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Assessing The Stolen Generation Of Australia Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 5424 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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On February 13, 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opened a new chapter in Australia's tortured relations with its indigenous peoples with a comprehensive and moving apology for past wrongs. This was "Government business, motion No. 1," the first act of Rudd's Labor government, which was sworn in after a convincing electoral win over the 11-year administration of John Howard in 2008, who had for years refused to apologize for the misdeeds of past governments. The 4-minute apology, and the 20-minute speech that followed, received a standing ovation both inside the chamber and from the hundreds gathered on the grounds of Parliament House in the capital, Canberra. [1] 

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The speech referred to "past mistreatment" and wrongs which the original Australians endured after British settlers arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788. Australia's original inhabitants with cultures stretching back many thousands of years, Aborigines are believed to have numbered around a million at the time of white settlement but there are now just 470,000 out of a population of 21 million. [2] They make up only 2% of the population and are the most disadvantaged group, with a lifespan 17 years shorter than the national average and disproportionately high rates of imprisonment, heart disease, infant mortality, drug abuse, alcoholism, and unemployment. [3] 

The apology of the Rudd government to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia for laws which resulted in their forced separation from their families assumed that the State possessed the power to pass such laws. As a result the apology was limited to apologizing for the consequences of the laws of removal, and in no way intimated that the State might have lacked the power to pass them. [4] 

Background of Kevin Rudd's Apology

Many Aboriginal children were handed to white families from 1915 to 1969.They were brought up in institutions, orphanages, missions or white foster families in an attempt by the government to assimilate the white and Aboriginal populations. [5] 

Most commonly, it was children of mixed race - "half-castes'" in the parlance of the day - that the government agencies chose to snatch. They would descend on Aboriginal communities, separate the light-skinned children from those with a darker complexion, and then take them away. Under the twisted logic of the time, the idea was to "civilize" these young Aboriginal children, to inculcate them with European values. Another early aim, which stemmed from the doctrine of eugenics, was to "breed out their color". The offices based their policies on the eugenics theories of English academics and Fabian socialists who believed aboriginality was a degenerate trait that should be bred out by removing Aboriginal girls from their families and absorbing them into white society. [6] 

No wonder the policy has been labeled by the historian Robert Manne as "the most shameful act of 20th Century Australia". Up until the late 1990s, when the findings of the landmark Bringing Them Home inquiry were published, the full scale of the policy was not apparent, and many white Australians were oblivious to it. In the late 1960s, as the discredited policy was finally jettisoned, one anthropologist described it as "the Great Australian silence". But according to the Bringing Them Home report, at least 100,000 children were removed from their parents.

Australia's indigenous people have long called for an official expression of remorse for the litany of massacres, tribal expulsions and abuses meted out since the beginning of British colonization in 1788. They have also campaigned for compensation for the 'stolen generations' - Aboriginal children. [7] 

Formal apologies soon followed from the state parliaments in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland, along with the territory parliament in the Northern Territory.

The Rudd apology was delivered in a very particular context which explains both its importance and the terms in which it was delivered. In 1995, the then Labor government commissioned the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) to inquire into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. [8] 

HREOC's report, Bringing Them Home, was presented to the Attorney-General of the new Liberal government in April 1997. The report used empirical evidence and personal stories allegorically to present a devastating account of the impact and extent of policies of removal. The report recommended that the State respond to the policies of removal with five reparatory measures:

acknowledgement and apology,

guarantees against repetition,

measures of restitution,

measures of rehabilitation, and

monetary compensation. [9] 

In December 1997, the Federal Government announced its formal response to the Bringing Them Home report. The response questioned the report's methodology and a number of its findings and recommendations, and adopted recommendations that were in line with its own philosophy of 'practical reconciliation'. [10] Although the government was prepared to respond to existing Aboriginal disadvantage, including the legacy of policies of removal, it took the position that present generations had no responsibility for government policies in the past. John Howard expressly rejected the existence of 'intergenerational guilt'. [11] Mr Howard argued that a formal apology would reinforce a sense of victimhood in Aboriginal communities, and that modern-day Australians were not the authors of the policy, so therefore had nothing for which to apologise. [12] 

The failure of the Howard government to unreservedly apologise was considered a fundamental impediment to reconciliation during the term of the Liberal government. No further steps were taken towards an apology until the Rudd apology in 2008.

The Apology

Thousands of Aboriginal Australians gathered in Canberra to watch the historic apology, which was televised around the nation and shown at special outdoor settings in remote indigenous communities. Many of those watching had personal experience of the forcible removal of Aboriginal people, and there were emotional scenes as the apology was delivered. The Prime Minister used the word "sorry" three times in the 360 word statement read to parliament. Australia has no Aboriginal members in parliament, but 100 leaders of the community and members of the Stolen Generations were present for the historic apology.

