Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Stepping Forward to Right Historical Wrongs: National Apologies - Lessons From Down Under

by Frank Brennan, S.J.

In 1988, the US Congress apologised to Japanese Americans for their internment and discriminatory treatment during World War II. On 26 February 2008, the US Senate passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act appending Senator Sam Brownback's amendment acknowledging "a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the United States Government regarding Indian tribes" and offering "an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States." From time to time, there is discussion about an apology being made for slavery.

In Australia on 13 February 2008, the national Parliament apologised to the Aboriginal people. This example might provide some lessons for those contemplating the ethics and utility of national apologies here in the US.

US scholars like Glen Pettigrove are adamant that "we may express regret for our parents' actions, but we may not apologise for them."1On slavery, he quotes Kathleen Parker in the Chicago Tribune: "So let's get this straight: We who have never owned a slave, who have never believed in or condoned slavery, who are not descended from anyone who ever owned a slave must pay people who have never been slaves? The search for logic in the reparations argument is futile."2 While answering "No" to Parker's question, one can still espouse national apology in some circumstances and establish some logic in the reparations argument.

I suggest the following lessons from the Australian experience:
  1. A national apology must be a response to sustained requests by identifiable victims.

  2. A national apology must build upon individual apologies and apologies by agencies involved in previous wrongdoing, and not substitute for them.

  3. The "we" who apologise must not speak on behalf of the living who are not willing parties to the apology.

  4. The "we" who apologise must not presume to speak on behalf of the deceased, applying contemporary moral standards to past behaviour which was legal and judged justifiable at the time.

  5. The "we" who apologise must intend to express through their performative utterance of the word "sorry" not only sympathy and regret but also collective responsibility for the ongoing effects of past actions, which "we" now have cause to regret, offering sympathy and entitled assistance to the victims still living and their descendants who have also been affected by those past actions.
  6. The "we" who apologise should identify with the collective "we" of the past, who, being the same agent in the polity, approved these past actions or who, at least, failed to counter these past actions when having a duty to act in the interests of the victims.

  7. The victims and their descendants should be willing to accept the apology.

  8. The "we" (binding the future collective "we") and the victims and their descendants should be prepared to commit themselves to putting the past behind them and working together for a new future.

  9. The apology should be backed by a firm commitment by the "we" to make resources available to put right the ongoing adverse effects of past actions, while also leaving open the possibility of payment of compensation (reparations) in proven cases of wrongs committed on identifiable persons.

In Australia, the "we" was not "We the people" but "We the Parliament of Australia" who uttered the performative utterance "sorry", and only after all State and Territory Parliaments, churches and other social welfare agencies had done the same. In what is basically a bi-party system, there was bipartisan support from the major political parties for the apology. This 42nd Australian parliament apologised acknowledging that earlier parliaments and governments had "inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss" on persons who were their "fellow Australians." The parliament apologised in its own name for things done by predecessor parliaments and governments of both party political persuasions. The parliament saw its apology as a first step acknowledging the past followed by a second step: "laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians." The parliament pledged itself and future parliaments to "a future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility."

This apology by the elected parliament came eleven years after individual citizens had started a concerted national campaign of personal apologies for past wrongs and present ongoing consequences. In 1991, the Parliament with bipartisan support had legislated for a Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation.

In 1995-96, a national inquiry was conducted into "the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by compulsion, duress or undue influence, and the effects of those laws, practices and policies." The main national indigenous organisation (ATSIC) proposed, "The prospect of apologies to indigenous people has been raised on many occasions. There is no uniform view about reparations but there is a consistent view of indigenous people as to the necessity for apologies." During the inquiry many churches and non-government organisations which had participated in the removals policy made formal apologies as did one State government. The report, entitled Bringing Them Home, recommended that "all Australian parliaments officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal and negotiate with ATSIC a form of words for official apologies to Indigenous individuals, families and communities and extend those apologies with wide and culturally appropriate publicity."3

In 1997, there was a national reconciliation convention at which non-indigenous participants were invited to apologise to the indigenous participants:

As we indicated yesterday, we will take the opportunity, not waiting for government, not chastising government, but taking the responsibility ourselves. So this morning, just for a minute or two, those of us who are not Indigenous Australians, let's turn to those Indigenous people around us, to those who want to offer their hands. To them, let us offer a personal apology. If for nothing else, let us apologise that even when we act with the best of intentions we still so often get it wrong. Let's apologise.

