"We say sorry"

by Listener Archive / 23 February, 2008
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.

Latest

Why you should go to Napier's Art Deco Festival
91859 2018-09-26 00:00:00Z Travel

Why you should go to Napier's Art Deco Festival

by Joanna Wane

Joanna Wane joined the crowds putting on the ritz for the 30th annual Art Deco Festival in Napier.

Read more
What's happening to New Zealand's recycling after the China import ban?
96784 2018-09-25 13:50:58Z Environment

What's happening to New Zealand's recycling after …

by Nita Blake-Persen

Tracing exactly where New Zealand's plastic goes when it leaves our ports is incredibly difficult.

Read more
Suburban thriller A Simple Favour is all neo and no noir
96782 2018-09-25 13:18:00Z Movies

Suburban thriller A Simple Favour is all neo and n…

by James Robins

Director Paul Feig's A Simple Favour is a thriller that's undercut by comedy.

Read more
How heart surgeon Alan Kerr saved a woman's life twice in three decades
96715 2018-09-25 00:00:00Z Social issues

How heart surgeon Alan Kerr saved a woman's life t…

by Donna Chisholm

Renowned surgeon Alan Kerr saved Donna Lander’s life in 1987. This year – thanks to a Listener story and a three-line email – he saved her again.

Read more
What the principal missed: How truancy is the symptom of a toxic environment
96763 2018-09-25 00:00:00Z Social issues

What the principal missed: How truancy is the symp…

by Aaron Hendry

A principal's controversial speech on truancy dangerously ignored the issues today's young people face, writes youth development worker Aaron Hendry.

Read more
The new Bruce Lee bio questions the official explanation for his death
96713 2018-09-25 00:00:00Z Books

The new Bruce Lee bio questions the official expla…

by Gilbert Wong

Matthew Polly delivers a comprehensive biography of Bruce Lee's action-packed life and death.

Read more
We value great journalism at NOTED, help us create more of it
89206 2018-09-25 00:00:00Z Business

We value great journalism at NOTED, help us create…

by Noted

NOTED is a refuge from click-bait journalism and we'd like your support to stay that way. Help us fund good quality journalism through Press Patron.

Read more
Fighting fast fashion: the rise of ethical consumerism
95853 2018-09-25 00:00:00Z Business

Fighting fast fashion: the rise of ethical consume…

by Mina Phillips

In the era of fast fashion, what can consumers do to ensure what they're buying hasn't been made by exploited workers?

Read more