WEH Stanner. In the late 1960s he outlined the peculiar mindset of non-Indigenous Australians, what he called the Great Australian Silence. Stanner did not mean by this that from time to time individual Australians had not felt pangs of conscience when reflecting on the destruction of Aboriginal society. What he meant was that for more than 150 years, the story of the brutal destruction of Aboriginal society had been progressively and systematically erased from collective national memory. At the time of the federation, Australians were proud of the supposed fact that in the creation of their new society scarcely a drop of blood had been shed. Until the late 1960s in all the standard histories of Australia – even Manning Clark’s – the dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal society had no place. John La Nauze thought the story merited no more than a melancholy footnote.

Stanner and his friends, such as Nugget Coombs and Judith Wright, formed the first generation of non-Indigenous Australians that was fully alive to the moral meaning of the dispossession. But the political project they generated was not the idea of an apology but a belated treaty with the Indigenous peoples. During the Hawke years, the idea of a treaty slowly died. It was replaced in the early 1990s by the quest for what was called reconciliation.

This story must be told in two parts. During the prime ministership of Paul Keating, the high court brought down its Mabo judgment which for the first time recognised the existence in common law of native title. In response, Keating at Redfern in December 1992 spoke about the destruction of Indigenous society with a plainness not seen either before or since: “We did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.”

Interestingly, even though it has always been recognised that these are some of the most important words ever spoken by an Australian prime minister, they have never been regarded in Australia as a political apology. In part this is because the word sorry was not spoken. In part it was because there had been no political preparation for the speech or any signal of its importance. The speech took everyone by surprise, even to some degree Keating. Even after the Redfern speech, the idea of an apology to the Indigenous people was thought of as unfinished business.

Rather confusingly, two processes Keating set in train generated two different versions of the form that apology should take. The Keating government created a Reconciliation Council whose centrepiece was always going to be the offer of a formal apology to the Indigenous peoples and, no less importantly, their acceptance.

Simultaneously, the Keating government commissioned a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity report [PDF 18MB] into the removal of Aboriginal children. When delivered in 1997, it called upon the commonwealth government to apologise formally to the victims of a government practice and policy that lasted 70 years. One of the ideas of an apology generated during the Keating years was very general, concerning the dispossession and its aftermath. The other was very historically specific. In the Australian public mind these two very different kinds of apology were never clearly differentiated, becoming in the end almost indistinguishable.

During the Howard years, both forms of apology were stubbornly resisted. In order to resist the idea of the general apology for the destruction of Aboriginal society, in 1999 Howard brought to the parliament an expression of what he called regret about what he described as the one significant blemish in Australian history: the dispossession of the Indigenous population. Characterising the dispossession as a blemish reduced it to a superficial imperfection. Howard, following the historian Geoffrey Blainey, described giving it a greater significance in Australia’s history than was due as taking a “black armband” view. More importantly, regretting the occurrence of the dispossession was a means by which the present generation could evade the issue of responsibility. To regret something in no sense implies the shouldering of responsibility. I have no doubt Howard regretted not only the dispossession of Indigenous society, but also the Irish potato famine.

When it came to the demand for an apology to the stolen generations, this evasion of responsibility was even more explicit. Time and again, Howard argued that no present prime minister could apologise for the deeds of their predecessors. This argument was self-evidently dishonest. Did Howard truly believe that the present prime minister of Japan could not apologise for the brutal mistreatment of Australian prisoners of war during the second world war?

In addition, he argued that our generation should not apologise for deeds that were carried out by earlier generations because their actions were misguided but driven by good intentions. If the motives of earlier generations could not be questioned then of course in the policy and practice of Aboriginal child removal there was really nothing requiring an apology. Howard never applied this kind of argument to the more general question of the dispossession. It was however not long before one of his most extreme followers, Keith Windschuttle, did.

Howard could slow the momentum towards the formal apology to the Indigenous peoples of Australia. But he could not stop it altogether. It is more or less universally believed that Kevin Rudd’s finest hour was the apology he delivered in February 2008 to the stolen generations. There were, however, certain limitations. First, Rudd’s speech did not transcend the confusion that had developed between the general historical apology to the Indigenous people and the historically specific one owed to the victims of Aboriginal child removal. Second, according to the prime minister, the question of the apology was now finished business. It was time to move on to more practical considerations.

Nor had the shadow cast by the Howard years yet lifted. During the early 1990s, the question of the apology was attended by an atmosphere of true moral intensity. For many Australians, something of central importance in the life of the nation was being transacted. During the Howard years that moral intensity gradually drained away. Despite the momentary excitement at the time of the Rudd apology, it has never returned. Insofar as there is any interest in Indigenous questions, it is now focused not on the quest for reconciliation but almost solely on closing the gap and the overcoming of what is called Indigenous community dysfunction.

This emphasis has its costs. When Julia Gillard stitched together her agreement with the Greens, one item on the agenda was Indigenous constitutional recognition. Eventually this question had to be postponed until the next parliament not because there was opposition to the idea but simply because there was, within the non-Indigenous population, so little genuine interest or enthusiasm. The one thing this government has done was to introduce a preparatory constitutional recognition bill, earlier this year. Speaking to this bill, the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, said: “We have never fully made peace with the first Australians. This is the stain on our soul. [Until we have acknowledged] that this land was as Aboriginal [in 1788] as it is Australian now … we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people.”

In the Australian discourse over the dispossession, these words, spoken by the deeply conservative leader of the Liberal party, ought to have represented a moment of true significance in the moral history of the nation. The entire political spectrum was now united in a long-sought-after understanding: that the Indigenous people of Australia had suffered an unspeakable tragedy; that they were owed a heartfelt and humble apology from the people who had dispossessed them. Yet rather disconcerting, at least to me, was the fact that when that moment arrived, so thin had the moral atmosphere concerning the meaning of the dispossession become that hardly anyone seemed to notice.

Robert Manne was Professor of Politics at La Trobe University and is now a Vice-Chancellor's Fellow.