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The Evil that Remains: Apologising for the Past

The Evil that Remains: Apologising for the Past

Repentance hangs thickly in the air, at least when it comes to some institutions and government authorities. The late Jacques Derrida noted near the end of his life that the world was bearing witness to a ‘proliferation of scenes of repentance.’ A bill in the U.S. Congress is making apology to the Native American Indians for past mistreatment. Most recently, Australia’s Rudd government, to add to its official apology to the Indigenous peoples, has aimed its penitential stance at the mistreatment of children in official care facilities.

While one can’t help marveling at the opportunism of such gestures (votes and polls are mother’s milk to politicians), the realities of the abuse are impossible to ignore. Appalling instances of mistreatment have been documented. Children have rarely been well looked after in institutions, whatever their ethnicity and background. Such entities have proven repellent in the most palpable, Dickensian way, indifferent to the vulnerabilities and needs of childhood.

Australia’s churches have issued their apologies; the government of the state of NSW has joined the fray. Now the Australian Prime Minister has added his name to the hall of regret and contrition, something he took the lead on when he apologized to the Indigenous Australia’s Stolen Generation in February 2008.

Rudd’s apology also has an international dimension to it. A large portion of those children numbering 150,000, were British subjects. They were part of a migration program designed to send those of deprived backgrounds to Commonwealth countries (mainly Canada and Australia). In truth, it seemed more often than not an exercise of exporting the refuse of human society. Children aged between 3 and 14 were regaled with rosy, and more often than not empty stories of hope. Many were severed from their families.

The program, begun in the 1920s, only ended in 1967. ‘We are sorry,’ intoned Rudd. ‘Sorry that, as children, you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused.’ Such abuse involved unpaid work on farms, and more grisly instances of physical torment. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has offered to right the ship from the British side with an apology on the displaced children.

Such apologies tend to have the appearance of futility to them, in so far as they rarely issue from the person or body committing it. The horse tends to have bolted from the stable. Stalin saw little reason for apologizing for the murder of Polish officers at Katyn, the destruction of the Polish elite seen as a Soviet necessity; the Khmer Rouge have not apologized for the killing fields as a unit, but piecemeal.

Instead, succeeding governments are meant to foot the wages of sin after the event. Some choose the ceremonial contrition we have witnessed in the case of Rudd, or more tangible acts – treaties, awards of compensation. Others prefer the anesthetizing quality of an amnesty, where crimes are less acknowledged than forgotten.

To show contrition, however, would be even worse. A refusal to apologize on the part of governments often suggests an indifference to the pitfalls and failings of past policies. A key criticism of Rudd’s predecessor Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to apologize for the Stolen Generations was based on his reading of Australian history. Sins had been committed, he seemed to say, but not of such magnitude that warranted an apology. In a rather disingenuous way, he argued that indigenous policy had always been implemented in goodwill. In truth, as Marc Antony reminds us, the evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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