Thursday, January 31

Why not use John Howard's sincere and moving apology?

A fortnight to go, and we will hear that long awaited sorry. Kevin Rudd has promised his new national government will deliver its apology to Australia's Aboriginal people on February 13.

It will be an emotional time. I expect to see some of my fellow Australians weeping, Aboriginals who experienced or know of the years of dispossession, family separations and social exclusion. And more than a few whitefellas, too. Even your grumpy old blogger will have a box of tissues nearby, just in case.

The Federal Government is still negotiating with Aboriginal leaders on the phrasing of the apology.

However, I'd like to suggest we use the text of an apology given by John Howard on July 3, 2000. (There's a bit of trick here, but if you don't know of it I'll explain later.)

Good evening. My name is John Howard and I'm speaking to you from Sydney, Australia, host city of the year 2000 Olympic Games.

At this important time, and in an atmosphere of international goodwill and national pride, we here in Australia – all of us – would like to make a statement before all nations. Australia, like many countries in the new world, is intensely proud of what it has achieved in the past 200 years.

We are a vibrant and resourceful people. We share a freedom born in the abundance of nature, the richness of the earth, the bounty of the sea. We are the world's biggest island. We have the world's longest coastline. We have more animal species than any other country. Two thirds of the world's birds are native to Australia. We are one of the few countries on earth with our own sky. We are a fabric woven of many colours and it is this that gives us our strength.

However, these achievements have come at great cost. We have been here for 200 years but before that, there was a people living here. For 40,000 years they lived in a perfect balance with the land.

There were many Aboriginal nations, just as there were many Indian nations in North America and across Canada, as there were many Maori tribes in New Zealand and Incan and Mayan peoples in South America.

These indigenous Australians lived in areas as different from one another as Scotland is from Ethiopia. They lived in an area the size of Western Europe. They did not even have a common language. Yet they had their own laws, their own beliefs, their own ways of understanding.

We destroyed this world.

We often did not mean to do it. Our forebears, fighting to establish themselves in what they saw as a harsh environment, were creating a national economy. But the Aboriginal world was decimated. A pattern of disease and dispossession was established. Alcohol was introduced. Social and racial differences were allowed to become fault-lines. Aboriginal families were broken up.

Sadly, Aboriginal health and education are responsibilities we have still yet to address successfully.

I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry. Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future. Thank you.

John Howard, July 3, 2000

To my mind, the apology, delivered by a John Howard seen indistinctly but heard clearly across the nation on ABC television, says all the right things, and could provide the basis of our nation's apology.

The John Howard who delivered the apology was not, of course, the Prime Minister we have recently voted out, but the Australian actor hired to appear on the ABC's satirical and somewhat manic series The Games.

In this episode, the Olympic Games organisers are frantic – visiting dignitaries will strip the games from Australia unless they hear that apology. So they call in the actor to pretend to be the Prime Minister, stand him in shadows, and have him read the words above.

The ABC noted: Any other John Howard who wishes to make this announcement should apply for copyright permission here, which will be granted immediately.

Most sorry resolutions passed by our state parliaments about a decade ago were apologies for the Stolen Generation, and it seems this will be focus of the Rudd government's apology on behalf of the nation.

I believe our nation should express sorrow for the wider suffering experienced by Aboriginal people since Europeans arrived on their lands, including the removal of children from their families. We need not assume the policies of our governments and the actions of some of our white settlers had evil or genocidal intent – although, at times, that may have been true – but we should acknowlege that often they were disastrous, and for that we should be sorry.

Nobody else seems to have noted it, but there's a remarkable resonance between the apology above and words written by historian Geoffrey Blainey quarter of a century ago.

In many ways the European history of this land has been a remarkable achievement. Today this land feeds fifty times as many Australians as it fed in Aboriginal times. We clothe hundreds of millions of people, across the seas; we supply minerals to hundreds of millions of people; and we feed millions in other lands.

But this great European achievement has been accompanied by failures. And the greatest of all the failures is the dispossession of the people who once roamed these lands.

As a nation we have to redeem that failure. We have to remind ourselves that we were not the only pioneers. We have to give back to Aboriginals the hope and the sense of security they have lost.

Blainey goes on to express reservations about land rights, but says:

Aboriginal land rights is not a gateway to paradise. But I can't help thinking that if this land is to be one land, and we are all to be one people, then we have no alternative but to give Aboriginals a
reasonable share of that land which was once their own.

The historian wrote these words in the opening chapter of The Blainey View, which accompanied the ABC television series of that name in 1982.

* I'm a member of the Central Coast Reconciliation Group. My views might not be shared by all members of the group, and I appreciate their tolerance and understanding if at times we differ.

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