I agree with almost all of what Kevin Rudd said in his Sorry speech. However, there are some parts of it that expose muddled thoughts that could do with closer examination:
It is for these reasons, quite apart from concerns of
fundamental human decency, that the governments and parliaments of
this nation must make this apology - because, put simply, the laws
that our parliaments enacted made the stolen generations
We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible,
not those who gave effect to our laws.
I see the need to admit wrongdoing. Brendan Nelson's counter-speech, punctuated by rationalizations, "best
of intentions" justifications and weasel wordings like "Aboriginal Australians made involuntary sacrifices", was not the way to heal any wounds or redress any wrongs. It was a way to make white Australians feel good about their great and glorious past. This is itself wrong. The more we justify our predecessors' actions as being well motivated, the more we allow ourselves to self-justify our own actions. We need to learn our lessons and apply them to more current issues, like how we've treated refugees. But let's leave Nelson alone.
My difference with Rudd is in his sleight of hand that treats the "parliaments of the nation" as unchanging entities. "We ... are ultimately responsible" is placed in the present tense. When we talk about the mistakes of the past, made by people who are no longer in power, this is wrong. We cannot take ultimate responsibility for other peoples decisions. The "parliaments of the nation" change with the people of the nation. If we take responsibility for and apologize for anything, it should be the continuing current racist attitudes in our nation and the way they influence our corporate behavior.
We accept the burden of the decisions of our predecessors. We accept the debts incurred. We accept the responsibility to fix the problems of the past, but this is completely different from accepting responsibility for the decisions made by our predecessors. We could apologize on their behalf, but that would be blatantly presumptive of us unless we have some access to their thoughts and attitudes. The best we can do is express our sorrow, our shame, our empathy, our current understanding of how wrong our nation was, and our commitment to prevent the repetition of past mistakes. We can say "sorry", but to imply any responsibility for other people's decisions is hollow and meaningless.
Judaic teachings have a concept of sin being passed down from father to son through multiple generations. The original sin concept is rife in Western thought. It contributes to a confusion of thought regarding identity and responsibility. Our sense of justice tells us that someone did something wrong, so someone must pay. When the people who did the crime are no longer available to take the punishment, we're left with a wound. Who can heal it? Where is the mystic karmic justice to "balance" the world? We can see the false ideas of universal fairness creeping in here. The pain of unresolved injustices and the religious ideas of inheritance of sin mesh to produce a derived false idea that we, now, are somehow "ultimately" responsible for what they, then, did.
Strip away the mysticism; accept that people are fully responsible for their own actions, and we have a much clearer view of life, but we have done nothing to solve the ongoing feeling of injustice. For that we needed an "apology", an open admission that the stolen generation actions were wrong, and a real commitment to fix whatever can be fixed. For that I commend Rudd:
None of this will be easy. Most of it will be hard, very hard.
But none of it is impossible, and all of it is achievable with
clear goals, clear thinking, and by placing an absolute premium on
respect, cooperation and mutual responsibility as the guiding
principles of this new partnership on closing the gap.
How much of the rancorous debate about an apology could we have avoided if we hadn't muddled our ideas of responsibility? Responsibility to fix something is separate from the responsibility for breaking something. We can accept the former, but we would have to arrogate the latter.