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.