Way back in late 1998 and until 2000 there was a show on the ABC in Australia called The Games. I’m sure many of you have seen it. It was pretty funny stuff, a mockumentary about the Australian Olympic Committee trying to get the event ready for the whole world. If you can find it on DVD it’s funny to this day.
The episode I enjoyed the most though was the one where they had John Howard apologising to the Aboriginal people for the dispossession and the cost to their lives, and oft-times the cost of their lives, in the establishment of the Australian nation. Back then it was damn funny stuff, especially because it wasn’t John Winston Howard former Prime Minister they had doing the apology, but John Howard the well-known actor. The reasoning was that no-one overseas knows what John Winston Howard looks like.
Here’s the clip if you haven’t seen it.
My favourite bit is all the people jumping up and down celebrating the apology.
What I remember thinking at the time was that the jumping up and down was about as likely as Howard giving the real apology to the Stolen Generation. And I’m very glad to be proven wrong. In fact, exceedingly glad.
One of the things I did a lot of when I was in Melbourne was to spend time talking to Aboriginal people about how they saw their treatment at the hands of Australian nationals. There was a kind of resignation among people that I spoke to that Howard’s refusal to acknowledge the injustice of the Stolen Generations was something that was shared by “heaps” of ordinary Australians. Now to an extent that is true, many Australians simply could not see why an apology was necessary. They didn’t see themselves as persecuting Aboriginal people, and didn’t think that some “historical” was relevant to contemporary Aboriginals.
The first thing to note is that the Stolen Generations is not an historical event. Many children forcibly removed under eugenicist policies are still alive today. Kim Beazley, former leader of the Labor Party, appeared on another TV show called The Panel and stated that he remembers having these children pass through his home when he was a child. These are modern tragedies, not the product of some far-flung colonial past.
The next thing to note is that this apology is all about the symbolism. While Howard refused to apologise the refusal was deeply felt by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They saw the refusal as an indication of their unimportance to the Australian Government. Their tragedy was something that did not warrant attention being paid to it. Worse, Howard’s refusal was based on the chance that compensation might have to be paid to the individuals removed. Money was more important to Howard than acknowledging that the Stolen Generations never should have happened.
But, this is the same man who pledged billions in pork-barrel guarantees if the Liberals carried the 2007 election.
The symbolism of what Rudd said today in stating that the Stolen Generations should never have happened, and especially that it will never happen again, cannot be over-estimated. And what today heralds is a chance for all those Aboriginal people who have for so long seen themselves as outside the nation, to not be ‘real’ Australians, to be be brought into the fold. It’s a chance for the leadership of Australia to exercise that leadership and improve the treatment of Aboriginal people. These aren’t simply a bunch of natives who need to be disciplined and taught how to behave like the mainstream, they’re a people with an ancient and rich history who can contribute to the development of the nation itself, if only they’re recognised as something more than the bottom end of the welfare train.
Here’s something I used to say to explain what it must have been like to be Aboriginal. Let’s say that every day from now on I’m going to tell you you’re shit, every time I see you. At first you’ll tell me to get stuffed. But after a week you’ll start to doubt yourself. After a few months you’ll start to believe it. After a year you’ll know it. Aboriginal people have had 200 years of being told.
Finally, after a decade of stone-walling, a practical apology, and actual reconciliation can take place. And I for one am bloody glad to see it happening, at last.