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"We say sorry"

Australia's apology to the Aborigines opens a promising new chapter.

Writing after his first momentous visit to the continent then known as New Holland, Captain James Cook said he believed the indigenous Australians he encountered were "far more happier" than Europeans - because they appeared to want for nothing. In an extraordinary passage, the sympathetic explorer wrote of that long-ago time when the Aborigines lived "in a Tranquillity which is not disturb'd by the Inequality of Condition". Unburdened, Cook noted, by the materialism so prevalent in Europe, the Aborigines "seem'd to set no Value upon any thing we gave them ..."

This month, Aboriginal people were, at last, given something that they truly value, namely a historic apology which, even if it improves not one life in a practical sense, may nevertheless be of inestimable worth.

It is to the credit of new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that he made the apology an early priority. "For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry," Rudd said in Parliament. "And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry."

The apology may, as his predecessor John Howard forewarned, open a flood of compensation claims and if that occurs a fair person would have to simply ask, "Why not?" The country can certainly afford compensation; the difficult problem is making it work. Plenty of money has been flung at Aboriginal under-privilege, yet still their life expectancy is 17 years less than other Australians, their rate of incarceration and illiteracy is far higher, and the toll that alcohol takes on their communities and families is incalculable.

Nomadic, with different tribes speaking different languages and with a culture isolated for 10,000 years and completely unrecognisable to Europeans, Aborigines have found, unsurprisingly, that colonisation was a disaster. Perhaps, therefore, it should also have been no surprise that Australian governments and church and welfare agencies came to believe the best solution for everyone was to absorb Aborigines into white society and culturally, if not literally, breed their ethnicity out of them. From that came the policy of removal and the so-called Stolen Generations for which Rudd has now apologised.

Aborigines' position in society is a deep stain on the otherwise bright post-colonial achievements of contemporary Australia. New Zealand, of course, cannot look across the Tasman with smugness when it comes to ethnic under-privilege. Indigenous New Zealanders also have a shorter life expectancy than other new Zealanders, and higher rates of incarceration and illiteracy. But on a league table of ethnic minorities' deprivation, only in countries where such people are deliberately persecuted could they have less hope and dignity than Aborigines do in Australia. That the first indigenous welcome to Australia's Parliament should not have occurred until this month speaks volumes about their cultural marginalisation.

There is sadly little prospect that the apology will make a practical difference to the lives of Aborigines, any more than the 1992 landmark Mabo court case, recognising that Australia was not terra nullius, or no-man's land, when white people arrived, has made a difference. But it is to be hoped that Mabo and the apology become rungs on which Aboriginal people can start to pull themselves up to a position where they can take advantage of all a wealthy country can offer in the 21st century.

There is no simple solution to the entrenched problems of ethnic minority under-privilege and the struggle to maintain a culture against overwhelming odds. Samoan culture, which works so effectively and inclusively for youths in Samoa, when transposed to Auckland becomes quickly threatened not just by the dominant culture but by some awful variant of Los Angeles gangsterism. In England, the recent debate has been dominated by the Archbishop of Canterbury's view that Sharia law should be accommodated by the British justice system for the benefit of the country's large Muslim population.

Each such situation is unique. And each is difficult. But as Australia has graphically proved, collectively turning an indifferent eye does not make problems go away. Rudd's apology is being asked to shoulder a burden it cannot bear, but if it helps to give hope and a fresh belief that people can find solutions, then sorry will have been not only the hardest word, but the best.