Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Politics of Sorry – The Australian apology to the Aboriginal people placed in context

Ray Minniecon suggests that the riot might have played out differently had the apology been issued beforehand. This might be dismissed as counterfactual speculation. However, an academic study of the Redfern riot identified Aboriginal peoples’ history of colonisation and dispossession as a factor influencing the sense of exclusion and ‘generalised hostility’ felt by the youths involved. The wording of the Rudd apology sought to address this to an extent.

Ostensibly, the Apology was primarily concerned with the Stolen Generation of some fifty-thousand Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970. However, the apology was broadly received, among Australia’s Aboriginal people and beyond, as an acknowledgement of the consequences of white settlement on the indigenous population. On a practical level, the apology proposed a vision for reducing the life-expectancy, economic and educational differentials between white and indigenous Australians called ‘Closing the Gap’. These goals, set at national level, would be achieved through ‘flexible’ and ‘localised’ approaches. Rudd’s speech emphasised the importance of bipartisanship to this.

Rudd’s speech had been significantly influenced by a report produced by Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It was entitled Bringing Them Home. The report had been commissioned by a previous Labor government in 1995. However, John Howard’s Liberal Party had taken power by the time of the report’s completion in 1997. The Howard administration was noticeably less enthusiastic about the report’s findings than the previous government might have been. Many of the report’s proposals, particularly those relating to an apology, were derided and ignored.

Heidi Norman, whose Aboriginal grandmother grew up in an institution, was in Canberra for the apology. She describes an almost carnival-like atmosphere in the build-up to it. “In a sense, John Howard made that moment” she says. This was due to the former Prime Minister’s long-standing refusal to apologise. Norman suggests that this refusal increased the momentum for the apology.

Also in Canberra for the apology was Meredith Burgmann, a Labor Sydney City Councillor and former NSW state legislator. Burgmann is part of a generation of 1970s political activists who collaborated with Aboriginal colleagues, such as Sol Bellear, to establish community-based organisations in Redfern such as the Aboriginal Medical and Legal services. She describes Rudd’s speech as “even more moving that I thought it would be. It totally said all of the things that needed to be said”.

Given her own history and political affiliation, Burgmann is, perhaps understandably, somewhat partisan in her view of the apology. Similarly to Heidi Norman, she is certain that it would never have been issued by the Howard government. “The Liberals were still absolutely in denial about the whole thing, quite frankly” she says. According to Burgmann, the ALP has engaged more effectively with Aboriginal people because of its ideology. “We understand social disadvantage” she tells me.

Burgmann believes that the material objectives outlined in the apology are achievable in Redfern. However, she emphasises that Aboriginal communities’ social issues require complex solutions. Burgmann accepts that the apology is not enough in itself to prevent another incident, similar to the death of TJ Hickey, in Redfern. She is keen to see more funding for Aboriginal-run social programmes. “Material benefit has to keep coming’ she emphasises.

One of the rising stars of the Liberal Party, Shayne Mallard expresses his support for the apology. Mallard is the sole Liberal member of Sydney City Council and has twice run for Lord Mayor. Given his closeness to Federal Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, it is not inconceivable that he might one day serve in a future Liberal Party government. Approachable, personable, if patently ambitious, Mallard seems more like a well-meaning school teacher than a right-wing politician. He has a reputation for being on the socially progressive wing of his conservative party. “Shayne isn’t your classic Liberal” one of his City Council colleagues tells me “Although he’d like to be”.

However, Mallard’s support for the apology seems noticeably more qualified than Burgmanns. On one hand, he says of the apology that “there was a universal sense that something was lifted off our shoulders that day”. On the other, he describes it as an issue of “symbolic importance” to the “left intelligentsia/ALP”. He emphasises that the apology was not an agenda issue for lower-middle and working class Australians.

Mallard attracted some controversy last year when he objected to an inscription being installed in a children’s play area in Redfern Park. The inscription contained an extract from former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Speech which acknowledged the ravages of white settlement on indigenous people. Mallard tells me that he opposed the inscription because he thought it was divisive. He suggests that Aboriginal youths’ alienation might be exacerbated by words that he thinks are intended to “remind them why they should hate white people”. According to Mallard, the inscription is politically motivated by “a group of left-wing activists who want to continue the anger”.

