How has the Australian nation lurched from fairly widespread support amongst white Australians and the media for a militaristic intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory only months ago, to the serious, joyous occasion of Australia’s Sorry Day in February 2008? Of course we have had an election, and the beginnings of a new agenda for blackwhite relations has been rapidly put in place. But is it true, as some commentators are saying, that the electorate has come a long way since November 2007?
Of course, for many Australians, black and white, the reconciliation agenda had never gone away. It had been bubbling along — all the while that John Howard had been actively attempting to crush the spirit of that movement — in the dedicated work of reconciliation groups from Castlemaine to Cairns, Ballarat to Broome, and in the continuing, dogged advocacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It only needed a political opening on the national scene for that spirit to appear again; for it to be given the legitimacy it had achieved in the lead-up to the remarkable reconciliation marches of 2000.
As for the media, what can one say? No doubt they have aided the sense of good will and overcoming of division and hurt experienced by so many people on Sorry Day. But the transformation of some elements of the media into advocates for saying sorry has been truly incredible. It beggars belief because the shift in sentiment has been so great. I can’t help reflecting that today’s commercial television merely did what it does best — exploit emotion — while The Australian, coming out in favour of unity around the apology, might be understood as deftly repositioning itself as it sorts out which way the wind is blowing (both across parties and within the Liberal Party).
Perhaps it was the power of the event itself that brought the people and the media along with Rudd. History does not unfold evenly. There are always watershed moments that outwardly mark practical and psychological shifts that have grown quietly in the undercurrents of culture and society. In this case, the event itself had some unpredictable elements that do seem to have solidified people’s thinking and feeling, even as the celebration/apology was occurring.
Our feeling, even among those disposed to saying sorry, was doubled, then quadrupled, and so on, as we watched Aboriginal families hold up photographs of the Stolen Generations, as Kevin Rudd and Therese Rein welcomed Aboriginal guests at the doors to Parliament House as if it were a family home, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people stood shoulder to shoulder in city squares around the country and when interviewed broke down in tears. Whether the making of the apology will make the difference so many people felt it could is one thing. The revelation that it meant so much to Indigenous Australians was perhaps an even more important and enduring aspect of the occasion for the transformation of Australian attitudes. It even took some Aboriginal critics of saying sorry, like Marcia Langton, by surprise, displacing, for the moment, their support of Howard’s trademark tough love approach to Aboriginal affairs.
We must also grasp the work of Jenny Macklin in her intensive consultations with Aboriginal people and aspects of the Rudd approach that contributed to the success of Sorry Day. The apology was formal — how more formal could an apology be than one delivered in the parliament of the land by its most senior member on the behalf of all Australians? And yet elements of the informal processes that helped develop it, and a certain Australian style of informality, seem to have been crucial too.
Interesting comments were made by Aboriginal people in the crowd: that Macklin’s approach was kind, human and consultative; that Rudd, as described by one man, was acting like a good father should. As anyone who has ever organised an event knows, there’s the hard work of orchestrating what and how things will happen. But there is also the work of real preparation so that participants are ‘with you’ and in tune with each other: the work of sensitively gauging the true mood and intent of people and then the building of understanding between the various parties. Macklin and Rudd seem to have found the words that were necessary for Aboriginal people but also the right touch, often literally, that made the event the ‘essentially human’ one Rudd seems to have wanted it to be.
Actually, Rudd described the need for an apology in terms of the need to right an assault on our ‘elemental humanity’: that not recognising the degradation and hurt caused to Aboriginal people breached some fundamental attitude that makes us human. The idea of the ‘elemental’ refers us to a register of ethical being beyond that of merely acting properly: to what our humanity might actually be made of. That is, it is not so much about moral action as about what constitutes us and is embedded in our senses: a building block of identity itself. While this particular statement in Rudd’s speech to parliament tended to put an emphasis on white Australians regaining their humanity by saying sorry, it is clear that Rudd’s overarching message was about the joint humanity of black and white Australia.
Interestingly, while Rudd’s speech could take up these themes, the formal apology itself could not, quite. The latter rides on the idea that ‘injustices’ were experienced in the past, and that there was (unfair) suffering for which Australia should say sorry. The emphasis is on the experience of suffering of Indigenous people, with a recognition of culpability of official Australia for the ‘laws and policies’ over time that inflicted such suffering. Then the apology looks to a future built on mutual understanding and respect. Indeed, the apology is heavily couched in the terms of respect and recognition, and this is presumably what carries so much weight with Aboriginal people. (For me, this is distressing, for I think this means that though I am for the apology and believe a massive historical injustice has been perpetrated, I am still not in touch with what it means in any kind of lived sense to be without respect or recognition.)
Will Kevin Rudd’s apology, good will and humanity be enough?
Politically, the apology and Sorry Day have been a tour de force: not in the sense of orchestration, but in that of carrying off an almost impossible act of bringing competing views of historical events and motivations into some semblance of accord. And, as Rod Cameron has pointed out, it makes further steps possible. Rudd himself has made clear that there is constitutional business still to be done; Pat Dodson believes that working towards the acceptability of compensation for the Stolen Generations will be a process, starting from here. Morally, the apology and Sorry Day have been of profound importance because, though so much more could have been said, and so much more needs to be done to right ‘injustices’, nothing like this statement has been made before, nor did it even seem possible only months ago. Morally, it can be seen as a start too.
Indeed, we might hope that this is just the beginning of a national politics of recognition, not just one focussed on justice — that is, not simply recognition of past injustices, but a form of cultural politics that recognises who Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are. Pat Dodson’s speech to the National Press Club commences with a beautiful evocation of both the difference and significance of cultural practices in remote Aboriginal communities. There is the real possibility that such communities may amalgamate aspects of western life with the abiding practices that make for the unique and deeply meaningful structures of Aboriginal culture and subjectivity in those places. He also evokes the great cultural ferment that is the cross-cultural work of black and white collaborators on film and song and drama throughout Australia. A politics of recognition in a serious sense requires genuine encounters with and translation between cultures. In other words, there is a proper recognition of incommensurable positive differences around which all sorts of interesting and broadly profitable negotiations and sharing might occur.
And on this point, we should remain alert to the issues that have undercut genuine cross-cultural understanding in the past. Humanistic sentiments have been aired before and have oriented many of the policies Rudd is now apologising for. The problem with humanism is that by philosophical derivation it does not at all necessarily recognise cultural difference in a positive sense. It has certainly been called upon to challenge racism, but seeing an essential humanity in all says nothing of how different cultures constitute meaning and thus profoundly shape peoples and individuals. The contrast between a generous Rudd and a mean-spirited Howard is so great at the moment that we forget that assimilation can have the humanistic face of concern for equality — or the fulfilment of health, housing and educational goals, which Labor has always seen as the basis of the culture-free possibility of ‘equality of opportunity’. When Rudd promises not just schooling for all Aboriginal children but pre-school too, I want to see all the fine print for this early intervention. Let us hope that where it is still possible, Aboriginal languages, and the myriad of other culturally distinct practices and ways of being and doing are made part of sensitive syllabuses taught largely by Indigenous people themselves.
Alison Caddick is an Arena publications editor.