He said there came a time in history when people had to reconcile the past with their future. "Our nation Australia has reached such a time and that is why the parliament is today here assembled to deal with this unfinished business of the nation. To remove a great stain from the nation's soul and in the true spirit of reconciliation to open a new chapter in the history of this great land Australia'' he carried on. "We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians," the apology read. "We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country."

The apology also looked forward, heralding a renewed and united effort to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in "life expectancy, infant mortality rates, educational achievement and economic opportunity".

Mr Rudd pledged action as well as words, calling for the equivalent a war cabinet to tackled indigenous issues. "I therefore propose a joint policy commission to be led by the Leader of the Opposition and myself," he said. The Prime Minister said the commission would first develop and implement an effective housing strategy for remote communities during the next five years. If that was successful the commission would then work on the constitutional recognition of first Australians. [13] 

Mr. Rudd said he apologized "especially" to the Stolen Generations of young Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents in a policy of assimilation which lasted from the 19th Century to the late 1960s. [14] 

Reactions to the Apology

The father of reconciliation, Pat Dodson, described the apology as a "seminal moment in the nation's history". Mr Dodson said the apology was a courageous statement after a decade of denial by the government of John Howard and went "beyond what I thought they might say".

"I thought it was fantastic," said Kirstie Parker, the managing editor of the influential Aboriginal newspaper The Koori Mail. She said that it was not just the apology that was important: Rudd recounted stories of the victims, Parker noted, bringing the reality of the misdeeds to light and publicly confronting those who deny what happened.

But Stolen Generations member John Moriarty criticised the Government for failing to go far enough. "It doesn't tell what the Stolen Generation really is," he said.

"I'm questioning the cultural genocide aspect. I think it's an appeasement in the sense that it's saying sorry, but it doesn't get down to the real crux of the issue, in my view, that people like me were taken away from their full-blooded mothers to breed out the culture. It doesn't come to that."

Some indigenous leaders feared the apology would mean an end to claims for compensation for Aboriginal children removed from their homes under previous government policies. Others argued that Mr Rudd had left the door open to payments for past injustices. [15] 

The government hopes the apology will repair the breach between white and black Australia and usher in a new era of recognition and reconciliation.

Michael Mansell, a spokesman for the rights group the National Aboriginal Alliance, said the word "sorry" was one that "Stolen Generation members will be very relieved is finally being used", reported Associated Press news agency. But the refusal to accompany the apology with any compensation has angered many Aboriginal leaders, who have called it a "cut-price sorry".

"Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas keep the money," summed up Noel Pearson, a respected Aboriginal leader, in The Australian newspaper. [16] Campaigners for the Stolen Generations had asked for a reparation fund of almost A$1bn ($870m; £443m) as part of a promised official apology. But indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin says money will instead be put into health and education schemes.

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The Howard government had refused to apologize, partially because it did not feel responsible for the misdeeds of past administrations, but also because it feared that the move could lead to sizable compensation claims. Howard's government had been criticized for an intervention in the Northern Territory that curtailed the rights of many indigenous communities, including quarantining half of welfare payments to ensure they were spent on food. Rudd's government has promised to review the intervention. [17] 

Aboriginal campaigners have promised to protest against the decision. Brisbane-based activist Sam Watson said the new Labor government was following the same policies as their predecessors. "Even though they've changed the saddle blankets we're still dealing with the same horse," he told Australian broadcaster ABC. [18] 

The Apology through the Realist Prism

Morgenthau in his classic book 'Politics Among Nations' posited 6 principles of political realism. These principles are applicable in both internal and external politics and policies of a state or political regime. The test by which such a theory must be judged is not a priori and abstract but empirical and pragmatic. [19] In the following sections we will try to apply and analyze the 6 principles of political realism in the context of Kevin Rudd's apology.

Six Principles of Political Realism

Political realism believes that politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. It believes also in the possibility of distinguishing in politics between truth and opinion. It assumes that the character of a policy can be ascertained only through the examination of the political acts performed and of the foreseeable consequences of these acts. Thus we can find out what statesmen have actually done, and from the foreseeable consequences of their acts we can summarize what their objectives might have been. [20] 

The first political objective that the Rudd government wanted to achieve was to fulfill its election-campaign promise. By extending this apology Kevin Rudd not only wanted to win over the electorate but also wanted to humiliate the long governing Liberal Party of John Howard in the eyes of the electorate, as was evident in the reaction of people towards the Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson's speech. In contrast to Rudd's standing ovation, Nelson's speech in support of the apology was met by protests. As Dr Nelson began speaking some people turned their backs on the large screen on which the speech was being televised, began clapping and yelled "shame". [21] 

Another objective of Kevin Rudd might have been to secure the support of the Aboriginal population and other minority and migrant groups of Australia. He might also looked for acquiring a moral superior position in the eyes of the international community which he then will be able to use as a political capital in the international arena and various bi- and multi-lateral negotiations. The supposed human rights standard that this apology would claim to set will invariably be used to exert pressure to the ends of Australia's national gains on the Asia-pacific region which some claim Australia runs with the mindset of an empire. [22]  

The apology also will solidify Australia's influence of the Pacific Islands as its image to the indigenous people of these countries will be positive. [23] So it will be easier for Australia to negotiate any agreement defending its national interest with these islands.

