On the Hill: Apologies Very Black and White

Before the mid-semester break, the Prime Minister delivered the National Apology for Forced Adoptions. It happened the same day as the non-spill, and wasn’t the only substantive business of government that was consumed and forgotten by that farcical display.

The apology was moved in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and passed unanimously in both. The motion was also read out to an audience in the Great Hall an hour before.

Among the MPs who voted for the motion were 8 Coalition representatives, they were Sophie Mirabella, Peter Dutton, Don Randall, Alby Schultz, Dennis Jensen, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Senator Ian Macdonald and Senator Cory Bernardi.

Let’s just take a look at some comments from some of these MPs:

‘Saying sorry is not going to solve anything – it’s wallpaper.’
Dennis Jensen

‘I do not feel any sense of guilt for what has happened during Australia’s brief history.’
Cory Bernardi

‘I do not believe that I or other Australians can apologise for actions taken by former generations in different circumstances at a time of different attitudes, laws and Christian beliefs.’
Ian Macdonald

‘If I thought for a moment that it was going to deliver positive outcomes to those kids, to their families, to those communities, then I would support it in a heartbeat.’
Peter Dutton

These quotes – of course – don’t refer to the recent apology, but to the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations.

These MPs all objected, in various ways, to the 2008 apology. Randall, Mirabella, Schultz, Dutton and Jensen boycotted the event. Senator Fierravanti-Wells abstained, Senator Macdonald supported it but later claimed he could not apologise for a historical event for which he bears no personal responsibility, and Bernardi also supported the apology but later said he felt no guilt for what happened (and complained that he was, in fact, set upon by an Aboriginal gang when he was young). Former MP Wilson Tuckey also boycotted the apology, but was subsequently defeated at the 2010 election (probably safe to assume those two events are unrelated, for the Member for O’Connor in WA). Another MP, Chris Pearce – while attending the Apology – did some personal reading during the official proceedings and remained seated during the standing ovation, he went on to retire at the 2010 election.

Here we have two apologies. Two instances where, over many years, children were removed from homes in deceptive, damaging and prejudiced ways. There are differences in the detail, but they are fundamentally very, very similar.

Some choice excerpts from the official motions read like this:

‘We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights to love and care for your children… To each of you who were adopted or removed…denied the opportunity to grow up with your family and community of origin and to connect with your culture, we say sorry.’
Julia Gillard, 21 March 2013

‘We apologise for the laws and policies…that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss… We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their family, communities and country.’
Kevin Rudd, 13 February 2008

Both apologies take a collective, national, governmental responsibility – implicitly or explicitly – for the events, both acknowledge the ongoing ramifications as well as the disproportionately large impact of an apology as a symbol for healing.

Every problem that could be found with the 2008 apology could also be found in the 2013 one. If one questions the responsibility and impact of the Apology to the Stolen Generations, one can equally question the responsibility and impact of the National Apology for Forced Adoptions.

Presumably, these MPs are no more responsible for the forced adoptions than they are for the Stolen Generations (and if they are, that’s probably something we should know about). The argument that somehow the most recent apology will have more of a positive effect also seems pretty hard to argue.

So what difference did these MPs find?

There is only one this writer can think of, but lest I outrage hacks everywhere by dropping the r-word, I’ll leave it to the readers to come to their own conclusions.