A day to remember

Many years ago, when I was four or five, my parents got my brothers and me up to watch one of the lunar missions returning to earth, on what was then our very new and exciting black and white TV. I can recall shots of the sea, and not much more. I think they were live shots, but my memory could be playing me false here – it could be that film was flown out to New Zealand and then shown on TV. But in that case, I can’t think why Mum and Dad would have gotten us up specially to watch it. What I do remember is the occasion, and why it was important.

Fast forward a few decades, to a different country, and a much larger colour TV (flat screen, digital, bells and whistles, and not something we had intended to get just yet, but our old TV suffered from mechanical derangement in the move over the Tasman).

Today, my husband and I got our children to watch the apology to Indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generation being read in Federal Parliament by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. We want our girls to remember this day, or even if they don’t remember the day itself, to remember that we got them to watch and witness when the Prime Minister, in the Federal Parliament, said “Sorry.”

Saying sorry is important. The words really do matter. Here’s why.

I wrote, months ago, about the republican account of freedom as non-domination. A free person is someone who can stand tall, who can look others in the eye, who need not constrain her actions for fear of other people’s reactions. She is a person is with standing, one who can treat with the powerful, can act without fear of unjust retribution, can take her place in the community. She is free from domination.

Freedom as non-domination is a highly social sense of freedom – a free person is one who enjoys standing within social settings. And it is an institutional sense of freedom. The republican account of freedom looks at the relationships between people, and the institutional structures that guarantee freedom. So a person is not accounted free just because of a happy coincidence; she is only free if the world is organised in such a way that she is necessarily free.

This account of freedom can be used to explain what goes on when one person commits a crime against another. Very roughly, the person who commits the crime dominates the other, remove her freedom, and constrains her actions. The offender does not see the victim as a citizen, someone who enjoys freedom as non-domination.

I know, my account here is, well, thin, when it comes to crimes like rape and murder, and it could do with a lot more explanation. If you want to follow up on this, then the book to look for is Not Just Deserts: A Republican Theory of Criminal Justice, by John Braithwaite and Philip Pettit, (OUP: 1990). But the account does work quite nicely when it comes to the treatment of Indigenous Australians. For an incredibly long time, their citizenship was formally and literally denied, and even when that was changed, the treatment of Indigenous Australians by other Australians denied that Indigenous Australians had any rights, even, at its extremes, denied that they might have any status as human beings, and certainly denied them the same sort of status as other Australian citizens. They were totally dominated, treated as being of little account, treated as being some sort of irritation on the Australian polity.

So how to start restoring the status of Aboriginal people, as full citizens, as people who can stand tall and look the other in the eye, secure and respected in their freedom?

Braithwaite and Pettit argue that where a crime has been detected, and the offender convicted, then there should be recognition, recompense and reassurance. The offender must recognise that she has offended against the victim, compromising his standing as a citizen who enjoys freedom as non-domination. She must take steps to make good the victim’s losses, through compensation or whatever other steps are thought necessary. And she must reassure the victim that the actions or circumstances which created the crime will not re-occur.

I think Australia has done a lot of hard work with recognising that a great wrong occurred. To be sure, at least some people thought they were doing the right thing when Aboriginal children were taken from their families, in what we now know as the Stolen Generation, but whatever the intent of those who devised the polices and implemented them, the fact was that a great wrong occurred. (Rather than getting into “did it / didn’t it” occur discussions here, there’s a great post and links and comments thread – Debunking Windschuttle on Larvatus Prodeo for anyone who wants to argue that there never was a stolen generation.)

Some work on recompense is starting to happen, with claims against state and territory governments. More on that in a moment. It’s the third “R” I want to concentrate on, reassurance.

The victim needs to know that she will not be vulnerable to the crime again. She needs to know, not just the the offence is recognised, and the compensation has been paid, but that it will never reoccur. That’s why the apology is so important. After all, if it was only about recognition and recompense, then in a perverse market solution, it could become okay to commit crimes, provided you paid the price afterwards. Payment rendered for goods taken. And of course, transactions can always be repeated.

That’s why standing up and saying sorry matters so very much. The apology ties the recognition and recompense together, and binds them into a reassurance that the crime will not happen again.

Of course, paying compensation reinforces the strength of the apology. It turns the words from being mere words, into a genuine and sincere acknowledgement of past wrongs, and a clear signal that all efforts will be made to ensure that such a crime will not occur again, that the victims of the crime are no longer vulnerable to domination, that they are free citizens standing tall and proud.

That means that the next steps that the Rudd government takes are very important. From the outside at least, the recent John Howard inspired incursion into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory looks suspiciously like another version of the Stolen Generation. In addition, so far, Rudd has not talked about recompense. However, for today, that should not detract from the enormous step that has been taken with the apology. And the apology contained this important sentence:

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

It’s a first step.

Alas, this morning we had time only to watch the apology itself, and a little of Mr Rudd’s speech, before we had to take the girls to school. We don’t know how long we will be living in Australia – it could be a few years, or it could be forever. There’s a good chance that our girls will become Australians in substance, not just form (they all have Australian citizenship, by birth or by descent, in addition to NZ citizenship). As Australians, I think that it is important for them to know that they witnessed the moment when the leader of the nation had the courage and the integrity to say, “Sorry.”

Update over the break.

Update: Kevin Rudd’s accompanying speech is on-line here. He’s bakcing the apology up with some concrete proposals. Here’s a couple of extracts.

Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot. For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong. It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history. Today’s apology, however inadequate, is aimed at righting past wrongs. It is also aimed at building a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—a bridge based on a real respect rather than a thinly veiled contempt. Our challenge for the future is to cross that bridge and, in so doing, to embrace a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—to embrace, as part of that partnership, expanded Link-up and other critical services to help the stolen generations to trace their families if at all possible and to provide dignity to their lives. But the core of this partnership for the future is to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities. This new partnership on closing the gap will set concrete targets for the future: within a decade to halve the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes and opportunities for Indigenous Australians, within a decade to halve the appalling gap in infant mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and, within a generation, to close the equally appalling 17-year life gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in overall life expectancy.

The truth is: a business as usual approach towards Indigenous Australians is not working. Most old approaches are not working. We need a new beginning—a new beginning which contains real measures of policy success or policy failure; a new beginning, a new partnership, on closing the gap with sufficient flexibility not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the hundreds of remote and regional Indigenous communities across the country but instead allowing flexible, tailored, local approaches to achieve commonly-agreed national objectives that lie at the core of our proposed new partnership; a new beginning that draws intelligently on the experiences of new policy settings across the nation. However, unless we as a parliament set a destination for the nation, we have no clear point to guide our policy, our programs or our purpose; we have no centralised organising principle.

Let us resolve today to begin with the little children—a fitting place to start on this day of apology for the stolen generations. Let us resolve over the next five years to have every Indigenous four-year-old in a remote Aboriginal community enrolled in and attending a proper early childhood education centre or opportunity and engaged in proper preliteracy and prenumeracy programs. Let us resolve to build new educational opportunities for these little ones, year by year, step by step, following the completion of their crucial preschool year. Let us resolve to use this systematic approach to build future educational opportunities for Indigenous children to provide proper primary and preventive health care for the same children, to begin the task of rolling back the obscenity that we find today in infant mortality rates in remote Indigenous communities—up to four times higher than in other communities.

Concrete steps, concrete, measurable goals. And for New Zealanders, very curious echoes of “Closing the Gaps” and “partnership”.

And then this remarkable proposal.

Let me take this one step further and take what some may see as a piece of political posturing and make a practical proposal to the opposition on this day, the first full sitting day of the new parliament. I said before the election that the nation needed a kind of war cabinet on parts of Indigenous policy, because the challenges are too great and the consequences are too great to allow it all to become a political football, as it has been so often in the past. I therefore propose a joint policy commission, to be led by the Leader of the Opposition and me, with a mandate to develop and implement—to begin with—an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years. It will be consistent with the government’s policy framework, a new partnership for closing the gap. If this commission operates well, I then propose that it work on the further task of constitutional recognition of the first Australians, consistent with the longstanding platform commitments of my party and the pre-election position of the opposition. This would probably be desirable in any event because, unless such a proposition were absolutely bipartisan, it would fail at a referendum. As I have said before, the time has come for new approaches to enduring problems. Working constructively together on such defined projects would, I believe, meet with the support of the nation. It is time for fresh ideas to fashion the nation’s future.

One of the many things I admire about Australians, and Australian approaches, is their “can do” attitude. Enough angst ridden hand wringing – it’s time for action.

I hope they can do it.

8 responses to “A day to remember

  1. Brilliant post Deborah!

  2. I too watched the apology and was impressed, but within moments of finishing it he’d degenerated into deliberately meaningless blather and I couldn’t take it any more. I hope we get actual concrete reforms and compensation and while I’m more hopeful that Rudd can lead his government to do so, the more I watch him rather than reading about him the less hopeful I become. I’m choosing not to watch.

  3. I hope they can do it.

    Well, so do I Deborah. Because the easy bit is done, and Aboriginal communities have ample reason to believe that talk in Canberra isn’t only cheap, it’s utterly worthless.

    Let’s just see if Austrailia deserves to pat itself on the back when Rudd introduces some legislation that involves speak some hard truths nobody wants to listen to — that all that fine talk above is going to require a LOT of cold hard cash for a very long time.

    Let’s see Kevin Rudd and Brenden Nelson have the balls to stand shoulder to shoulder next election year and say that the people who are on the shitty end of every social indicator you can imagine (and a few you haven’t) deserve more attention than pork barrel projects in key marginals and pandering to sectional interests.

    Do something that involves real political courage and vision, and I’ll applaud.

  4. Yes, I would like to see the money going where the mouth is too. It’s not going to be cheap.

    I’m prepared to wait and see, but not too long. Rudd himself set some goals in that speech – Let us resolve over the next five years to have every Indigenous four-year-old in a remote Aboriginal community enrolled in and attending a proper early childhood education centre or opportunity and engaged in proper preliteracy and prenumeracy programs.

    So, five years to prove that it’s not all empty talk? Seems like a fair enough time frame to me.

  5. i get what craig is saying, but part of the solution is a leadership who’s willing to accept that aboriginal people are something more than a national burden.

    the symbolism of an apology, and the lift that *aboriginal people themselves* get from it, is what’s really important.

    you can’t have social mobility if you have an entire ethnic group that is convinced it’s worthless to the majority, and therefore shouldn’t bother trying.

    the sorry will hopefully also signal a shift in thinking about how to remedy aboriginal disadvantage. maybe there will be less “send in the troops to rescue them from themselves”, and more “how about we listen to the aboriginal people coming up with their own solutions.”

    you know, just like new zealand in 1975.

  6. Do any of you learned people have an opinion on “Aboriginal” as a catch-all phrase for indigenous Australians? I can’t stand it myself, the word itself just seems like a synonym for “native”, or “those black people who were here first”. The lack of any cultural identity associated with using it for an entire race bothers me.

  7. when i was in melbourne i was asked to use “aboriginal people” by an aboriginal academic.

    but i think these things are cyclical. she asked me when i was using, what i thought was the PC term, ‘koorie’.