Social Justice from the Confessional?

How to Cite

Hughes, L. (2001). Social Justice from the Confessional?. M/C Journal, 4(1).
Vol. 4 No. 1 (2001): Sorry
Published 2001-02-01

In early February 2001, the greater Ipswich region was dotted with advertising posters for New Idea featuring a full picture of Pauline Hanson, dressed in lily white. The determined look of a much put-upon woman ready to do battle for home and hearth is worn into her slightly smiling face. The heading reads "PAULINE’S BACK – ‘I’ll NEVER say sorry’".

Central in the conceptualisation of this issue of M/C was consideration of what a change of Prime Minister might mean for prospects of an apology to the Stolen Generations, given that the current leader is never likely to give one. In New Idea, Hanson makes it clear that she will not apologise, and yet she is unclear in her own inimitable way: "I will never say sorry to the Aborigines. ¼ Why should I say sorry? I don’t think John Howard should say sorry either. Once he does, the Government will be liable to pay out huge compensation to the Aborigines. That’s what they’re after – money!" (Lloyd 14).

Here Hanson is clearly missing the point of the whole ‘Bringing Them Home’ Inquiry and yet, in the midst of all her aggression, she suddenly makes a valid point: "[t]hey want an admission that we did wrong by them and continue to do so. ¼ We should accept and acknowledge what has happened and make sure it never happens again" (Lloyd 14). This is punctuated by the declaration that members of the Stolen Generations should somehow simply stop ‘dwelling on it’ – it is this different attitude that is needed to effect ‘change’, and by ‘change’ Hanson does not necessarily mean any improvements for Indigenous peoples. The article goes on to link the apology with ‘handouts’, which should cease, and the problem of ‘divisions’ within the country as a result of Native Title and land rights.

Clearly New Idea has chosen to market this story by choosing a headline which uses the topical issue of an apology to the Stolen Generations, and created a new focus of anger for Hanson’s supporters in the process: an article intended to promote Hanson’s attempts at political survival becomes an onslaught against the acknowledgment of history’s mistakes. As the rise of Pauline Hanson has illustrated, such a message holds considerable weight in public sentiments, even among people who do not directly embrace such ideas.

Hanson came close to expressing personal sorrow towards Indigenous people in the initial letter which brought her celebrity in 1996: "I would be the first to admit that, not that many years ago, the Aborigines were treated wrongly but in trying to correct this they have gone too far. I don’t feel responsible for the treatment of Aboriginal people in the past because I had no say, but my concern is for now and the future" (14). Howard has done better, offering a far less conditional personal apology on occasion and acknowledging, after a period of equivocation when he first became Prime Minister, the disadvantage faced by Indigenous people. However, he is still unwilling to offer an official apology as leader of the nation ("Transcript of the Prime Minister").

Apology may certainly involve fear of compensation, as Hanson argues, and we must acknowledge the difficulty of making an apology that is meaningful. The act of saying sorry does not absolve all blame and those supporting a genuine form of reconciliation must recognise, and continually combat, the enduring dynamics of racialisation and denial.

The best example of a formal apology to the Stolen Generations would include profound sorrow for what my forebears and I, and those from whom I have so richly benefited, have done and are doing to Indigenous people. However, I am unwilling to accept that an apology could be as politically or practically significant in itself as current movements seems to suggest. At most, it is only an opening into a process that might lead to a better way for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to deal with each other, but would seem very unlikely to change relations between Indigenous peoples and the Australian state. Years of hearing about Reconciliation and calls for governments to make amends with Indigenous peoples for the great crimes of Australian history have left me frustrated and despondent. This is partly because the current Federal Government does not seem driven to constructive action, and partly because reconciliation would seem to entail something more tangible than ‘performances’ of redemption and sorrow.

When moves for a public forum for apology to the Stolen Generations were first made I struggled with the usefulness of the idea. It may be a good first step to acknowledge that horrible wrongs have been done, to express sorrow that such things have happened – and it is certainly better than (the still very common) outright or partial denial. Social justice, however, does not come from the confessional, and concepts such as an apology and Reconciliation can have diametrically opposed meanings in practice for different people.

What has it meant for the Prime Minister of Australia to express personal sorrow? What have the formal apologies of other political leaders in Australia actually meant? Apologies of this nature are not to be made at all lightly. I am of the opinion that an apology to the Stolen Generations needs to take into account a web of interrelated events and political aspirations linked to the invasion of this continent.

I take the apologies of State political leaders and the Federal Opposition with reservation. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, in announcing the Federal Government’s acceptance of the Native Title decision, made magnanimous admissions of guilt on behalf of the Australian state, including special mention of the Stolen Generations. Yet within the same speech he initiated the major acquisition of Aboriginal lands with the Native Title Act. In the first instance, this did little more than guarantee the title interests of non-Indigenous invaders and their descendants. It seems that nothing is returned or acknowledged to Aboriginal people without something more significant being taken. The symbolic politics of being seen to be righting the historical wrongs has to go much further if this ritual is not to be repeated. The persistence of colonialist practices in Australian government structures and policies that pertain to Indigenous Australians is an issue yet to be addressed.

In this environment, apologies are accompanied by repetitions of those same or related abuses. In early 1994, Aunty Maureen Watson of the Brisbane Council of Elders spoke of the situation of the German people and government who, having apologised for the Holocaust, made guarantees that it would never happen again. She made the point that this has never happened in Australia, and with increasing political conservatism, it seems unlikely that laws against the denial of historical atrocities would be considered in this country.

In relation to the realities of past government policies towards Indigenous peoples and the Stolen Generations, it is clear that many people are outraged and welcome the chance to say so.

If people took the implications of apology seriously, they would realise that merely saying sorry is not enough. Even while the act of apologising raises the issue of compensation, this politically significant step is a necessary one.

The possibility of an apology has introduced the opportunity for Australians to think about the tragedies of our nation’s past and our inherited responsibility for these events, and for the benefits we have gained as a result. It has also provided an opportunity for individuals involved in the removals to think carefully about their involvement and to make amends for their individual actions. It cannot be, however, a substitute for the great recompense that is due Indigenous peoples, and merely serves as a starting point.

Author Biography

Lynette Hughes