Sorry is a hard word to say. I know, because I have said it a few times and have left it unsaid when I should have said it a few times more.
Last week, 13 February 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia proposed that the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia make an apology, to the aboriginal people of Australia. It was a long time coming. In 1992, Paul Keating, then Prime Minister, made the "Redfern Speech
" (there is also a Redfern Speech video clip
complete with aboriginal images and other stuff that shows why video clips are not the same as real speeches given live by real people).
Aboriginal people, despite not being citizens in their own country until 1967, despite a claim that the British Government could own the land since in 1788 there was nobody they were taking it away from, despite mostly being herded into missions, employed in what amounted to legalised slavery within living memory, despite organised manhunts to kill aboriginals, had won legal recognition that some of the land in Australia was theirs. Not because the government, in response to the Homeland and Land Rights movement in the 60s and 70s, had been giving back bits of land, but because according to the existing Australian/British law, they were clearly the legal owners of land.
In 1995, Keating commissioned a report into what became widely known as the Stolen Generations. Basically, aboriginal children and particularly part-aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in teh care of white families, either as a source of cheap servants, or to try and breed out their aboriginality - a sort of long-term genocide - or a combination of these. When I was at school, it was common knowledge that this happened, and the reasoning behind it was common knowledge. Yet somehow when the report, "Bringing Them Home"
, came out (after a change of government in 1996) this was no longer what really happened at all, and Australia was suddenly not prepared to take a "black armband" view of its own history.
In other words, despite the people of Australia showing a strong predisposition to apologise, despite the State government of Victoria rapidly apologising officially, the government of the country decided there was nothing to apologise for. But then, this was the same government that changed the racial discrimination act, to make it legal to take land away from aboriginal people, in order not to deal with the issues raise by the Mabo case and Native Title.
The stolen generations were in some case already dead. But this had been happening until the 1970s, when I was a kid. So in other cases they are people my age - at that time, people as young as their 20s.
A decade later, last week, the country finally managed, officially, to say "sorry". Rudd's speech
might be the most important in the fairly short history of the Commonwealth of Australia, and the most important for some time in the very very long history of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. (And you can watch him giving
it on video without the extra artsy distraction). It isn't brilliant rhetoric, but it is still a great speech. because it says sorry, and why we need to say sorry, and points to a way ahead that involves doing something about healing, adding a practical side to the nice words...
For a decade, being an Australian was an increasingly depressing thing to admit to. There are still great things about Australia, there are still things that have been terrible and need fixing. But it finally feels that the country is moving in more right directions than wrong ones, after a pretty sorry decade.
Thanks Kev. I realise you didn't take the children away any more than I did. But our country did, and not being able to own up and say "sorry" was slowly eating at us. It doesn't solve the problem, but recognising that there is something to deal with is a good start.