Australia’s apology: the shadow on the sun

Tim Rowse
15 February 2008

Wednesday 13 February 2008 was a day heavy with both historical symbolism and political tension in Australia. That day, the Australian government apologised to "the stolen generations", those children of Aboriginal descent who were removed from their parents (usually their Aboriginal mothers) to be raised in white foster-homes and institutions administered by governments and Christian churches - a practice that lasted from before the first world war to the early 1970s.

Tim Rowse is senior research fellow in the history program at Australian National University (ANU). His books include (with Murray Goot) Divided Nation? Indigenous Affairs and the Imagined Public (Melbourne University Press, 2007)

The speech delivered by Kevin Rudd - his first parliamentary speech as prime minister - reflected this dual aspect of the occasion. For it was both the culmination of years of national controversy over the issue and a repudiation of the bitterly criticised refusal of his predecessor, John Howard, to utter similar words of apology. Howard's long, stubborn silence - and his defeat in the general election of November 2007, ending the eleven-year reign of his Liberal-National coalition - handed his successor a handsome rhetorical opportunity: and Rudd seized it.

And yet, in three ways that I will explain, Howard's shadow could be felt over the parliamentary apology. When the symbolism of 13 February fades in the memory, the political aftertaste could be bitter.

The end of silence

The official records of what happened to "the stolen generations" - the popular though still contested term - were not reliably kept, even though the practice was lawfully mandated. This means that it is impossible to establish a detailed, enumerated accounting. In addition, the way the policy was implemented (and its end-date) varied from state to state in Australia. What can be said is that government-sanctioned child theft violated the emotional security of nearly all Aboriginal families in those parts of Australia which had been colonised long enough to produce a hybrid population.

An important breakthrough in the demand for official recognition of this deep wrong came in April 1997, when Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) - a government agency empowered to investigate instances of race and sex discrimination and other abuses of human rights - published its searing Bringing Them Home report, which recommended that an apology was due to Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families. Almost immediately, in June-July 1997, the legislatures of the other eight governments of Australia (six state and two territory governments) passed various motions of apology on behalf of their own area's experience and responsibility. But the "Commonwealth" government in Canberra - by then dominated by John Howard and his Liberal Party-led coalition, first elected in March 1996 - adamantly refused.

The end of the long wait before the Commonwealth, the last redoubt, "joined" the rest of Australia on 13 February 2008 might suggest (especially to those outside Australia) that Kevin Rudd's speech finally closes a painful chapter in the country's history. But it was never going to be that simple. Also in openDemocracy, a debate on the "politics of apology" around the world, with contributions from Marina Warner, Nahla Valji, Ken Worpole, John Torpey, and others. For details, click here

The narrative duty

Modern states accept a duty to protect children from harmful homes. This helps explain why some Australians, in a cool response to the stolen generations' stories, have suggested that many Aboriginal children benefited from removal. To the extent that the domestic scenes from which they were taken were abusive (as some no doubt were) and to the extent that the homes and institutions to which they were removed were competent and caring (as some were, at times), this response has merit.

However, the reason an apology was warranted is that the rationale of the removals was not "protection" in any familiar or defensible sense. The stolen generations were to be "protected" from an upbringing in an Aboriginal milieu, and their removal would hasten the demise of a culturally distinct indigenous population. This was a policy of heartless social engineering based on a racial understanding of Australia's national ethos. The Australians who accepted it understood themselves to be, as a nation, white British-Australians; the continuing presence of a culturally inferior and genetically distinct Aboriginal population compromised the ethnic homogeneity on which nationhood was supposed to rest. It was "our" duty, as nation-builders, to ignore the pain that removal inflicted.

This inheritance is the first aspect of John Howard's shadow over the 13 February moment. Howard, in refusing to apologise from 1997 until his defeat in November 2007, made no greater concession to a critical historiography than to admit that Australia's proud record included some "blemishes". In the conservative perspective, Australia's core achievements are: democracy, productivity, immigration and valour in war. The conservatives were viscerally outraged by the suggestion that Australia continued to be morally disfigured as long as the grievances of indigenous Australians were not acknowledged and acted upon. Aborigines, in this perspective, are little more than a particularly obstinate instance of poverty, too much inclined to politicise the "blemishes". When Bringing Them Home was tabled in the federal parliament in 1997, government MPs and their supporters in the press attempted to discredit, diminish and deride it. That response opened a huge emotional gulf in Australian public life. The lack of a prime-ministerial apology helped to politicise Australia's morally passionate - and still continuing - "history wars".

