Unfinished Business: Moving beyond the Australian National Apology (2008) towards Indigenous justice

In 2008, a National Apology was offered on behalf of the Australian Government to the Indigenous people of Australia, particularly for the Stolen Generations. Although the apology was constructed under the guise of reconciliation, it represented a shift in political discourse with regards to strategies of governance. Over a decade later there is much unfinished business which needs to be addressed in the move towards Indigenous justice and a united Australia.

Sharon Hartles photoSharon Hartles is a MA Postgraduate Crime and Justice student with the Open University.  She has an interest in crimes of the powerful, including state and state-corporate crime.  In an explicit attempt to move beyond criminology, she draws upon a zemiological approach to evidence the social, political and economic context in which crime is produced and interwoven into society via socio-economic inequalities.

 

On the 13th February 2008, the seventy-third day of his Prime Ministership and his first act of office, the then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (on behalf of the government) moved a motion of Apology to the Indigenous Australians in which he stated: “For the pain, suffering and hurt of the stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we are sorry”. Dominant mediated discourse formulated The National Apology in order to offer the spirit of healing, to enable a future in which a new page in its history could be re-written: a future in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are reconciled and united as one Australian nation. For this reason, the 13th February 2008 was deemed to be a monumental day in Australia’s history. Selected Indigenous voices celebrated the occasion declaring how the apology had changed the history books for Aboriginal people.  On the tenth year anniversary of the National Apology, Australian Government sponsored propaganda commemorated what it had achieved so far in its  journey towards reconciling the nation. However, a removal of the rose tinted glasses reveals an alternative version of the ‘truth’.

The National Apology went firmly against the stance held by Kevin Rudd’s predecessor John Howard during his time as Prime Minister, March 1996 – December 2007, who refused to say the word sorry on the basis that Australians of today are not responsible for the actions of an earlier generation and he “did not subscribe to the black armband view of history”. Moreover, archived and seemly forgotten was the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 (NERB). Extreme authoritarian and totalitarian proposed interventions deemed a justified response to tackle the Aboriginal Problem. Programmes incorporated the following: a five year takeover of sixty Indigenous communities; soldiers and police were to oversee and enforce alcohol and pornography bans; quarantining of welfare payments for the purpose of ensuring money would be spent on necessities, and furthermore the compulsory testing of Indigenous children for signs of sexual abuse.  The NERB was the emergency response to address the serious problems highlighted in the Little Children are Sacred, 2007 report.  Apparently, the protection of children from ubiquitous social harm and abuse is of paramount concern to all Australians…  All Australians except those Indigenous communities who resided in the Northern Territory!  Incredulously, less than six months prior to the National Apology the NERB reflected populist and dominant state rhetoric which was clearly entrenched in colonial, imperialistic and white supremacist ethnocentrism.  With little irony, all of this was swept under the carpet with the election of a new Australian Prime Minister and government. Furthermore a disclaimer denounced this discourse to be that which was authorised by ‘previous’ Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries and departments. In this way previous hegemonic ideology was excused.

With this in mind, a critical viewpoint may suggest that the offered National Apology was constructed in part to appease the widespread backlash and public outrage incited by the proposed NERB. Moreover, the National Apology constructed under the guise of reconciliation merely represents a shift in political discourse. Instead of favouring a crime-control approach taking the form of the NERB, the Australian Government shifted its approach to governing the Indigenous population through a social welfare approach, concealed under the veil of reconciliation.

Kevin Rudd, in his role of Prime Minister and on behalf of the new government offered an apology to the Indigenous people in atonement for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. Nevertheless, lessons have not been learnt and the practice of removing Indigenous children from their families persists. 17,664 Indigenous children were in out-of-home care in 2016-17, compared with 9,070 in 2007-08. Therefore this equates to a staggering 80% removal rate increase between 2007-08 to 2016-17, from 32.7 per 1,000 to 58.7 per 1,000. Furthermore, in contrast to the ten year anniversary propaganda promoted by the Australian Government, a reconciliation progress report published by the Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) (2010) offered an alternative truth. The ANTaR report noted the government failings to advance on the pledges in its reconciliation blueprint; making six recommendations to address this and ‘close the gaps‘. Eight year later (2018) ANTaR’s review highlights the governments continued drift away from the commitments it made in the original proposal.

And what of the constructed offered apology?  It was a very small step in the right direction, insofar as it partially acknowledged the brutal destruction of Aboriginal society which non-Indigenous populations has systematically and progressively erased from collective memory, referred to as the Great Australian Silence. However, can a partial half-truth or a historical revision of past events really unite the Australian nation? The constructed National Apology was flawless in its meticulous choice of discourse, and exemplified strategies of state-denial and state omission. ‘Mistreatments, mistakes, injustices, wrong-doings of the past’ NOT forced abduction which was sanctioned by colonial and post-colonial laws, underpinned by assumptions of superiority of the migrants (and their descendants).  All done in a bid to Westernise and civilise the Aborigines while eradicating their culture.  No mention at all of other state-sanctioned ‘crimes’ such as murders, land grabbing or cultural genocide or annihilation. In fact John Howard did not accept “that genocide had been practised against the Indigenous people”. ​

If the Australian Government truly wishes to strive towards Indigenous justice and bring together all Australian people and atone for its past, surely this must begin by being honest and acknowledging its state-sanctioned ‘crimes’ which have resulted in intergenerational trauma. While the Aboriginal people patiently wait, and show remarkable dignity and fortitude they continue to suffer a multitude of harms ranging from: physical, financial, economic, denial of cultural safety, emotional and psychological abuse, which have been (and are still being) inflicted upon them by the Australian Government’s constructed apologetic half-truths about past (and present) events.

Originally posted on:  sharonhartles.weebly.com

 

Contact

Sharon Hartles, MA Postgraduate Crime and Justice student with the Open University

Email: sh28739@ou.ac.uk

Twitter: @shartles1

Images: courtesy of Flickr

One thought on “Unfinished Business: Moving beyond the Australian National Apology (2008) towards Indigenous justice”

  1. Thank you Sharon for sharing this insightful blog. The scope of analysis does illustrate alternative interpretations of historical and unremitting injustice. The monumental day seems as ephemeral as the vapour trails which have long since faded, reconciliation notwithstanding …
    Regards, Paul Markson

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