National Sorry Day

Below is the transcript of a speech I delivered at the National Sorry Day ceremony at the University of Canberra, 4 June 2008. I dedicate this speech to my niece, Marley, who is Torres Strait Islander and part of my family.
Good afternoon. I must say I am pleased to be able to speak here today. For many years I wanted to live and work in Canberra as a political scientist, and fortunately I speak here today in that capacity. My position as a lecturer in politics here at the University of Canberra, Australia’s Capital University, has provided me with the opportunity to practice my craft close to the centre of government. But for some reason, nothing really happened in Canberra from the time I arrived in 1999 until 13 February this year when the Rudd Government offered a broad apology to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and particularly the Stolen Generations for their "profound grief, suffering and loss". Ten years of nothing, and then suddenly one of the most significant milestones in Australian political history. Ten years of waiting in Canberra for that once-in-a-generation event to be a part of - and I find myself stuck in Melbourne! So on the 13th February 2008, while sitting in a union conference in Melbourne, I listened to the Prime Minister deliver the National Apology. Mr Rudd said sorry:
  • For the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on our fellow Australians.
  • For the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
  • For the pain, suffering and hurt of the Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind.
  • For the breaking up of families and communities.
  • For the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture.

Just over a decade ago, on 26th May 1998, a 'Sorry Day' was held to mark one year after the tabling in Federal Parliament of a report of the National Inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families – or what is more commonly known as the “Bringing Them Home” report. Today we honour that tradition, but we do so in unique circumstances – a key recommendation in the “Bringing Them Home” report was that Indigenous people affected by policies of forced removal should receive an acknowledgement of responsibility and apology from all Australian parliaments and other agencies which implemented policies of forcible removal. Symbolically, that recommendation was implemented just a few months ago and this is the first National Sorry Day commemorating, rather than calling for, a National Apology.

The National Apology was at least a step in the right direction, focusing particularly on the Stolen Generations – but importantly; it went further in that it acknowledged “the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture”. This last point is very important and I would like to relate it back to the University of Canberra.

You may be aware that the University of Canberra has a 39 Step Strategic Plan to reinvigorate this place. Fittingly, Step 1 is to “Ensure that respect for Australia's traditional owners and concern for their current circumstances influences our plans and actions”. Step 39 is to: “Set and meet ambitious targets and standards, as a signatory to the Talloires (pronounced Tal-Whar) Declaration, to reduce our ecological footprint”. Much like the novel by John Buchan, the “39 Steps” has its meaning in a thread that runs through the whole story. And this story is applicable to today’s ceremony.

Global warming, environmental degradation and rampant capitalism and consumerism mean that survival of the species will be an issue for future generations. Following at least the official end to 220 years of institutionalised racism, it is fitting that we acknowledge the “proud people” and “proud culture” who represent the oldest surviving culture in the world. These people interacted with the land in sustainable ways for some 40,000 to 80,000 years, whereas so-called “civilized peoples” have destroyed natural wonders in this Great Land in a handful of generations. The pluralist Aboriginal society with its traditional laws and customs provides many lessons for a sustainable future and the National Apology was the first step in rectifying the racist attitudes of Australian society in the last 220 years. But has it really changed the way we do things here? Do we have the courage to ensure that the indignity and degradation brought upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by institutionalised racism does not keep happening?

The National Apology was not the end of the reconciliation process. Indeed, it is only the beginning. March and Olsen refer to institutions as the “rules, routines, and procedures” which order political life; the “way things are done here”, if you like. Well may we say that the National Apology broke with the tradition of stalling the reconciliation process, but do not be fooled. The “Bringing Them Home” report also called for compensation, but this has been deliberately excluded from the political discourse. The “way things are done here” hasn’t really changed, and it will be up to people like those gathered here to keep putting the issues back on the political agenda. So while we celebrate this year’s National Sorry Day and the year that was, we must not let the momentum stall or the symbolism of the National Apology will be just that – a symbol. In closing, let me say that the proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the sustainable culture they established in a history spanning tens of thousands of years is very relevant to humanity today, and while symbolism is an important First Step, there is still much work to be done.