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'Sorry' first, but progress later

By Howard Glenn - posted Friday, 8 February 2008

Twenty years ago last Australia Day, the Bicentennial celebrations kicked off on Sydney Harbour. But for thousands of Australians like me, the day started at Belmore Park with an enormous rally calling for a treaty with Aboriginal Australia. The idea of a document to underpin a fundamental revision of relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal had been around for a few years, and a Senate Inquiry had given the idea clear support a couple of years before. Then in 1990, the Governor-General opened the first Parliament of the re-elected Hawke-Keating government with a commitment to work towards an instrument of reconciliation - the treaty concept was centre stage in national politics.

A Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, eminent Australians to oversee the process of negotiating a “document of reconciliation”, was established with the unanimous support of the Federal Parliament. After hard negotiation with Aboriginal communities, churches, key community organisations, among Government MPs, the Opposition Liberal and National Parties, and the Australian Democrats, the Parliament made this commitment to reconciliation. Whatever party was to be in power in the future, a ten-year process of negotiation towards a document would continue, leading to a result by 2001.

John Howard's government came to power in 1996, and overturned that commitment, both through open hostility, and then slow neglect. The process of reconciliation continued - but the hope was ripped out of it. In 2000 the march across Sydney Harbour Bridge showed that a symbolic reconciliation had enormous support across the community. But in the end, the opportunity to address this hole in the heart of the nation passed - the centenary of Federation in 2001 was just fireworks and late-arriving commemorative medals.


The Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, and the “stolen generations” report, demonstrated in excruciating detail how clearly past wrongs lived on in contemporary reality. The final chapter of the Royal Commission's report explained the need for reconciliation. But the sickness, neglect, abuse, alcoholism, early death and disease continue. These days the Productivity Commission keeps an accurate record of how bad things are - the problem is so clear it's now an indicator of failure in our economy.

Without any clear fundamentals in place, addressing the social problems won't work. Little government actions or inactions are based on misunderstood and undefined principles: we have to leave this group of drunks sitting in the middle of the town, because that's self determination and it's their land or if we take this child away from the abuse, that's contributing to genocide. And there's a nonsense that basic human services can only be delivered by Aboriginal organisations. Or among individual Aboriginal people, that their situation is solely a result of hundreds of years of dispossession, rather than about the choices that they can make today.

In this context, it's amazing that the controversy over saying “sorry” is about whether it should be said at all, rather than that that's all that's going to be said.

The “sorry” word derives its impetus from a push to resolve a significant, but comparatively small set of injustices that were identified in the Human Rights Commission's Bringing them home report. I've always found it hard to understand why this issue was allowed to fester into the sore that it has become. The damage caused by insensitive government agencies breaking up families is pretty easy to identify with - especially as it wasn't a practice confined to Aboriginal families.

I was part of the early discussions with Aboriginal child welfare agencies exploring the idea of setting up an inquiry into the treatment of Aboriginal children. It seemed a very simple idea to bring this past distress into the open - as so many of us would be able to relate from our own experience. I thought that the final report lost its way by not contextualising the treatment of Aboriginal children with that of poor children generally, and most unfortunately with its discussion of genocide. But its documentation of some miserable experience is unarguable.

Saying “sorry” shouldn't be allowed to be a proxy for addressing the more fundamental needs. It's simply a matter of clearing up long unfinished business, and a first step towards addressing the bigger issues. Equally, a billion dollar fund in compensation would merely drain public interest in the bigger amounts that are needed to fix these fundamentals.


The most encouraging part of the debate is that it has the prospect of re-kindling a bi-partisan approach to these issues. Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson should reflect that the reconciliation process started with hard negotiation between the Hawke Government's Minister Robert Tickner, and John Hewson's Shadow Minister Michael Wooldridge. Bi-partisan negotiations today can put this process back on the path to a much needed conclusion.

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About the Author

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

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