The Sins of the Nation & the Ritual of Apologies
In the last few decades, national apologies by political leaders for past wrongs have become common.
How cynically should these expressions of regret be taken? They have become ideological battlegrounds between liberal and reactionary politicians, but are they just manoeuvres to avoid the costs of proper reparations?
Danielle Celermajer wades into these complexities and provides a well-researched and thought-provoking overview of the spread of apologies for atrocities by world political leaders and parliaments in the past 20 years.
Celermajer is a University of Sydney sociologist and she was formerly director of Indigenous Policy at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
That experience is evident, as a major part of her book The Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apologies is her analysis of the Australian experience leading to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations in February 2008.
Celemajer traces the origins of Rudd's apology to the impact of the Aboriginal rights movement, including the campaign against black deaths in custody and the land rights movement highlighted by the High Court's 1992 Mabo decision.
She also notes then Labor prime minister Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern speech dealing with racism, in which he stressed: "The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians."
Keating pointed to the crimes committed against Aboriginal people: "We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion."
Celermajer believes Keating's speech "represented a remarkable act of recognition and assumption of responsibility". By using the term "we Australians", he made the responsibility personal.
However, while addressing "national responsibility" for racist crimes of the past and the present, Keating avoided the question of what kind of nation commits such outrages — namely a capitalist one, based on racism and class exploitation.
These are the hinges that an understanding of Rudd's apology depends upon.
The movement for an official national apology gained momentum with the 1997 Bringing Them Home report into the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
Although the recommendation for a national apology was only one of many in the report, it quickly became a major demand of anti-racist Australians, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
Celermajer believes that the Australian apology debate "illustrates the two key tensions in which political apologies are caught: between collective and individual responsibility, and between the public, collective trope of apology and the internalised, individual apology".
This was the debate's appearance, not its underlying reality.
The main political resistance to an official national apology was led by then Coalition PM John Howard, who adamantly restricted himself to a personal statement of "regret", which he patently did not mean.
One excuse for not apologising was the legally invalid argument that it would lead to massive financial compensation claims.
The real reason was racism is a fundamental element of Australian capitalist social organisation. The Coalition government was fighting to defend that social construction, while the Labor Party wanted to renovate it by softening some of the sharp edges.
Nevertheless, a wave of apologies to the Stolen Generations was made by state parliaments, judges, churches, civic associations, trade unions and ethnic groups. This reflected a widespread anti-racist feeling among non-Aboriginal Australians in opposition to the half-heartedness of both Howard the ALP.
"Sorry Days," the Sea of Hands reconciliation movement, and the estimated one million people who marched for reconciliation in the year 2000 — including 400,000 who walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge — all represented a genuine thirst for justice for Aboriginal people by a large section of the Australian population.
This movement was directly counterpoised to Pauline Hanson's racist One Nation movement, which Howard successfully brought under his own wing. Key events in the campaign against Hanson were the marches by high school students, and others, opposing racism and injustice.
This pressure eventually led to Rudd's February 13, 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations. As one who had the privilege of being present outside Parliament House in Canberra on that day, along with thousands of others — including hundreds of Aboriginal people — I experienced it as an emotional moment in Australian history.
But just as significant was the march by 2000 Aboriginal people and their supporters the previous day as part of Sovereignty Day. The march was organised as part of the national Indigenous convergence on Canberra.
Rudd's apology was followed more recently by the apology to the other Lost Generation of British children forcibly expatriated to institutions in Australia, and used as labourers, up until the 1970s, which the Liberals did not oppose.
While many Aboriginal people greeted Rudd's apology as a welcome step toward reconciliation, they protested the new Labor government's hypocritical continuation of Howard's racist Northern Territory intervention, which overrode the Racial Discrimination Act.
This contradiction can undermine the ongoing impact of the apology on public consciousness. It also drastically reduces the impact of the apology for Aboriginal people across Australia, as they still face racial discrimination in their daily lives.
Demonstrating the invincibility of racism is the ideological aim of both the Labor and Liberal parties.
They disagree over the specific techniques for achieving this demoralisation: Labor practices mealy-mouthed hypocrisy, the Liberals flint-hearted viciousness.
Celermajer places the Australian apology in the context of a rise of apologies by national leaders across the world over the last few decades. This begins with apologies by German and other European leaders for the Nazi holocaust against European Jews.
She also notes apologies by European and US leaders for atrocities committed in Africa, Asia and the Americas, as well as apologies by the Pope for the sins of the Catholic Church against colonial peoples.
She analyses the positive aspects of these apologies, while also noting the limitations of apologies for restitution of past crimes.
Her framework for analysing these apologies draws on the differing character of repentance rituals in Judaism and Christianity. She explains the traditional system within which Judaism "understands the collective responsibility underpinning its collective apologies".
This contrasts with the "privatisation" of repentance in Catholic dogma, until the recent re-emergence of the collective apology in late 20th century Christian practice. This fed into the new rise of, public apologies in the political sphere internationally, Celermajer argues.
Her high intellectualism does not get in the way of Celermajer's humanity. She says: "Lest there be any doubt about the overall message of this book, I want to make perfectly clear that I do not see apology as in any way approaching a sufficient response to gross violations of human rights.
"It would be worse than an insult to suggest that people who have been tortured, parents whose children have been 'disappeared', or the lonely survivors of a genocide might be satisfied with an apology.
"Their suffering immeasurably exceeds the reach of this response and most likely of any response. In fact, only if we recognise how far beyond apology's reach their violations and experience can go can we begin to consider, with integrity and accuracy, apology's work."