"As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry. I offer you this apology without qualification."
- Kevin Rudd
I moved to Australia in 1997, the year Bringing Them Home was published. All I have known is John Howard's stubborn refusal to be a decent human being. In a sure reflection on just how petty, bigoted, and small this man really is, he was the only one of Australia's five living former Prime Ministers who was not in attendance. Four other Liberal MPs were conspicuously absent, while a fifth was so rude and disrespectful as to attend but read a magazine throughout the session and to refuse to stand in the otherwise unanimous show of support for the apology.
Brendan Nelson's pathetic attempt at a reply on behalf of the Opposition was truly a national embarrassment. He started well. He did what even three months ago I never thought I would hear a Liberal Party leader do: he offered support for Rudd's apology and said sorry himself. Then he just dug himself into a hole. His incohesive speech lacked a central theme; he dithered from point to point, inappropriately trying to score political points through mentioning the current Northern Territory intervention, irrelevantly and bafflingly mentioning Australians who died in combat, disgustingly asserting that we should feel no guilt for what has happened, and reprehensibly giving an impression of defending those who did the stealing for what he described as "good intentions". It was as if he was torn between his own bigotry and an irresistible future. It would have been political suicide to do anything other than support the apology, but he sure didn't go down without reminding us that racism and discrimination is alive and well in Australia. Although those in the parliament chamber rightly maintained the manners expected within there, those watching on the big screens outside and in other cities throughout the country quite understandably and justifiably booed Nelson, called "shame", turned their backs, and initiated a slow clap to drown out the disgraceful speech.
What Brendan Nelson and some people in Australian society (including, I am sad to say, a few individuals in journals and communities on my friends list) seem to fail to understand is that we do not exist in a historical vacuum. The consequences of the Stolen Generations live with us - some of those who were stolen are still alive, and their children are very much with us, living with the problems created by past injustices. The rest of us also live with the consequences - dealing with the past, as we exist within the context it created, and completing its unfinished business: that is, righting its wrongs. The first step to righting its wrongs is apologising for those wrongs. Nothing short of saying sorry is adequate.
I am a New Zealander first and foremost. Why, then, do I care? Because I am an Australian citizen. I have the certificate and the passport to prove it. I voted for this government, and I have been subject to the decisions of the Australian parliament for over a decade. Parliament functions within a political continuum - it has a responsibility to the past. Today's parliament exists within the historical context of past parliaments. The policies that created the Stolen Generations were in place during the lives of the majority of Australians. This lasted until the 1970s - it is, as has been emphasised, not ancient history. It is more than about time that this responsibility is acknowledged and an apology given. This apology is not saying that you, as an individual, are sorry for something you did not do - it is saying that we, as a community represented by a democratically elected parliament, are sorry for the wrongs that were done in our country's name to the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet. We exist in a historical context; we should be and are sorry for the wrongs contained within that context and are compelled by all that is good and decent to rectify the consequences of these injustices.
Also, as a New Zealander, I would like to take this opportunity to do something of my own, in the reconciliatory spirit of the day. The Maori people, like the Aborigines, have suffered injustices since Europeans colonised New Zealand. Their land was taken from them, by deception and by force. Their cultural values were ignored. Their language was marginalised. Therefore, I say the following. As the descendent of some of New Zealand's earliest settlers, as a New Zealander who exists within a historical context that contains shameful and inexcusable wrongdoings, and as a person capable of empathy, I am without qualification sorry to the Maori. As an aspiring historian of New Zealand, I can only hope that I may produce work that contributes to the historical record, informs the present and future, and does even the smallest of things to bring together the people of the most beautiful country on the planet in mutual understanding, respect, and equality.