At the end of that Convention, after the formal presentation of the Bringing Them Home report, the non-indigenous participants then made a formal collective apology:

We who are recent migrants who have come to this land, having attended the Australian Reconciliation Convention, thank you, the Aboriginal people gathered at this conference, for your tolerance of us, our cultures and aspirations. Also, we apologise for the hurt done to you, your ancestors and your lands by our ancestors, our presence and our actions on this land over the last 209 years.

All participants, indigenous and non-indigenous, who were so minded then said:

Committed to walk together on this land, we commit ourselves to reconciliation and building better relationships so that we can constitute a united Australia, respecting the land, valuing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and providing justice and equity for all.

In 2000, another national convention was held and hundreds of thousands of Australians walked across bridges as a gesture of reconciliation. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was packed with pedestrians all day while a skywriting airplane wrote "Sorry" above the Sydney Opera House.

For eleven years, the national Parliament was divided over the question of an apology with one side of the chamber willing to express only regret and sympathy and refusing to be party to a national apology. The then Prime Minister John Howard was a strong opponent of any apology. He told Parliament:4

[The government] believes that to do so is to indicate in some way that present generations of Australians are responsible and can be held accountable for the errors, wrongs and misdeeds of earlier generations. Apologising for something clearly implies some direct personal responsibility. An unwillingness to deliver a formal apology in no way connotes insensitivity or lack of sympathy. Rather, it is a statement of the obvious. Present generations of Australians are not responsible for the errors of earlier generations, particularly when the act involved was sanctioned by law and believed at the time to be for the benefit of the people affected.

In 2008, the Australian parliament moved its focus from intergenerational guilt to intergenerational responsibility with the national legislators apologising for actions which ought not to have been sanctioned by law and for actions which were insufficiently scrutinised to determine whether they were for the benefit of the people affected. It is commonplace for a court or a legislature to claim and to own continuity of responsibility for the outcomes of laws and policies (benign or harmful) put in place by that court or legislature at earlier times, even though the court or legislature was differently constituted, and even though some or all present members of the court or legislature were not members at the time. Moving the motion of apology which was seconded by the Leader of the Opposition, the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said:5

[A]s of today, the time for denial, the time for delay, has at last come to an end. The nation is demanding of its political leadership to take us forward. Decency, human decency, universal human decency, demands that the nation now step forward to right an historical wrong. That is what we are doing in this place today.

But should there still be doubts as to why we must now act, let the Parliament reflect for a moment on the following facts: that, between 1910 and 1970, between 10 and 30% of indigenous children were forcibly taken from their mothers and fathers; that, as a result, up to 50,000 children were forcibly taken from their families; that this was the product of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given to them under statute; that this policy was taken to such extremes by some in administrative authority that the forced extractions of children of so-called mixed lineage were seen as part of a broader policy of dealing with the problem of the Aboriginal population.

The Parliament (both sides) accepted responsibility for past laws, policies and repeated failures of the Parliament in earlier times. Hundreds of thousands of Australians watched the national apology on screens erected in public squares in the major cities. Millions tuned in on their televisions. Many Aborigines wore black T shirts emblazoned with one word: "Thanks." This was one national apology which fulfilled the criteria for the collective "we" saying sorry to the victims and their descendants for the past actions of the collective "we" which warranted more than regret and sympathy. There has been much talk of healing the nation's soul. It was an instance of an appropriate drawing of the line on past wrongs and setting a new direction by legislators responding to the nation "demanding of its political leadership to take us forward." It was not only useful, logical and politic; it was the right thing to do.

1Glen Pettigrove, “The Question of Inherited Guilt”, (2003) 17 Public Affairs Quarterly, 319 at p. 342
2Kathleen Parker, “The Un-slap Heard around the World”, Chicago Tribune, 21 August 2002, p. 21
3Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1997, available at
4House of Representatives, Debates, 2 June 1997, p. 4559
5House of Representatives, Debates, 13 February 2008, p. 2

Frank Brennan, S.J., is Visiting Presidential Scholar, Santa Clara University. He is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University and officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for services to Aboriginal Australians, particularly as an advocate in the areas of law, social justice and reconciliation.

March 2008

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