The apology is also a step on the path to moving on. The Prime Minister proposed that, 'if the apology we extend today is accepted in the spirit of reconciliation in which it is offered, we can today resolve together that there be a new beginning for Australia.' The new beginning is a point at which the pain of the past can be forgotten. The apology reveals a fairly desperate desire to move on to a more comfortable, post apology place - where the extreme acts which bring into question the extent of the sovereign's power do not need to be contemplated.' [24] 

Of course, moving on to a new beginning where the past can be forgotten is the very point of the apology, and all the apologies aspire to enter this place. It was never intended to be a time for staying with the past. Historical injustice is capable of recognition on the condition that we do not stay there. The statement of apology was a political triumph for the Australian Labor Party. To be a moment of triumph, it had to be full of hope, full of the future, full of the possibility that the new government would make a difference.

Political realism believes in the concept of interest defined in terms of power. It sets politics as an autonomous sphere of action apart from other spheres like economics, ethics, religion etc. This concept provides the link between reason trying to understand politics and the facts to be understood. We assume that statesmen think and act in terms of interest defines as power, and the evidence of history bears that assumption out. That assumption allows us to retrace and anticipate the steps a statesman has taken or will take on the political scene. To search for the clue to policy exclusively in the motives of statesmen is both futile and deceptive. It is futile because motives are the most illusive of psychological data, distorted as they are, frequently beyond recognition, by the interests and emotions of actor and observer alike. Good motives give assurance against deliberately bad policies; they do not guarantee the moral goodness and political success of policies they inspire. The most important thing is his political ability to translate what he has comprehended into successful political action. Realism also avoids the other popular fallacy of equating the policies of a statesman with his philosophic or political sympathies, and of deducting the former from the latter. Statesman may well make the habit of presenting their policies in terms of their philosophic and political sympathies in order to gain popular support for them. Yet they need to distinguish between their "official duty", which is to think and act in terms of national interest, and their "personal wish", which is to see his their own moral values and political principals realized. It requires indeed a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible- between what is desirable everywhere and all times and what is possible under the concrete circumstances of time and place. At the same time political realism considers a rational policy to be good policy for only a rational policy minimizes risks and maximizes benefits. [25] 

Kevin Rudd considered politics as autonomous from other spheres like economics, ethics, law etc. That's why he didn't include the aspects of compensation or legal bindings in the apology. That's why the Rudd apology distinguished itself from the position of the Howard government by accepting that the policies were in no way well-motivated but it did not address a more fundamental wrong, the failure to recognize the harm caused by asserting an absolute sovereignty over Aboriginal children- which may fall into legal or even moral purview.

Another thing is that Kevin Rudd may have had good motive which was evident by the amount of solidarity and empathy that was shown by Kevin Rudd during his apology speech. The choice of words and phases, the use of authentic individual stories of victims of the policies all bear this statement out. Mr Rudd told the story of an elderly indigenous woman, part of the stolen generations, who he visited a few days ago. Her family tried to hide her from the "welfare men" by digging holes in the ground. But she was found and removed from her crying mother at the age of four.

"There is something terribly primal about these first-hand accounts, the pain is searing, it screams from the pages, the hurt the humiliation, the degradation and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental humanity,'' he said. Mr Rudd said the stories "cry out'' to be heard and "cry out'' for an apology. [26] 

But that didn't ensure the ultimate political success of the apology. A year after making the historic apology to Aboriginal people for centuries of injustice, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came under fire on February 13, 2009 for failing to improve their lives. As the anniversary passed many said its symbolism had not been matched with action. The Australian newspaper said there was "still a great deal to be sorry about" and accused Rudd of elevating the "politics of symbolism" over practical policies to improve the plight of Aborigines.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre director Michael Mansell said Rudd was hiding behind the hugely symbolic apology to avoid the hard work of improving Aboriginal living standards, which are among the lowest in the world. Mansell said: "The apology has provided the Rudd government with a political shield against criticism of its failures in Aboriginal affairs." [27] So, we see that Kevin Rudd could not translate his policies into action.

Mr. Rudd also recognizes the difference between "official duty" and "personal wish", between the "desirable" and the "possible". That's why he kept the option of financial compensation away as it could have opened a floodgate of compensation claims which would have caused the federal and state governments millions. On "official duty" vis-à-vis "personal wish", Mr. Rudd may have wished to deal and run the affairs himself but for national acceptance he proposed to form the bi-partisan committee comprising him and the leader of the opposition as co-chairs.