He suggests that indigenous issues are the subject to a culture war which is perpetuated even among his City Council colleagues, who are comprised almost entirely of left-leaning parties and independents. “There are at least five other councillors who claim ownership of the right to represent Aboriginal issues, all of them white” he thunders.

Mallard has previously served on the board of the Aids Council, where he worked with the Aboriginal Medical Service on issues relating to drug use and HIV infection in the Block. Therefore, he has gained substantial policy experience that would enable him to contribute effectively to discussion of issues affecting Redfern’s Aboriginal community. Yet he says that whenever he has tried to speak on such matters, he has been “disregarded” or “subtly not welcomed into the debate”.

However, Mallard does say that there is no political capital for the Liberal Party in Aboriginal issues. I notice a certain coolness descend when I put it to him that the Redfern riot might have been caused by social justice issues and antagonistic policing. He declines to comment. Mallard differs from other Liberal Party politicians in that he seems to be genuinely interested in discussing solutions for Aboriginal communities’ social problems. Still, his apparent unwillingness to consider underlying causes seems fairly typical of his party.

Subsequently, I speak to a young Aboriginal lawyer, who prefers to remain anonymous. He agrees with Mallard’s view that the left has appropriated ownership of Aboriginal issues. This, he believes, belies the innate conservatism of many Aboriginal families and communities. He points out that he was able to gain two university degrees under the Howard government. Similarly to Mallard, he considers the apology to be of mainly symbolic importance.

According to Sol Bellear, the Chair of the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Liberal Party finds Aboriginal issues difficult to address. However, he indicates that Mallard would be welcome, as far as the Redfern Aboriginal people are concerned, to speak about indigenous issues. “Shayne has a right as an elected representative to discuss all issues regardless of any philosophical or ideological issues we may have” he says. While Bellear thinks that it is incorrect to assume that all Aboriginal people identify with the ALP, he does not feel that the left has appropriated Aboriginal issues entirely by force. “The centre-left and Greens have got the guts to stand up and talk about Aboriginal issues and put Aboriginal issues on the table” he tells me.

Bellear himself is a member of his local ALP branch. He does, however, convey a palpable sense of feeling betrayed by his party. This is because he considers the Rudd government to have reneged on several of their election promises relating to Aboriginal issues. He believes that some of the material objectives outlined in the apology are achievable. Others he regards as “just symbolic”. Bellear refers to a number of issues that he thinks need to be addressed to realise Rudd’s vision for ‘closing the gap’. These relate to housing, education and criminal justice.

Unsurprisingly, Bellear is particularly keen for Aboriginal health issues to be addressed. He points out that Australian Aboriginals’ health indicators lag behind those of other indigenous peoples across the world. Bellear says that the Australian government fails to address Aboriginal issues holistically, even after the apology. He considers this to demonstrate a “lack of political will” which is reflected by the failure of government to consult Aboriginal people. “Aboriginal issues require Aboriginal solutions” he emphasises.

The references in Rudd’s speech to the importance of ‘localised’ and ‘flexible’ solutions are, in Bellear’s view, demonstrative of a “white perspective”. According to Bellear, the ‘gap’, alluded to by Rudd, was being close more rapidly in the 1970s and 80s by “community-controlled” organisations such as the Aboriginal Medical Service.

Shane Phillips, an Aboriginal Redfern resident whose family have lived in the suburb for generations, is the CEO of an organisation called Tribal Warrior. This non-profit community organisation provides specialised training programmes oriented around the maritime industry in order to create job opportunities for its clients. One of Tribal Warrior’s key objectives is the promotion of social, economic and cultural development among Aboriginal people and communities.

Some have argued that the apology would have been more meaningful had it been accompanied by some form of constitutional settlement for Aboriginal people. However, Phillips maintains that Aboriginal people are more concerned with practical solutions rather than documents. “We know that economic and cultural development are crucial to achieving our objectives” he says.

