Prime Minister Rudd’s apology, long awaited after 10 years of PM Howard’s refusal, was an exceptionally evocative political statement. With it, Australia now joins relatively few governments that have apologised for past abuses to members of its own citizenry.
Although a common perception is that we are living in an “age of apology,” the reality is that governments do not often apologise. In the recent past, most apologies have been offered by an Executive or other government officials for international events, most frequently, World War II related matters.
Of course, these apologies are significant, by virtue of the speaker’s prominence and position. But they do not usually carry the weight of government apologies, which so far have been the results of deliberative processes and have often been accompanied by monetary compensation.
So, in keeping with other government apologies, Australia must now take up serious consideration of compensation to the “stolen generations”. Dismissing such consideration risks undercutting the apology’s value. More than that, there is evidence from other countries showing that compensation is politically achievable, socially desirable, and morally consistent.
Canada’s apology to its indigenous population and specifically to the victims of various forms of abuse at residential schools provides the most useful model. Like Australia’s apology, Canada’s 1998 apology examined the wide expanse of historical experiences while also focusing on particular government policies and their devastating consequences.
The government of Canada formally expressed its “profound regret for past actions of the federal government “while also speaking directly to the former residential school students: “To those of you who suffered this tragedy at the residential schools, we are deeply sorry.” In addition, the apology was accompanied by a CAN$350 million “healing fund” to assist victims of the residential school system.
The Canadian government’s efforts, however ,did not stop there. Former students at the residential schools insisted that the government take much more seriously their individual claims and develop an appropriate compensation scheme.
In response, the government established a new department to handle the abuse claims in 2001. Victims also sued the various church denominations that administered the schools under government auspices. After several years of negotiations and lawsuits, a final agreement was reached in April 2006 among the Assembly of First Nations, churches, and the government.
Mediated by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, the settlement totals approximately CAN$2 billion. It provides each of the approximate 80,000 claimants with a flat payment of CAN$10,000 plus CAN$3,000 for each year that he or she attended the schools.
This is no small amount, to be sure. It was the result of a combination of factors: political will, organised pressure, and public support.
In my view, it seems that at least one of these three factors is present in Australia. Members of the Stolen Generations and their families are calling for compensation. The other two factors can emerge, with some effort. PM Rudd and other Australian leadership may well be persuaded to revisit their opposition to compensation. And, as public opinion polls show, PM Rudd’s views have already influenced Australians who are now more supportive of the apology than they were two weeks ago. Political leadership matters now, perhaps more than ever.
As PM Rudd observed in his speech, Australians are both a “passionate” and “practical lot”: and they recognise that without “substance”, the apology will rightly be viewed as an empty gesture.
So, what should that substance be? Undoubtedly, compensation to the stolen generations should be included. Why? Because these Aboriginal Australians suffered deep harms, which monetary compensation, understandably, can only partly address. And because a serious commitment to justice and to membership in the Australian community requires it.
In Canada, for all of their wrangling about what should be done, Canadians never lost sight of that most elementary fact. They judged that some attempt at repair should be made for their fellow citizens who were directly and adversely impacted by state policy.
Australians can and should make a similar judgment. PM Rudd has declared that he intends to assemble a bi-partisan “war cabinet” to seriously tackle Aboriginal issues. This war metaphor is more suggestive of what is required than Rudd may have realised. For one, the idea of reparations is historically associated with wars. More broadly, all wars require expenditures: material, political, economic, social, and moral. In the end, it may well be that monetary compensation is the least demanding of them all.