I have just crowded round a computer screen with my colleagues to watch Australia’s new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, make an historic speech in Parliament. The word ‘historic’ is over-used, but this time it is genuinely warranted I think.
Or is it? I’m not sure how I feel about this speech, to be honest.
Is it just words? And if it is, is that neccessarily a bad thing? Words can be powerful.
He said “Sorry” to the Stolen Generations on behalf of the government, parliament and non-indigenous people of Australia for the pain and suffering caused by the removal of children from their families by state and religious officials over a period of a hundred years.
A hundred years!
I can’t even imagine what that must do to a community.
Anyway, it was a good speech, eloquent and sincere, and it did not mince words. Mr Rudd ended positively, looking to a future of reconciliation and cross-party co-operation to improve opportunites for indigenous Australians.
[One example of the inequality: there is a 17 year difference in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.]
As a foreigner here – particularly one from a country and continent which not only has a long history of institutional racism and colonialism by cannon but whose own government’s policies and whose own people’s beliefs were the root of the legislation here – I wonder what the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to whom the apology is addressed will make of it.
My Australian colleagues by and large seem to feel relieved that the apology has finally been made, although understandably uncomfortable being reminded of something for which they are collectively held responsible, despite the fact that many of their families were not actually in Australia between 1869 and 1969. An apology implies guilt, after all.
Yet, as in any relationship, its all very well saying sorry; what are we actually going to do to change things for the better? There seem to have been any number of well-intentioned and well-funded schemes in recent years aimed at improving education, healthcare and housing in indigenous communities. Most seem to have met with a fairly spectacular lack of success.
I don’t know anywhere near enough about the issue to venture an opinion on why they might have been unsuccessful. I don’t know any indigenous Australians and have never even visited an indigenous community.
So how is a country supposed to reconcile two very different communities into one nation when it doesn’t know how to tackle the basic problems which perpetuate those differences?
Are we misguided in attempting to make us all ‘the same’. Isn’t difference okay? Can it be a choice – our society and culture or theirs?
Saying sorry is hard, but changing one’s behaviour to avoid having to say sorry again in the future is the really tricky bit.