The Politics of 'Sorry'


As the dust settles after the Federal election, where will the politics of ‘apology’ be re-directed?

Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd has immediately moved the issue to centre stage. And, this time, he’s not talking about apologising for riding high in sleazy New York rather, the Rudd Labor Government will apologise to the Indigenous population for Australia’s past mistreatment of them.

So powerful has this message been that a defeated Liberal Party has been found muttering on a possible reversal of its previous position. New Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson has said that he does not think the Australian Government should say sorry to the Stolen Generations. But the defeated leadership aspirant, Malcolm Turnbull, was clearly attempting to follow Rudd’s lead and cut ties with the Howard Era by saying that his former leader had got himself into ‘a bit of a semantic tangle,’ and that an apology should have been issued when the chance presented itself.

With this in mind, activist Lowitja O’Donoghue has told Rudd to eschew fine differences in language. Nothing short of ‘sorry,’ accompanied by its usual quota of regret, would suffice.

John Howard’s position was clear enough: saying ‘sorry’ to the Stolen Generations and their ancestors asserted an imaginary responsibility. This refusal suggested a lack of agency: ‘I am from a generation not responsible for these crimes, and the past is another country.’ Finally, ‘I was not responsible’ implied a lack of control over decisions and in any case, when decisions were made, they were framed in the language of protection and good faith: ‘We did it to help you.’

But there is a strong counter argument to the idea that responsibility can be shirked for historical events like the Stolen Generations. Robert Manne, among many others, has written that decisions occur within a historical milieu that implicates all of us and, therefore, it is only logical to say ‘sorry’ for past injustices which demand the attention of all humanity. Civilisations are, in many ways, the product of crimes, and Australia’s coupling of bureaucracy and eugenics was no different to what happened in many other countries.

For instance, this complex issue was tackled by the philosopher Karl Jaspers in post-World War II Germany, in his 1947 tour de force The Question of German Guilt. Jaspers suggested a complex taxonomy of guilt and responsibility, which included, importantly, the need to realise a condition of ‘national guilt.’ In Jaspers’s account, an acknowledgment of such responsibility cleared the deck, encouraging a mass catharsis that would allow the country to begin anew.

And it’s here that symbolism becomes practical. For Deputy Prime Minister-elect Julia Gillard, an apology would ‘assist’ the implementation of government measures to improve the life-expectancy and health of Indigenous communities. (That, of course, remains to be seen the expression of apologetic sorrow tends to lack a structural coherence.)

In the field of civil rights, the Howard Government minimised responsibility while maximising ir-responsibility. David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib were mere footnotes in government policy; the detritus of moral worthlessness best kept in legal purgatory. Policy towards them was dictated, as ever, by Washington, not Canberra. And they were condemned, by their own ir-responsibility, to the custody of American officials. Australian citizenship had become as valuable as the brown paper bags it often comes in.

The Howard Government’s only true interest in political responsibility was in the field of economics. Civil rights was anathema a sign of a degenerate humanitarianism. The economy, on the other hand, provided a realistic means of distributing public goods.

The problem is that the economy is always a counterfeit brand of responsibility in an interdependent market economy governed by neo-liberal ideologues, the idea of ‘taking control’ of economic levers is a contradiction in terms. Peter Costello was technically a manager on autopilot, an automaton with about as much agency as King Canute had over a recalcitrant sea.

Minimal government is a necessary slave to the invisible re-ordering of market forces: it is these forces that the neo-liberal zealot worships. Governments as organisations like the Centre for Independent Studies keep reminding us are merely obstructionist goons who should abdicate.

Many of those ‘invisible’ market forces tend to come from the United States. Former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had more to do with Australian success than Costello ever could but then again, one doesn’t shirk the responsibility one benefits from, and the Howard Government always made it clear that it was responsible for all that was good. Responsibility for iron ore and uranium deposits is geological fate, not political design, but rhetoric overcomes such barriers and Canberra was responsible for that too.

But asserting responsibility in economics is always hazardous, and the Coalition only realised it when the wheels started coming off.

If, as Howard said during the Coalition policy launch in Brisbane, Costello was one of the ‘architects’ of Australia’s economic miracle , the announcement of an interest-rate rise in the middle of the campaign raised the stakes. Could the Government be responsible for that, too? Yes, of course, if it was claimed that rising rates were an indicator of good economic health.

Then why did Howard apologise?

Howard was ‘sorry’ to Australian families for them having to endure a further burden on their mortgage payments. He was not sorry to the Reserve Bank for stealing their thunder after all, the decision to raise interest rates did not take place in Kirribilli. (The Reserve Bank of Australia was entitled to be peeved by such political nonsense.)

Howard had not anticipated a rate rise, which should have indicated to everyone that he was never responsible for them.

We again found ourselves in a semantic maze just like the one surrounding the Indigenous ‘sorry.’ Somehow, one could feel sorry for an interest rate rise without issuing an apology. There were no ‘regrets.’

As for the politics of ‘sorry’ under a Rudd Government, the criticisms have already begun. An ever-belligerent Noel Pearson came to dread ‘a Rudd prime ministership’ in the dying days of the campaign. In an interview with the Weekend Australian on 24 November, he accused Rudd of not even taking steps to implement ‘symbolic reconciliation.’

For Pearson, the apology has to be drafted, legalised, and institutionalised. A referendum that would constitutionally recognise Indigenous people had to be put forth in the first term. Rudd’s refusal to do so, according to Pearson, was a ‘betrayal.’

On that score, at least, Rudd has remained unapologetic.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.