How to Cite

Newman, P., Khoo, T., & Goldie, K. (2001). Sorry. M/C Journal, 4(1).
Vol. 4 No. 1 (2001): Sorry
Published 2001-02-01

The issue of a national apology to the Stolen Generations by the Federal Government has for some time been central to cultural and political debate in Australia. Responses to the Bringing them Home report-the text that generated a national audience for narratives of child removal-including the mechanics of apology, have come to substantially generate the terms of the Australian reconciliation debate. The desire for the performance of official sorrow has come to dominate arguments about racial atonement to the extent, as several of our contributors note, that more material achievements may have been neglected.

This is not to endorse Prime Minister Howard's prioritisation of 'practical' reconciliation, in which the only specific policy the government is prepared to advocate is the provision of basic rights to Indigenous people, but to recognise some of the limitations of the apology focus. The continuation of deliberations about whether or not non-indigenous Australians should express sorrow has the potential to feed into a lengthy history of anxious white Australian self-definition.

Reconciliation, and the sorrow which may or may not constitute it, therefore becomes the latest in an endless series of attempts to ascertain Australia's national identity - this time informed by a moral responsibility for historical wrongdoing. In his article, Jen Kwok suggests the potential for the concept of reconciliation to become safely amorphous, expressing the fear that an interest in reconciliation can be acquired for the sake of appearance. In this way, the narrative of a nation reconciled through a governmental process helps to inform ongoing constructions of whiteness.

While Australia's initial ten-year period of reconciliation has officially ended, the issue of a Federal Government apology has not. Prime Minister Howard's version of an apology-the personal sorrow that never becomes official-seems part of the conservative parties' deliberate obfuscation of the importance of official recognition of indigenous concerns, in the same way that a treaty is dismissed as unnecessary. In this issue, Lynette Hughes takes the conservatives' refusal to acknowledge the need to apologise as a starting point for deliberations on the worth of the concept, with a timely focus on Pauline Hanson's unapologetic re-entry onto the centre of the political stage.

If Hanson's emergence in 1996 was notable for her grouping of otherness-'Aborigines' and 'Asians'-as threat, this was a simple identification of two forms of difference, in indigeneity and non-white migration, that have been historically constructed as imperilling white Australia. Guy Ramsay takes up an historical connection between two such groups: Chinese and Indigenous peoples of North Queensland during the latter half of the nineteenth century. This community of Others was seen as a significant threat to the 'codes' and 'norms' of white behaviour, as legislation was introduced to restrict the immorality and vice necessarily attached to racial mixing.

In our feature article, Peta Stephenson also analyses the reasons why the common experience of Australian racism by immigrant and Indigenous people has not forged significant bonds between the two groups. Beginning with a letter written by members of the Vietnamese community in response to the Federal Government's ongoing refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations, Stephenson traces some of the current reasons for the lack of interaction between those theorised as Other in settler-indigene and Anglo-Ethnic conceptions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the historical proofs of the mistreatment of migrant groups, there is reason to suggest continuity in the behaviour of settler nations towards non-white peoples. Rita Wong's examination of the Canadian government's treatment of recent refugees to Canada provides similarities with Australia's own human rights record in this area. This impulse to criminalise refugee seekers is certainly one shared by both nations. The racialisation of the refugees in the media and government rhetoric implies that the persecution of Asians in Canada is not only an historical event.

A further relevant international comparison to the Australian situation is evident in South Africa, where issues of reconciliation and apology for historical misdeeds have gained great societal prominence. Despite the limitations of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there was an intimacy to the discourses of apology made possible by the presence of 'perpetrator' and 'victim' in the same room: institutional space was provided by the Commission for the confessions of the perpetrators of human rights violations.

These personal reconciliations intensify the focus on the apology to the 'victims' of human rights violations, and emphasise the personal accountability of those who perpetrated such acts. From her article on the workings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Andie Miller's conclusion suggests that the official impulse to reconcile-a feature of both Australia's and South Africa's version of national redemption-cannot produce results that are acceptable to all elements of society. Likewise, an emphasis on personal investment in an 'apology' is apparent in the contributions of Kwok and Hughes in this issue.

Even now, the reconciliation issue remains the locus of much angst and self-reflection. Having a gathering such as Australia Deliberates: Reconciliation for the 21st Century -- which was screened mid-February 2001 by the ABC -- aptly demonstrates the range of complex societal changes which need to take place. More to the point, the concept of reconciliation must move, as Jackie Huggins argues, from being a deed to becoming a plan ("Australia Deliberates").

Author Biographies

Paul Newman


Tseen Khoo


Kathryn Goldie