On the path of respect


31 Jan 2024

The Apology to the Stolen Generations was a pledge of respect towards Australia’s First Nations peoples.

This year all aspects of the relationship between Indigenous and other Australians will be seen through the lens of the failure of the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. They include such historical events as Apology made by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generations on 13 February 2008.

A year ago, the path between the Apology to the Uluru Statement of the Heart could be seen as one of progress, albeit serpentine. After the Referendum it is natural to ask whether that sense of progress was illusory. In such a climate of doubt the Apology takes us back to the rock on which our relationships must be built.

The Apology was significant because it embodied respect. It also acknowledged a moral code that defined the relationships between government and persons of any origin and descent, and an acceptance by both parties that this code had been violated. It implied, too, a pledge to show that respect in future relationships. The respect embodied in the Apology was based on the common and equal humanity shared by both parties, which lay deeper than differences based on religion, race and wealth.

In the Apology, the Prime Minister spoke on behalf of all Australians in recognising that governments acted wrongly in removing Indigenous children from their parents. The removal was dictated by the disrespectful assumption that the children, their parents and their families were of a lesser human worth, and so deserving of lesser respect, because of their race. This disrespect caused lasting damage to the children and families both because of the separation and because of the humiliation that went with it.

Because the removal implied contempt for people of a supposedly lesser breed, it was of great significance that the Prime Minister made the Apology in person to representatives of the Stolen Generations as his equals. In apologising he accepted personal responsibility for the actions of government, the injury suffered by its victims, and the duty of the government and all Australians to ensure that all Australians are treated equally, regardless of race and history.

The Apology can never be unsaid. It can, however, be disregarded. For that reason, it continues to be important. It is a measuring stick by which both Parliamentary behaviour and the treatment of Indigenous Australians can be judged. At the time it highlighted the disrespect underlying the election-driven Intervention that preceded the Apology and the subsequent humiliating and disempowering measures directed against Indigenous communities.

The dignity, seriousness and non-partisan spirit of the Apology also stood in judgment over the rancorous disregard of Parliamentary conventions, lack of seriousness and courtesy so often displayed and so widely criticised in subsequent years. Though not driven directly by racially biased ideology, too, the disproportionate rate at which Indigenous children are removed from their mothers, Indigenous children are incarcerated, and decisions are made without proper consultation about Indigenous communities, indicates a serious institutional lack of respect.

In the years since the Apology there have also been growing signs of respect. It has become increasingly common to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Land. Indigenous Australians called on to speak at these events no longer come as guests but as hosts. A significant number of Indigenous Australians are entering the professions and the arts, and lead programs in Community Organisations.

The failure of the Referendum may make us ask whether these signs of respect or the disrespect evident in some exchanges during the Referendum campaign define the ground on which we now stand. However we answer that question, the Apology commits us to take the path of respect.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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