Saying Sorry

The word ‘sorry’ holds special meaning in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. In many Aboriginal communities, sorry is an adapted English word used to describe the rituals surrounding death (Sorry Business). Sorry, in these contexts, is also often used to express empathy or sympathy rather than responsibility. [1]

The newly elected government of Australia will apologise to the Stolen Generation on 12 February 2008, during the first sitting of Parliament for the year. The Stolen Generation are

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who were forcibly removed from their families and communities by government, welfare or church authorities as children and placed into institutional care or with non-Indigenous foster families. [1]

These children grew up not knowing their families and the land they were born to. In some cases they have not been able to find where they came from and who they are. Kinship connections and ties to the land are very important to Aboriginal people [2] and the consequences of this disconnection were, and still are, devastating for the children, their parents and Indigenous communities [1].

The forced removals were a policy of Australia’s state governments which began in the mid 1800s and continued for much of last century until 1970 [1]. This was done with the intention of assimilating Indigenous people into the wider community and some have said it was a form of genocide [3]. The WA (and also Queensland) government confirmed that during the period 1910 to 1970 all Indigenous families in the state were affected by the forced removal of children [1].

I had a friend whose dad worked for the state government department who removed children in WA. My friend told me his dad would do things to try to thwart the policy, like telling families to go somewhere else for the day. I was surprised when my friend told me this because I was sure they wouldn’t have still been doing this when his father was of working age, sadly they were. My friend’s dad eventually got found out, but they couldn’t fire him, they just moved him to HR.

The 1997 Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that between 1 in 10 and 3 in 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from 1910 to 1970. [1]

The above report was called Bringing them Home and documents the forced removal with evidence from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, government and church representatives, former mission staff, foster and adoptive parents, doctors and health professionals, academics and police [4]. Many of the people involved in the forced removal are now saddened that they allowed this to happen [3]. The report is very long and if you don’t want to read it all, Robert Manne discussed Bringing them Home in the first issue of Quarterly Essay. He included the stories of four Aboriginal children who were removed from their families and these stories are heart wrenching [3].

The apology will be provided by the Australian Government in recognition of policies of past governments and

is an important step towards building a respectful new relationship between us as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. [1]

An apology was always only meant to be the first step and hopefully the government will acknowledge it as such. There are myriad problems in Indigenous communities which must be dealt with urgently and in consultation with Indigenous people and communities. These problems include:

  • the 17 year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people
  • 3 times the infant mortality rate compared to Australia’s general population
  • higher unemployment rate compared to Australia’s general population
  • lower average weekly income compared to Australia’s general population [5]

Australia’s opposition leader Brendan Nelson thought there were more important matters for the Parliament to deal with. He would say that when his party shirked their responsibility for the past decade. The previous government’s refusal to say sorry is similar to their refusal to do anything about climate change. If they ignored it, they thought it would go away.

GetUp! is holding a campaign to contact local MPs and congratulate them on this long overdue act. Sign up here.



  1. Altman, Jon & Hinkson, Melinda (Eds.) (2007) Coercive Reconciliation Melbourne: Arena.
  2. Manne, Robert (2001) “In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right” Quarterly Essay, no.1.
  3. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997) Bringing them Home.
  4. “Country Profile: Australia” (2007) Oxfam News, Summer, p.21.

2 thoughts on “Saying Sorry

  1. Thanks for this post – I agree with you completely about the apology being the first step, and an important one. Nelson just shows how irrelevant he and his party have become in this country – they’ve got no idea what the mood of the people is.

    Thanks also for the mention of Manne’s article in Quarterly Essay, I’m going to try to get hold of a copy.

  2. Thanks for the post. Who would have thought it would take so bloody long to apologise; to admit error and ask for forgiveness!!

    My husband grew up in Adelaide (60 + 70’s – ‘nice’ middle class burb) and there was a ‘home’ for these kids in his street. He didn’t know why they were there and his parents didn’t say anything about it. Always silence. He said he loved going over to play/hang out with the kids. It was only years later that he realised, what had been going on. Amazing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s