Realism does not endow its key concept of interest defined as power with a meaning that is fixed once and for all. The idea of interest is indeed of essence of politics and is unaffected by the circumstances of time and place. Thucydides said "identity of interests is the surest of bonds whether between states or individuals." Yet the kind of interest determining political action in particular period of history depends upon the political and cultural context within which policy is formulated. The same observation applies to the concept of power. Its content and the manner of its use are determined by the political and cultural environment. Power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships which serve that end, form physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another. Power covers the domination of man by man, even when it is disciplined by moral ends and controlled by constitutional safeguards, as in western democracies. The balance of power, for instance, is indeed a perennial element of all pluralistic societies where it is capable of operating under the conditions of relative stability and peaceful conflict. [28] 

Mr. Rudd knows that if the State can pass laws forcing the assimilation of one cultural group into another as part of the regular law, then the State cannot guarantee that similar policies will not be repeated. Kevin Rudd can only be disingenuous, when he declares 'we must make sure such policies never, never happen again'. [29] There are clear examples of the State's failure to account for the limits of its power in the terms of the apology itself. The Prime Minister can offer no more than a personal pledge that similar policies will not be implemented again. Mr. Rudd correctly acknowledges that as the mode of interest and power of the state is not fixed once and for all, rather it is subject to change so there is no point in promising that such policies will never take place again. The policies of the future will be determined in view of the political and cultural context of that time.

As power relates to control of man over man by any means--even through psychological tools-so an apology could be made as to establish control over the aboriginal populace through wining their hearts and minds and thus weakening the voice of dissent. Because even if Kevin Rudd wants to establish a pluralist society, he needs to achieve balance of power between the majority and the minority groups of Australia. Because it is the state of "relative stability and peaceful conflict" between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal population that can achieve national unity.

Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the ineluctable tension between the moral command and the requirements of successful political action. Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. While the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action. [30] 

The apology is completely silent as to any government responsibility outside existing legal liability. The Rudd government has rejected the establishment of a Compensation tribunal. On 29 January 2008, two weeks before delivering the apology, the Prime Minister told the Channel 7 Sunrise program:

"We will not be establishing any compensation fund. I said that before the election, I say it again. And since the Stolen Generation report came out years and years ago, it has been open for any … Aboriginal person affected by that to engage their own legal actions through the courts of their State or Territory. That's fine. But at the level of national Government, we will not be establishing a compensation fund."

There are powerful reasons to establish a compensation fund if the State recognizes the limits to its sovereignty, which Mr. Rudd declines to accept for considerations of national interest and power of the federal government. Compensation is a tangible recognition that the government acted outside its power and injustice resulted. It can confirm the wrongdoing in asserting the power to implement and enforce policies of removal. In doing so, compensation reinforces in a tangible way that the same must never, never happen again.

As Kevin Rudd had to consider between moral preoccupation and successful political action at the given situation, he was not in a position to let the former come in the way of the latter. He acted prudently not only in the question of compensation but also in the matter of options for acceptance of the apology.

Through an apology, the State acknowledges the separate status of Aboriginal peoples and empowers them to accept or reject it. "Originally having the power to hurt, the offender now gives the power to forgive or not forgive to the offended party." [31] The risk is that Aboriginal people, empowered by this recognition, will use it to reject the apology and embarrass the State. The possibility of rejection is crucial to the very structure of an apology. Without it, the State has risked nothing. "What makes an apology work is the exchange of power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing you take the shame of your offence and redirect it to yourself." [32] 

The Rudd apology carefully avoided the risk of rejection. The Prime Minister requested that the apology be accepted 'in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation'. [33] The structure of the apology, as an official speech to the nation, did not allow for or require an acceptance. In fact, the only 'acceptance' officially recorded was that of the Opposition in the speech of Brendan Nelson. Although the public gallery was full of Aboriginal people witnessing the apology, the success of its delivery and its acceptance did not depend on their presence. They were passive witnesses to a performance.

Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe. It is exactly the concept of interest defines in terms of power that saves us from both that moral excess and political folly. For if we look at all nations as political entities pursuing their respective interests defined in terms of power, we are able to do justice to all of them and that in a dual sense: we are able to judge other nations as we judge our own and, having judged them in this fashion, we are then capable of pursuing policies that respect the interests of other nations, while protecting and promoting those of our own. [34] 

The apology of the Rudd government construed its response to policies of removal as a question of accounting for historical injustice, and framed the apology for wrongful acts of the past. The apology focused exclusively on the consequences of the policies of removal, without considering how it was that the State could have implemented the policies in the name of the law. There was no reflection, therefore, on the nature of government power, or on the extent of the State's sovereignty - these were assumed. [35] This saved Mr. Rudd's apology from the guilt of moral excess and


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