Scoop Column: Australia's Not Sorry
Simon Orme writes from Sydney
Australia's Not Sorry
The Roman Catholic church, New Zealand, the US, South Africa, Canada, and others, have all ‘fessed up to past wrongdoing. Australia’s PM Howard, however, has ruled out a previous Liberal party promise to deliver an apology to Aboriginal Australians during 2000.
It later turned out the voters are with him.
A recent poll reveals most Australians oppose an apology. They believe saying “sorry” is backward looking and will simply be used by aboriginal groups to extract compensation and additional rights from federal and state governments.
But Australia is going against a world-wide trend.
The click of the calendar over to 2000 is coinciding with decolonisation exercises around the world:
- The Vatican is apologizing for the Inquisition and other very bad things;
- South Africa had its truth and reconciliation commission;
- Clinton’s administration is looking at an apology to African Americans for slavery;
- the Canadians have basically added a third layer of government to an already complex federation – allowing limited self-government to Native American nations;
- Indonesia’s President visited East Timor and apologised for Indonesian atrocities;
- New Zealand’s Parliament has issued formal apologies, notably to Waikato-Tainui and Ngai Tahu; and
- New Caledonia, which in the late ‘80s was looking like becoming an Algeria in the south pacific, has followed through on the 1988 Matignon Accord process and its administration is there more by consent than force.
I’m sure the Finns have been extra nice to the Lapps, but we just haven’t heard about it.
Leaving aside Russia, Australia seems unique among colonised/colonising countries in that it has not undergone any sort of decolonisation process and doesn’t appear to have any intention of doing so.
The injustices aren’t all 200 years old either. The “stolen generation” affair - the forced adoption of aboriginal children - was pursued well into the 1960s.
Aboriginals continue to be marginalised in a way that can’t really be imagined in New Zealand. The total aboriginal population of Australia is of a similar size to Maori in NZ. -Yet in my nearly three years here I have never come across a single aboriginal person professionally or socially. Aboriginals are a people apart.
A Qantas ad around town at the moment has a photo of a cute Aboriginal girl. Unlike the cute Air NZ girl, who you could see down at the mall (though maybe not in a silk dress), the cute Aboriginal girl is a media construction.
There is just one inner-Sydney suburb that is still (sort of) affordable – Redfern. This is where most local Aboriginals live.
Australia got its first Aboriginal Federal MP only in July last year (for the Democrats in the equivalent of a list seat).
Significantly, the UN Secretary General has agreed to investigate whether state laws requiring compulsory imprisonment for minor offences are consistent with Australia’s human rights obligations under international law.
This follows the suicide of an aboriginal boy in the Northern Territory who was imprisoned for petty theft. As former PM Malcolm Fraser commented, this is akin to the eighteenth century’s transportation to Australia for the term of your natural life for stealing a loaf of bread.
There seem to be two explanations for Australia’s atavistic stance on decolonisation.
The first is that a lot of Australians are just plain racist. Unfortunately, this is pretty accurate. The generally held and quite often stated view is that Aborigines are inferior.
The evidence? Their inferior position in Australian society. Never mind this is circular.
The second, nicer, explanation is that fronting up to the past, in general, is unaustralian. (Yes, it is a word here.)
This is Robert Hughes’ theory in his book The Fatal Shore, to which he’s currently making a sequel. Hughes argues that for generations Australians averted their attention from the past because of a sense of deep shame toward the “convict stain”.
If this theory is right, then it might also apply to the reconciliation issue.
The idea would be “we don’t ask for, and wouldn’t want, a “sorry” for forced transportation and all its accompanying horrors, so why should we say “sorry” for invading Australia in 1788? Hey, we didn’t event want do it anyway.”
What this all adds up to is a distinct risk Australia’s lack of progress on decolonisation will be in the spotlight at the Sydney Olympics later this year.
At the very least, Australians should cringe inside when they inevitably wheel out Aboriginal iconography at high profile games events
Copyright: Simon Orme 2000
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