“Sorry, but”: The apology, mutual responsibility, and self-determination

There’s been a bit of “Not today. Don’t anyone critique him today. Today is the day the PM is above critique.”

The day we suspend critique is the day we confer absolute power.

I didn’t go into this election planning to be a Rudd yes-woman, and I’m not going to start now, not even for a day. The Opposition certainly isn’t going to do anything useful in terms of critique; it is down to citizens. If all you’d like to do today is bask in the moment, best not to read on.

So, the explanation for my macro:

He had me at “Sorry”. (Not that I’m one of the important people to “have”; that’s Nelson’s misperception.) I think he should have stopped there. The first half of the apology is wonderful. The vast majority of his accompanying address is heart-rending, disturbing, insightful, moving, and to the point; it should be in every high school class before the day is out. The Closing The Gap plans – health, education, housing – should be good ones, by the sounds of things. We are making some steps in the right direction, but we’re nowhere near there, and there are troubling signs.

Rudd may not have spoiled the moment, but he blemished it with the “Sorry, but…” of “mutual responsibility”.

“Mutual responsibility” ((Clarifying note: Centrelink currently uses the term “Mutual Obligation” as an official term for the concept. I don’t think Rudd could have got away with using “obligation” for that reason, but he is (thus far) getting away with “mutual responsibility”, which is synonymous. ~lauredhel)) may have been a perfectly cromulent phrase in the distant past, but it has been irretrievably blighted by its use to justify Howard’s paternalistic and punitive approach to Indigenous affairs. Rudd’s a smart man, a keen student of history. I can’t in good faith postulate that he doesn’t understand this.

“Mutual responsibility” means “We whitefellas set the rules, you follow them and we’ll get along, ok?” “Mutual responsibility” is the opposite of self-determination. “Mutual responsibility” is Rudd laying down the law that the Indigenous rights process will go only _this_ far. He is opening the door just an inch, and jamming it there. He is saying “Well, we’ve said Sorry, now it’s time for you to pull your socks up too” – all in the same breath.

“Mutual responsibility” says “You’re colluding in your own oppression”. “Mutual responsibility” says “You owe us, too”.

This all fits in with Rudd’s previously stated Indigenous policy direction. We know that Rudd wants to expand punitive, paternalistic welfare systems. We know he isn’t going down an indigenous self-determination path. He made that absolutely clear in his address, when he talked about being a “fully united people”, and about the parliament setting a “destination for the nation… a centralised organising principle”. He speaks of individual human rights, of one nation, and of moving forward united, while avoiding any mention at all of Indigenous rights as peoples, as nations. He makes it very clear that Parliament won’t be relaxing its strangehold of power over Indigenous lands and peoples any time soon. Is this merely a kinder, gentler assimilationism for the twenty-first century?

I think we’re falling into a new set of wranglings over Indigenous affairs. I see Rudd pushing toward a post-apology benevolent paternalism imbued with the rhetoric of national unity and individual rights and responsibilities. Not toward respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as collectives, not toward self-determination, not toward reparations. Not toward a real implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That remains the no-go zone for this government.

I’m elated that the official denial about the Stolen Generations is finally over. The apology part was superb and sincere. A national exhalation was almost audible. I can be excited and thrilled and hopeful and disappointed, all at the same time. He had us at “Sorry”. I wish he had stopped there, for today.

Categories: indigenous, Politics

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15 replies

  1. Hiya Lauredhel,
    You may not agree with some of my observations but I’d like to start off by clarifying one thing; like you, I’m extremely pleased that that the new Australian Government took the hugely humanitarian step of apologising to the indigenous peoples of Australia. The bit that I’m not sure I can fully agree with is your comment about the ‘blemish’ and I hope that I can adequately explain why. This piece in particular is one that initially confused me…
    “Well, we’ve said, ‘Sorry’, now it’s time for you to pull your socks up too – all in the same breath. Mutual responsibility says You’re colluding in your own oppression. Mutual responsibility says You owe us, too.
    You appear to recognise a doubt (one within yourself, perhaps?) and seem to question that doubt in the same statement.
    When two people (or groups of people) can’t agree on something, what would you say is the absolute minimum required by either party to achieve a compromise? Notice that I say a compromise and not a resolution; sometimes, resolution isn’t possible. The only thing required by either party is a willingness to say (honestly) to themselves, “I must concede that I played a part in the way the other person feels or thinks” – in that way, resolution is not required (even if it were possible) but compromise is achieved because it’s more probable.
    Not ALL Australians or previous Governments were reluctant to offer an apology for the mistake of past generations of Australians/Governments – only some were.
    Like wise, not ALL aborigines were willing to have one foot on either side of the fence, one side that demanded recognition of their culture and customs, the other side being the welfare band-aid that was handed out for so long (which kinda hints at the collusion and ‘owing’ you referred to, especially when some people’s perceptions are that the indigenous received more benefits than were available to the rest of non-indigenous Australia, yes? – only some did that.
    So, I’m curious to see what happens from here. Our new Government, ‘this’ generation of people in power has apologised on behalf of Australia for the abuses inflicted on our fellow countrymen; will ‘this’ generation of indigenous leaders apologise on behalf of those in their culture who for years took advantage of other non-indigenous Australians? No finger-pointing, no blaming, just that compromise, that acceptance of responsibility for the part played that I spoke of earlier.
    Again, let me reiterate; as a person who believes in a live-and-let-live principle (acceptance of differences, not tolerance, because that denotes a begrudging nature at the best of times), I am extremely happy with our new Government’s first act of Parliament.
    Thank you for the thought-provoking post – it made for interesting reading.
    Take care.

