What comes after sorry?

‘For the indignity and degradation … inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry … this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again’
Kevin Rudd, February 2008

‘It is not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices’ – Tony Abbott, March 2015

It’s hard to believe it was only seven years ago the federal parliament united before a watching nation to apologise, to acknowledge that Australia’s history is one profoundly marked by racial oppression, and to commit never to repeat the injustices of the past.

Today Kevin Rudd’s words seem hollow. Not only has inequality between white and Indigenous Australia barely changed in the last seven years, but the narrative around that inequality continues to reflect wilful blindness to the history acknowledged in Rudd’s apology.

Tony Abbott’s recent statement that Indigenous communities living on country are making a ‘lifestyle choice’ is only the most recent and offensive example of this narrative. It is shocking that an Australian Prime Minister can make a statement that ignores the thousand of years of history binding Aboriginal communities to the land, Australia’s history of forced displacement of Indigenous people and the epic struggle it took for communities to return to country. But Abbott’s comments mirror our national discourse – one that pays lip service to reconciliation while refusing to acknowledge our nation’s historical oppression of Indigenous people.

In Canberra, the National War Museum refuses to recognise the many Indigenous fighters who died protecting their land during the colonial frontier wars. In the Northern Territory, politicians dismiss concerns about creating another stolen generation through foster care and adoption. In Western Australia, the authorities of the popular tourist destination Rottnest Island fail to inform the public that 370 Indigenous people are buried on the island in unmarked graves – a legacy of the hundred years during which Rottnest operated as a brutal Aboriginal prison.

These questions of history and acknowledgment can seem trivial when compared to the overwhelming practical problems facing Indigenous Australia. But history matters. How we talk about racial inequality matters. Narrative matters.

Perhaps the most obvious reason we should acknowledge the past truthfully is that it matters to many Australians. When Abbott calls living in remote communities a ‘lifestyle choice’ it not only angers – it also hurts and offends many in remote communities. When Rottnest Lodge hotel fails to acknowledge that its guest rooms were once prison cells where Aboriginal men and boys died, it is a denial of a brutal history. That Australia Day is celebrated on the date that marked the beginning of centuries of systematic extermination and dispossession of Indigenous communities is traumatic for many.

Around the world, people and communities that have suffered past violence and abuse demand that history be acknowledged and respected. It’s one of the reasons there are historical memorials to the Holocaust, to South African apartheid, to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. It’s why Armenians around the world remain outraged that Turkey refuses to acknowledge the genocide perpetrated against their people over a century ago.

Ignoring or sidelining historical injustices is itself a source of trauma and injustice for the communities that have lived through them. It is tantamount to wider society saying that their experiences – that they as people – do not matter.

Creating a narrative that acknowledges and honours the past – that is, actively remembering – is a way to affirm and respect those who still live with the legacy of that injustice. It is how a society marks its regret, and in doing so affirms the social inclusion and equal humanity of those to whom the harm was done.

What, then, does it say about the value we place on Indigenous lives when tourists stroll across the unmarked graves of Aboriginal prisoners?

But it’s not just the perpetuation of trauma that’s at stake when we ignore history. How we talk, or don’t talk, about the past also affects our contemporary political narrative, and policy decisions in turn.

American civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson tells the story of meeting a group of German lawyers at a conference on the death penalty. They explained that Germany would never reintroduce the death penalty because the country’s history meant that it would be unconscionable for it to ever again engage in the systematic killing of human beings. This is not just a question of public relations. It’s a recognition that the full significance of what it would mean for Germany to bring back executions is impossible to understand without also understanding the historical context that policy would operate in.

Acknowledging history is not just about saying ‘we’re sorry’. It’s also about asking what lessons we have learned from our past. It’s about what comes after we say we are sorry. Given Australia’s history, it should be politically impossible for Indigenous communities to ever again be forcibly removed from their land. It should be seen as unconscionable to treat closing remote communities as merely a question of financial convenience for white Australia, devoid of any considerations of justice. That this is not the case reveals something deeply disturbing about our collective refusal to recognise our country’s past. It suggests we have learned nothing.

Of course, many people dismiss this view as reflecting a ‘black armband’ approach to Australian history. What is the point of dwelling on the horrors of the past, they ask. Those wrongs weren’t committed by today’s generation and can’t be changed. Wallowing in history and white guilt is not only pointless but a distraction that stops us focusing on the forward-looking project of reconciliation.

There is something deeply disingenuous about this argument. Almost every non-Indigenous person in Australia – at least anyone whose family owns land – is a direct beneficiary of our history of colonial dispossession. Certainly, we are all beneficiaries of the existence of the contemporary nation state of Australia, which itself was created through violence and dispossession. That does not mean every non-Indigenous Australian has a personal responsibility to atone for past wrongs, but it does mean that reconciliation is something that implicates us all. The word reconciliation implies resolution, a settling of past disputes, the coming together of different parties in a spirit of mutual respect. What kind of reconciliation project relies on survivors of past injustice renouncing everything, including the right to have the truth about what happened acknowledged, while demanding nothing of those who benefitted?

Reading back over Kevin Rudd’s apology, there is a word that sticks out because it almost never appears in contemporary discussion of Indigenous ‘issues’: injustice. White Australia’s narrative about Indigenous inequality is remarkable for how depoliticised it has become. Rather than talking about remedying injustice or righting a legacy of institutional racism, we talk about closing the gap. We have bureaucratised inequality into ‘disadvantage’. Discussions are about benchmarks and key indicators rather than rights. When the Closing the Gap report was tabled in parliament earlier this year, Bill Shorten was attacked by the government for politicising the issue, by pointing out that federal funding is being slashed from the very service organizations that are meant to ‘close the gap’. How is that not a political issue?

By ignoring questions of history and historical legacy, by removing questions of justice, our mainstream national discourse around Indigenous inequality has come to be increasingly bureaucratic and empty: demanding nothing of the vast majority of Australians, yet full of platitudes about reconciliation and ending disadvantage that yield to political expediency. We all have a responsibility to do better.

Telling the truth about our past is not a panacea, but it might be a good place to start.

Sienna Merope

Sienna Merope is a human rights law masters student at New York University. She works on issues of truth, reconciliation and justice in post-conflict societies.

More by Sienna Merope ›

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  1. Thank you Sienna. Your words give hope to this old “blackbander” who would have been a little less than your age when, in 1961, he made his first journey west of Sydney, out through Parramatta and beyond to the towns of Windsor and Richmond and then on to the old, unsealed Putty Road. Etched in my mind are the forlorn figures of many poorly clad people, among them young mothers and babes in arms, sitting abjectly along the sides of the roads.

    I was to chastise myself years later for not having instantly recognised that what I had seen in 1961 were stark images — still deeply etched in my memory — of living evidence of a violent, almost complete, extermination of a people and their culture in the century-and-a-half since Europeans arrived intent on taking away their homelands, simultaneously destroying their culture.

    How naive, how gullible was I, not to have been able to immediately recognise that I, along with all other Australians in those mid-20th century days, were doing nothing to atone for our sins against humanity! Now, more than half a century later, we are still failing Indigenous people who are still courageously defending the remnants of their cultures or trying to revive them.

    That I have hope that Australian governments can find a way to reconciliation lies in knowing that there are still young people like yourself who can see the injustices inflicted and want to do something about the great stain on our nation’s history. I hope Tony Abbott has read your fine and thoughtful words. — Bob Hawkins

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