2008-02-13

Sorry - more on the topic

As a history teacher I have, over the years, done a bit of teaching of aboriginal history. It's important stuff, but there are some rather interesting bits people don't realise.

The current debate on saying "sorry" to the "stolen generations" is based upon the fact that state and federal governments throughout the early-mid 20th century had the legal power to remove aboriginal children from their parents. This, of course, they did. Why? There is nothing to say that this was done because the people doing it were somehow evil scheming people. Certainly one of the core beliefs in Australian society was that the aboriginal people were dying out and the taking of children was a way to prevent this from happening because these kids were then placed in "proper" homes. In other words, the reason for the children being taken was because the people doing it were doing it in the best interests of the children involved.

Of course there are many instances of "good intentions" having unforeseen side effects. In hindsight, governments should not have been doing this. The emotional turmoil it caused families was immense. Moreover, it was a specific policy aimed at Indigenous Australians rather than the population in general. Comparing the work of, say, child protection officers today who take children from dangerous parents to what happened to aboriginal children throughout the 20th century is not sustainable.

Nevertheless, we need to remember that these children were taken out of best intentions - and that is important. After colonisation in the 18th century, diseases like smallpox and measles ran rampant through the aboriginal population for over a century without any effort on behalf of the white rulers to help. Although estimates obviously vary, the population of Indigenous Australians fell from a couple hundred thousand in 1788 to between 50 - 90 thousand by the 1920s.

It was, however, in the 1920s that things changed for indigenous Australians. Up until that point, the welfare of these people was ignored. While there were certainly events like massacres perpetrated by white colonists, the vast majority of indigenous Australians died as a result of malnutrition and disease. (Why malnutrition? Because aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers whose land had been appropriated by farmers and settlers, thus depriving them of their traditional source of food).

In the 1920s, governments around Australia decided to set up "reservations" for Indigenous Australians. Some of these were even farms that Aboriginal farmers ran at a profit (though white farmers were quick to close those ones down). Health care and education were provided to them as well. As a result of this - available food and health care - the aboriginal population began to increase again.

The policy of taking children away from their parents is part and parcel of the same policy that greatly reduced mortality rates and allowed Indigenous Australians to begin growing again. The current population of Indigenous Australians has, by some measure, surpassed that of those who were there in 1788.

Of course, this is not to say that an apology isn't required for the stolen generation - of course it is and I'm glad that it has finally happened. We need to remember, however, that some of the policies that our grandparents and great grandparents initiated - no matter how paternalistic or misguided - actually did work.

6 comments:

Ali said...

Yes, I agree that the intentions were good and that their policies worked to a degree.

Unfortunately, as your comment about white farmers shutting down Aboriginal farms shows, the real problem was not actually the immediate things like infant mortality and life expectancy, but an attitude that we can call nothing less than racism.

I know you will agree with that. And of course the immediate issues like infant mortality and life expectancy are very important, but, as God tells us through the Bible, the solution comes through dealing with the root issues of the heart. This apology begins to touch on that.

I still believe that New Zealand has something to teach Australia. Their policies are far from perfect, but the Waitangi Tribunal and the willingness to listen to and address and negotiate resolution to claims of injustice is a very humble and godly way forward, without merely capitulating to every claim.

This, I believe, is a practical working out of the principal identified by Maori/Pakeha Christians in the Bible. They take the Biblical story of David's response to Saul's breaking faith with the Gibeonites and apply it to Europeans and Maori. There was no Treaty in Australia (that I'm aware of) but the same principles apply to restitution i.e. going to the wronged, apologising and asking them how to make restitution and so begin a negotiation.

Unfortunately, Kevin Rudd's apology, while brilliant, left that last step out.

Hmm, exactly how far have I travelled from your original point?

Ron Lankshear said...

I was very touched today - just watching the round up tonight was overwhelming. I was shocked when there was need for a referendum in 1967. My hat goes off to Kevin. I think I am now nearly back to the ALP. Mr Nelson equivocated and was booed - the stolen generation was WRONG. I am glad I saw this day.

I arrived in 1966 and knew this was the Lucky Country then I found out not for the idigenous people so I thought the 1967 referendum fixed it - but no the Departments were useless and a mess still happened. I have not admired Jenny Macklin in the past if she can fix her current role another hat off.

Yesterday at the opening of this now HISTORIC parliament Matilda House-Williams on behalf of the Ngambri people finished saying something like " Welcome and may you soar like eagles" now that was awesome. Pastor Peter Walker was at our church last week and I would like to ask him what he knew about Matilda

apodeictic said...

I was ambivalent before the apology was given and now that the apology's been given I'm still ambivalent. And I too share your cynicism, Neil. I want to see real improvement in the lives of indigenous Australians rather than empty words and political posturing. The cynic in me can't help but feel that an apology is more about easing the burdened consciences of chardonnay-drinking white urban Australians who've never once in their privileged lives met or worked with indigenous Australians or endured real hardship than it is about improving the lives of Aboriginal Australians. I was impressed by Mr Rudd's offer to the Leader of the Opposition to form a "War Cabinet" for Aboriginal Affairs. I hope and pray that something good comes of it.