Of the Rudd apology, Phillips says “It was a good start. It helped Aboriginal people in many ways, although we’re realistic. There’re still things we gotta fix”. He argues that Aboriginal people need to rise above anger and indignation, however justified, in order to achieve the social and economic development envisaged by his organisation. The apology, he thinks, has made this slightly easier. Phillips describes some of the economic development that has begun to take place in the Block. This includes the emergence of five Aboriginal-owned businesses. A decade ago, there was only one.

In a sense, Phillips’ vision of social and economic development among Redfern’s Aboriginal community is consistent with Sol Bellear’s view that the ‘gap’ can be more effectively closed by community-controlled organisations. For his part, Phillips feels that it is important that Redfern’s Aboriginal community stands its ground in the face of gentrification. He tells me that Redfern is of massive symbolic importance to Aboriginal people across Australia. “That’s why we’ve go to remain here”.

For several years, the Aboriginal Housing Company has sought to promote revitalisation of the Block through the Pelmulwuy Project. The project seeks to bring about the restoration of a �‘strong and health indigenous community’ to Redfern. This involves the building of sixty-two house to be occupied by Aboriginal residents, from a range of different income groups, with family or work-related connections to the area. The design of these dwellings is intended to promote environmental sustainability and reflect Aboriginal people’s ‘indoor/outdoor’ lifestyle. Other major features of the project include employment programmes, focussed particularly on Aboriginal youth, and the promotion of Aboriginal-run enterprises.

The AHC presented a working model of the project to state government officials in July 2003. Subsequently, the NSW government committed to funding the project. However, a number of conditions attached to this commitment were unacceptable to the AHC. One of these was a drastic reduction in the number of houses built specifically for Aboriginal residents. The project has since stalled due to wrangling between the AHC and the NSW government.

Some, such as Shane Phillips, are still hopeful that the project might yet get off the ground. Others are more pessimistic. “The government won’t fund Aboriginal economic development projects” says Ray Minniecon. Heidi Norman suggests that Aboriginal people are likely to be worst-affected, in Australia, by the global economic downturn. Increasingly limited resources will diminish Aboriginal organisations’ chances of securing funding for such projects. Norman suggests that the situation would be massively improved if the benefits of a fiscal stimulus package, provided by the Australian government, were to be shared among Aboriginal people. However, the apology makes no provision for that.

Redfern seems like an uncertain place facing an uncertain future. The apology is by no means unappreciated by Redfern’s Aboriginal community and those associated with it. One resident of the Block I spoke to, called Paul, even says that the apology “has created a bit of a change” in the area. However, the apology has yet to resolve a number of questions about the past, present and future of Redfern. Such questions remain the subject of heated political debate within and beyond the Aboriginal community.

At the suggestion of Irene Doutney, a Green Party City Councillor and Redfern resident, I visit the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Old Parliament House in Canberra. On the day I arrive with my photographer, Ruth, a convergence of Aboriginal activists has descended to protest against the Northern Territory Intervention.

The intervention was begun by the Howard government following the publication of a report containing allegations about child neglect and sexual abuse within the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. Consequently, a range of measures were implemented such as the quarantining of welfare benefits and the deployment of extra police to the prescribed area. Restrictions have been placed on alcohol use. Controversially, the Howard government suspended the Race Discrimination Act.

Those opposing the intervention consider it to be punitive and to infantilise the majority of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory who have had no involvement with child abuse. From conversations I have with those attending the convergence, I form the impression that many were expecting the Rudd government to discontinue the intervention. They were disappointed.

I speak to Barbara Shaw, a sardonic, eloquent Aboriginal woman from Alice Springs. She tells me that she has been affected by the intervention. Having had high hopes of the Rudd government when it was elected, she now feels betrayed. When asked about her initial response to the apology, she says “I thought it was a long time coming for the Australian government to say sorry for the past wrongdoings to the Stolen Generation and to the Aboriginal people of Australia”. Shaw would like to have seen the apology extended to those affected by the intervention. I ask her about her feelings about the apology a year on. She shrugs her shoulders. “Sorry is just a word” she says.

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