  2. will ‘this’ generation of indigenous leaders apologise on behalf of those in their culture who for years took advantage of other non-indigenous Australians?

    Wow. Just wow.
    Lauredhel’s last blog post..?Sorry, but?: The apology, mutual responsibility, and self-determination

  3. I rather think that Scotty didn’t quite get the point of your post.

  4. I’m not convinced that Scotty so much as shares an atmosphere with that particular whooshbird. I think I just wasted a few minutes of my life checking out his blog: dark green on black, loves Papyrus, rants about “political correctness gone mad”, and refers to Senator Clinton as a “girl”.
    Bleagh. Moving on.
    Lauredhel’s last blog post..?Sorry, but?: The apology, mutual responsibility, and self-determination

  5. “There’s been a bit of “Not today. Don’t anyone critique him today. Today is the day the PM is above critique.””
    If so, I haven’t seen a hint of it, and I read very extensively yesterday. What was evident was a wish not to denigrate or belittle the apology itself, NOT out of veneration for Rudd, but out of respect for what it means to the people to whom it’s directed. To say “you’re doing it wrong” is not showing much of this respect, in my opinion.
    Laura’s last blog post..They said it

  6. Laura, you’ve put your finger on what was bothering me (I told Lauredhel yesterday that I wasn’t entirely convinced by her take).
    To have concerns and caveats about how indigenous affairs will be managed subsequent to yesterday’s apology is valid, and I do see the possibility of the dog-whistle in “mutual responsibility”, but I’m not fully persuaded that it’s there.
    ETA: And yesterday was probably not the day to be discussing it. There’s plenty of time for that.

  7. P.S. Scotty’s comments are a separate issue and definitely beyond the pale.
    He’s definitely plagued by whooshbirds. At the moment he has a comment in moderation awaiting Lauredhel’s perusal, in which he appears bewildered by the concept of a blog with more than one author.

  8. I have to say I didn’t interpret the latter half of the apology’s focus on the future as a ‘but’, but as an ‘and’. To me it gave the overall tone of optimism, and the marking out of a clear goal for the longer term.
    I agree that the phrase ‘mutual responsibility’ is a bit odious, especially with such pundits as Noel Pearson using it as a euphemism for ‘diminished rights’, but in the context of this apology, I doubt, or sincerely hope, that diminished rights is not what Rudd has in mind.
    Jangari’s last blog post..Sorry Business

  9. Oh Noes! Perhaps the election of a left(er) wing government has drained my power of cynicism!
    Jangari’s last blog post..Sorry Business

  10. Jangari, you crack me up! But I think your comment has a grain of truth. I’m not going to sledge _anyone_ for suspending cynicism for a day, no way. I loved the moment of the apology, I was in tears like everyone else, it was a wonderful and historic day which was a long time coming. I explained the Apology to my kid and showed him the speech on TV. We had a celebratory dinner. I don’t want anyone for a second to think I spent all day stomping around in a haze of cynicism and annoyance.
    I just didn’t let it _all_ drain out. And I delayed this post until the sun was well and truly over the yardarm, out of respect for all those who did prefer their cynicism-suspension unmarred.

    I doubt, or sincerely hope, that diminished rights is not what Rudd has in mind.

    I fear that your hope on this is misplaced (but hope that it isn’t!) We know Rudd supported most aspects of the NT intervention. We know that he supports expanding punitive, restrictive welfare systems with income quarantining and conditional welfare. We know that he is a conservative at heart. His remarks on indigenous policy have not included even an inkling of a self-determination direction, just more talk about “consultation” than Howard.
    I think we’ve got a really really low bar here, thanks to the past eleven years. And the fact and the timing of the Apology is fantastic. (I’ve run out of superlatives there!)
    I do have a pile of optimism, but it’s muted and sceptical optimism, if that’s possible.
    I answered Scotty by email, to avoid a derail into it being All About Him. None of it had anything to do with the point of the post.

  11. To Jangari specifically (and any other linguists around): Do you know anything about Rudd’s policy direction in Australian languages in schools, public services, and so on?

  12. Do you know anything about Rudd’s policy direction in Australian languages in schools, public services, and so on?

    No, but again, the bar isn’t very high off the ground. In the last eleven years we in the languages field didn’t even know which government department was responsible for indigenous language documentation/retention/maintenance. I think the issue was shifted around through various departments anyway.
    Actually, I should go and find out about that.
    Jangari’s last blog post..Sorry Business

  13. Grr, I buggered up my tags.
    [Fixed ‘em for you … lauredhel]
    Jangari’s last blog post..Sorry Business

  14. Okay, I got some more info now.
    Our department is DCITA, the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (I’m sure the first two are absolutely chuffed to be lumped together with the latter), and they have a current (2007-08) policy guideline regarding the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records (MILR) project, available here. But I can’t say how accurate it is, especially with a change of government within the last three months.
    David Nash keeps a (roughly) up-to-date catalogue of Australian federal and state governments’ policies here

  15. Thanks Jangari. This is definitely an issue to watch, I think. I wonder whether language policy will be one of the areas that reveals the government’s underlying approach to the cultural assimilation issue.

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