What upset me the most was the reaction of some of my fellow Australians (including some Aborigines) to the Leader of the opposition's address. He offered an apology which ought to have been accepted in the spirit of reconciliation. Instead, some people decided to turn their backs on him when he spoke. Such conduct is utterly reprehensible and does nothing to further the cause of reconciliation. If these people's heads weren't stuck so far up their own a*%es they would realise that reconciliation isn't about cartoon goodies vs baddies or relieving their own burdened consciences but rather it's about restoring (or building) a relationship between estranged parties -- parties estranged by a variety of issues including past and present injustices as well as mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. At the very least this requires respect for those whose opinions differ from your own as well as a willingness to listen to their views and understand their experiences. Those people who turned their backs ought to think long and hard about what reconciliation means. Then they need to apologise and repent.

On top of this what Dr Nelson had to say made a lot of sense. His speech didn't contradict Mr Rudd's in any way. That each speech had a very different tone reflects the complexity of the matter. Both represent integral parts of the story. To say (as Mr Rudd did) we apologise without qualification and to say (as Dr Nelson did) that in many (but not all) cases people often had good intentions but that their actions had terrible consequences which they couldn't have foreseen, and also that the recent past has seen the creation of a host of new problems, are *not* contradictory statements. That's the complex reality of the situation. Unless we acknowledge and come to terms with this reality then we will never achieve reconciliation.

I'm not hopeful. Personally I think Rudd and Nelson had the right attitude. Unfortunately those people who saw Dr Nelson as the "baddie" just don't get it. It is exactly this kind of attitude which is the biggest hindrance to reconciliation.

Ali said...

Apodiectic, I would say your comment shows that you don't completely get it. Sure, words only go so far, but the apology has been looked for by Aboriginal people and those removed from their families for a long time, so to limit its impact to soothing white Australian's consciences is disingeneous.

Brendon Nelson's speech was also a classic example of how not to reconcile. "We're sorry, but...a lot of people had good intentions...there are more issues than this now on the plate...Aboriginal communities are full of sexual abuse..." and so on. Those things may be true, but when an apology is given, adding "but" does nothing except take away from the apology.

So, how does saying sorry help "real improvement in the lives of indigenous Australians"? It goes a long way to helping. Human beings act out of the heart, and when there is prejudice, bitterness, suspicion etc. between them, confession and forgiveness is an essential prerequisite. I am not naive enough to think that things will improve overnight. Nor will the proposed bi-partisan "war council" necessarily work, but from personal experience I know that working with someone who refuses to take responsibility for their wrongs is one heck of a lot more difficult than working with someone who freely admits to having done wrong.

The apology was a watershed. It will not provide a magic solution, but it was a necessary step. Cynicism has no place here.

apodeictic said...

@Ali
with respect I don't think you understood the tenor of what I was saying. Soothing the conscience of white Australia is exactly what I DON'T want the apology to be about. My point was simply that unless the apology is backed up with concrete actions then in 10, 20 years' time when we look back that's what it's in danger of becoming. I sincerely don't want that to be the case.

By the way I didn't call myself a cynic; rather, I said that I am ambivalent. Now part of that ambivalence is a degree of cynicism. But mixed in with that is a great degree of hope and a determination for change. I have some reason to be cynical based on past events. We've had several "watershed" moments before but indigenous Australians continue to get the rough end of the stick. What makes this time any different? Well unless we act -- nothing. So the challenge is for us to make this time different and to act. And that's where hope and a determination for change come in. I genuinely think that both Rudd and Nelson have good intentions. Where my hope wanes is with the Australians who want to treat Aboriginal affairs like a team sport and think that one team are the "goodies" and the other the "baddies". When sections of the crowd turn their back on the leader of the Opposition it shows that they have no idea what reconciliation is about. Turning your back on someone is *not* the way to achieve reconciliation. If you don't agree with what someone has to say then the answer to that is to engage in a dialogue, rather than to turn your back and ignore what she has to say.

Genuine reconciliation will involve coming to terms not only with the past but also with the present -- the present attitude of the millions of Australians whose sentiments are reflected in the apology of Dr Nelson as well as the present living conditions of indigenous Australians. Dr Nelson was right to raise matters such as life expectancy, infant mortality, sexual abuse and so on. We have to address present problems as well as past ones if we are to achieve reconciliation. Otherwise we're just deluding ourselves and in danger of exactly what I don't want to see -- soothing the white man's conscience while indigenous Australians continue to suffer.

Ali said...

Thanks for your response Ap.

I understand your position more clearly, now, but I still hold to mine. While I totally agree that other issues need to be addressed (Rudd said as much in his speech too without getting people's backs up) it was primarily a day for apologising for one specific policy and the terrible consequences - that was the focus.

I also believe that even if nothing else comes from this (though I certainly hope it does) the apology is a useful and good thing in itself. Not all positive change for Aboriginies can be limited to practical life issues.

Lastly, my wife and I have been reading Exodus recently, and we read how enthusiastic the people of Israel were when Moses first came to them. That lasted as long as Moses' first attempt to get Pharoah to let Israel go. I would not be at all suprised if the euphoria experienced by some on Sorry Day goes the same route - any and every solution is going to be a hard grind with complaints and conflict. And yet I still think the apology worthwhile.

I appreciate your ambivilance. However, I come from New Zealand where the messy process of righting wrongs and addressing issues is further along than in Australia. I have hope that things can happen, as difficult as it will be.