Aboriginal apology: a sorry spectacle
Kevin Rudd’s celebrated utterance of the S-word for past wrongs against aboriginal communities was deeply paternalistic.
Last week, Kevin Rudd, Australian prime minister and head of the incumbent Labor government, offered a much-anticipated and widely-celebrated apology to Australia’s indigenous people (1). He apologised in particular to the ‘stolen generations’ – the thousands of aboriginal children who were taken from their families in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and sent to white families, foster homes or church missions. Some claim this policy was an attempt to assimilate aboriginals into white society; others say it was a plain, eugenic campaign to eradicate aboriginal people. However one views it, there’s no doubt that it was often cruel and brutal. Aboriginal people have historically suffered greatly at the hands of the white settlers; for example, they only gained full voting rights in the early 1960s.
So, is an apology in order – and will it make an impact on aboriginal life today? Many aboriginal people live in extremely poor communities with little hope of employment. Alcoholism and drug abuse are rife. There are high rates of suicide amongst young aboriginals: they have a life expectancy 17 years lower than that of non-indigenous Australians. Many claim that the indigenous people’s historical experience – their suffering at the hands of white settlers – is still holding them back, and that Rudd’s apology might heal past wrongs and allow Australia to move forward. The apology could push Australia to become a more equitable society, its supporters claim, in which aboriginal people will have parity of esteem and finally become full Australian citizens.
This demonstrates the contemporary elevation of the politics of therapy over the politics of development and equality. The apology can be criticised from many different standpoints. First, of course, apologies are free. Rhetoric costs nothing; Rudd’s apology can be seen as an attempt to appease people’s consciences on the cheap. Rudd has ruled out any large-scale financial compensation to indigenous peoples. As Noel Pearson, an indigenous leader, pithily summed it up: ‘Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas will keep the money.’ There are, of course, serious problems with the idea of compensation, the notion that contemporary problems can be ‘fixed’ by giving money to poor communities for past wrongs. Yet Pearson has a point: words are all very well, but what many indigenous communities need is serious material help – welfare, job creation, decent housing and infrastructure – rather than solemn apologies for things that happened to their great grandparents.
The apology serves a fundamentally therapeutic purpose, especially for the Australian elite itself – in essence, they are the main beneficiaries of Rudd’s words of regret. As Pearson argues, white Australians gain a warm inner glow from having said sorry and they don’t even have to dig their hands into their pockets or help to come up with a new vision for Australian society (2). At the same time, the apology gives the comforting impression that the main problem in indigenous communities is emotional and psychological in nature: it is not the fact that aboriginal people are impoverished and unemployed that we should be concerned about, but rather that they apparently ‘feel bad’ because of past events.
Here, the apology can be seen as an essentially de-politicising strategy: where apologies once meant taking responsibility, making amends for something that you personally did wrong, Rudd’s apology is a way of absolving the Australian authorities of responsibility for the state of aboriginal communities today. Instead, everything – from depression levels to alcoholism – can be blamed on the historical legacy, on an historically scarred mindset amongst aboriginals. At the same time, Rudd’s apology is an attempt to project a sense of political momentum, to differentiate his Labor administration from John Howard’s Liberal government. In the absence of meaningful political differences, Rudd is using the aboriginal apology to carve out a new moral identity for his administration (3).
The meaninglessness of politicised apologies can be glimpsed in Australia’s Northern Territory. The government of the Northern Territory issued its own apology to aboriginal peoples in 2001. Yet since then, the lives of indigenous peoples in the region have, if anything, worsened. This came to a head in 2007. In response to the report Little Children Are Sacred, the end result of an investigation into child sex abuse amongst aboriginals by the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse , the then prime minister John Howard launched an extraordinary intervention into aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (4).
He enforced direct federal rule. He sent the army into some remote rural communities. Under what was effectively a state of emergency, aboriginal communities were subjected to an astonishing level of control: there were bans on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes; blocks were enforced against pornography on publicly accessible computers; and income control was introduced, whereby a proportion of aboriginals’ welfare and similar benefits were no longer given in cash but in vouchers for food and children’s clothing. This intervention was fully supported by Rudd’s then oppositional Labor Party; indeed, since Labor took power, it has maintained this interventionist, infantilising policy, even floating the idea of expanding it into other areas.
On the surface, it might seem that apologies and heavy-handed interventions in the Northern Territory are contradictory policies. The first ostensibly promises empowerment and the incorporation of indigenous people into mainstream Australian life – the second looks more like a racist and segregationist policy that forcibly prevents aboriginals from taking meaningful control over their lives. Left-wing and liberal commentators who have criticised the Northern Territory intervention have generally cheered Rudd’s recent apology (5). In reality, however, both the intense intervention into aboriginals’ lives and the apology for their past hurts are based upon the same assumptions about aboriginals: that they are fundamentally different, that they are fundamentally victims, and that they must be ‘protected’ by the authorities, both from the past and from their own worst instincts. Both the harsh policing of the Northern Territory and the use of PC apologies to placate aboriginals are disempowering in a very real way.
The apology cannot lead to a new beginning for indigenous people, allowing them to move into mainstream Australian society and participate as equals, because by its very nature it defines and distinguishes them as a separate group apart from the mainstream, a group, moreover, that is defined both by its past suffering and the injustices of the Australian state. Aboriginals are defined as a ‘special people’, distinguished by their suffering, perceived as weak and vulnerable, living in communities which are shattered and unstable because of their terrible historical experiences rather than as a result of contemporary inequality. Because the apology is a therapeutic intervention, based on the idea that aboriginal communities need to have their self-esteem and their emotions massaged, it creates a relationship between aboriginals and the state which is similar to that between patient and psychologist. This is not equality or democracy; it is yet another intrusive form of intervention in aboriginals’ lives.
Noel Pearson says: ‘My worry is this apology will sanction a view of history that cements a detrimental psychology of victimhood, rather than a stronger one of defiance, survival and agency.’ (6) Weighed down by the burden of historical suffering – which the state wishes them to re-live over and over again – indigenous people are cast in the role of eternal and passive victims who must wait for the state to make restitution before they can become full participants in society. In this context, indigenous people are not to be considered individuals, each with his or her own life to live, but as members of a cultural or ethnic and linguistic group whose fate and identity is inexorably tied to that group.
Rudd’s apology confirms what the Northern Territory intervention proved in brute fashion: that aboriginals today are considered special wards of the state, incapable of self-government. This keeps them, both literally and symbolically, in the ghetto. The apology is not a way forward for indigenous people in Australia, but another marker of their marginalisation and ‘difference’.
Tara McCormack is a lecturer in European Union studies and International Relations at the University of Westminster.
Julian Petley agreed with critics of Australia’s ban on porn amongst Aboriginals. Catherine Scott wondered if teaching preschoolers about Aboriginal culture makes them more ‘tolerant’? Mark Adnum suggested that Australians celebrated Rabbit-Proof Fence as a way of dealing with colonial guilt. Guy Rundle called Jindabyne a guilt-trip from Down Under. Or read more at spiked issue Australia.
(1) Australia apology to Aborigines, BBC News, 13 February 2008
(2) When Words Aren’t Enough, The Australian, 12 February 2008
(4) The report can be downloaded from here.
(5) Rudd must abolish racist policies, Green Left, 18 January 2008
(6) When Words Aren’t Enough, The Australian, 12 February 2008,
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