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Apology debate: Some notes on the discussion so far.

by Peter Boyle

February 13 was an historic moment in Australian politics. The federal Parliament's apology for the Stolen Generations had a certain value independent of what the Rudd Labor government intends to do or not to do to address the real oppression of Indigenous Australians.

Because the official denial of Australia's horrendously racist modern history went on so long (indeed became extremely strident as part of the reactionary reversals by conservative governments over the last couple of decades) alone made this moment very significant.

Then there is the psychological value. One of the worst aspects of systematic oppression is the building into the the consciousness of the oppressed that deep-seated sense of inferiority. Racism does this very well, and even the post-70s reforms in wealthy imperialist countries like Australia, many Indigenous Australians are forced to feel inferior.

Many walk through the streets of modern Australia with their eyes looking out for the hidden barriers and lines that marks a sort of apartheid that lives on informally. Life becomes a struggle against the poisonous self-doubt of inferiority. So a formal apology, especially when delivered in the clear way that PM Kevin Rudd delivered it, has a great value to Indigenous Australians.

Not one of the Aboriginal people I spoke to outside the Parliament in Canberra on the eve of the apology dismissed it was a waste of time of meaningless. Indeed quite the opposite, the apology was charged with meaning.

Yet at the same time, not one thought that an apology was enough. Natasha, a young Indigenous woman from Perth, a city still drenched in racism and hatred for Aborigines, put it succinctly: "It is only the start of a much bigger process that needs to happen."

Fred, a Koori man who had come up from Sydney, one of the Stolen Generations (and still painfully battling its consequences) was choked with emotion. This was a longtime coming, he said, but he had mixed feelings. If people like Fred are going to be forced to fight through the courts for any compensation, then what justice is there?

Aboriginal lawyer and veteran activist Michael Mansell summed up the contradiction. Other people in Australia expect compensation as a right for lesser wrongs so why not the victims of systematic racism?

The Rudd Labor government will be recorded in history as having taken an historic step for justice for Indigenous Australians but it does not deserve unconditional praise. The Labor politicians joined with the Liberal-National opposition to vote down a Greens motion calling for compensation for the Stolen Generations that same Wednesday. And built into Rudd's mostly fine apology speech were two Blairite words pregnant with reactionary meaning "mutual obligation".

Then there is Howard government-initiated and Labor supported military-style intervention into Northern Territory remote Aboriginal communities, supposedly to save the children of those communities from sexual abuse and other depravities. The real record so far has shown it up to be a racist, cynical and largely ineffective adventure which has returned some aspects of the "protectionist" regime that spawned the Stolen Generations through 70% of the 20th century. Rudd Labor wants it to continue, with modifications which we are yet to see spelt out. The communities affected were in Canberra to say they wanted the intervention terminated now.

Should the left give Rudd Labor a chance to show that it will do good beyond the apology? The answer of the protestors in Canberra on February 12 was a resounding "no". They knew we only got this far because of struggle, struggle that put the pressure on Rudd Labor to make the long-overdue apology and they know that only by maintaining that pressure do we have any chance of preventing this moment from becoming what a local cartoonist in the Sydney Morning Herald today summed up with the caption: "And now...moving right along."

There was also the awareness that the expectations and confidence raised by this victory could help us in the struggles still ahead.

See Allan Moir's cartoon here:


Cartoonist Moir was lampooning but the Murdoch-owned Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, did not have satire in mind with its crude cover headline: "Now look to the future"


As Moir said, moving right along... they hope. Our duty is to help dash that hope.

1 Com:

Ibrahim | February 18, 2008

I enjoyed your post & thoughts on this, Peter. My worst fear is that the apology may, in fact, hamper efforts for indigenous rights. Throughout the Howard years, even though the middle class mostly loved him, there was a nagging sense of moral guilt amongst the liberal bourgeoisie over Howard's approach to the Stolen Generations (and refugees). After Rudd's apology, though, Australia's middle class are feeling pretty damn good about themselves. I can't recall how many "hold on a minute..." conversations I had with friends over the last week on this topic, trying to convince them that the apology wasn't the panacea Rudd made it out to be. With the bourgeoisie out of the picture, will the pressure be off the government to address indigenous oppression? It seems to me that we may be headed back where we were a generation ago, with indigenous rights an issue for indigenous people and the left. That is, the people who want a proper approach to this matter; deal with the stolen country, not just the stolen children. Get to the root of our British imperialist history, don't patch over the guilty consciences of handwringing liberals with grand ceremonies. This is why a Marxist approach will always have the last say over conservative reformism, however well intentioned.

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