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
I suggest the following lessons from the Australian experience:
- A national apology must be a response to sustained requests
by identifiable victims.
- A national apology must build upon individual apologies
and apologies by agencies involved in previous wrongdoing,
and not substitute for them.
- The "we" who apologise must not speak on behalf
of the living who are not willing parties to the apology.
- 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 "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.
- 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.
- The victims and their descendants should be willing to accept
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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.
3Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission,
Bringing Them Home, Australian Government Publishing Service,
1997, available at http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/bth_report/index.html
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