Howard's successor as leader of the conservative parties is Brendan Nelson, once a president of the Australian Medical Association. In the early 1990s, his interest in indigenous health was appreciated by indigenous Australians. His record suggests that he would not have found it difficult, personally, to apologise to the stolen generations. But now, as the newly installed leader of the opposition, he leads a divided rump of MPs among whom lurk shell-backed Howard loyalists. Nelson got their votes in a close leadership contest by saying he would remain faithful to Howard's refusal.

Only in the week before the opening of parliament did Brendan Nelson's party gave him permission to add his apology to Kevin Rudd's. Nelson's speech included uneasy passages about Australia's achievements, and he praised the "involuntary sacrifices" that both black and white had made to build the nation. Although he rose far above that diminishing word "blemish" - and offered a clear apology for an acknowledged wrong - Nelson's speech contrived references to Australia's "greatness" that rendered it emotionally equivocal. He spoke as if, under the apology's ideological burden, Australians might forget their national pride. The response of the crowd in which I watched the live broadcast was irritation, rising quickly through slow hand-clapping to such vociferous anger that those controlling the sound and image judged it futile to continue: Nelson got switched off. "So much for bipartisanship", muttered the man next to me.

The cost of apology

Also in openDemocracy on Australian politics:
Peter Mares, "The Nauru solution" (12 September 2001)

Peter Browne, "Withdraw, Australia unfair" (14 November 2001)

Fred Halliday, "Mr Howard's Australia" (3 March 2005)

Tom Nairn, "On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne" (15 November 2005)

Mark Byrne, "Australia's troubled reconciliation project" (2 December 2005)

Tom Burgis, "Howard's way" (3 January 2006)
Rod Tiffen, "Australia's election: ingredients of change" (25 November 2006) This leads to the second way in which Howard's influence could thwart the aspirations of Kevin Rudd's apology. My fellow television-watcher was referring to that politically creative moment in Rudd's speech in which the prime minister had invited the opposition parties to join him in a bipartisan commission to tackle problems of housing and health in remote Aboriginal communities. To formalise their shared ground in that way would not be a stretch for either side, as they have been largely in agreement about a series of steps that the Howard government announced in June 2007 in the name of - you guessed it - "child protection" among Aborigines living in the Northern Territory. This time, children are to be saved from family violence and sexual predation (both real and severe problems) not by removal but by a series of extraordinary, unilateral measures whose pertinence to child protection is clearer in some instances (more police, restricted access to alcohol, child health screening) than in others (more severe tests of eligibility for unemployment relief, new leasehold provisions on Aboriginal land). This package of measures is known as "the intervention" and it has divided the indigenous leadership to an unprecedented degree.

The critics of the intervention are hoping that Rudd's policy review will lead him to discard all the features of the intervention that they find noxious, and there are those in the government who will work hard to ensure this. The opposition is saying that if Rudd wants bipartisanship he must retain the intervention in the form that the Howard government initiated. The opposition's price for being bipartisan will be a veto on any concession that the government tries to make to critical Aborigines and to the Labor Party. The limits of Rudd's willingness to oblige the Howard legacy are not yet known.

Here, the third way in which Howard's influence remains powerful becomes apparent. In the 2007 election campaign, Rudd neutralised Howard's political appeal by promising to match him in tax cuts in 2008. Australia, thanks to China, is in an economic boom, with inflation about to become a significant problem. Rudd, having sold himself as a fiscal conservative as well as a tax-cutter, finds that he must now deliver a severely contractionary budget. However, among the largest problems of isolated Aboriginal communities is the legacy of underinvestment in infrastructure and essential services. There is no effective scenario for "the intervention", in my (widely shared) view, if its proposals do not include a huge rise in public expenditure in certain regions. So Howard's third legacy is that, during the election, he tempted Rudd to mimic his political economy of private affluence and public squalor: enriching the household by starving the public sector. The path to a better Aboriginal future cannot be travelled in the second-hand fiscal vehicle that Honest John sold to Nimble Kevin.

Australians may live to regret that Rudd embellished the undoubted rhetorical ascendancy of his apology with an invitation to bipartisanship. A scenario is developing in which Rudd may become Howard's unwitting apologist.


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