I’m sorry: sincere apologies are for those that make them, not just to whom they are made

Around this time each year, I am always reminded that there are still people who don’t ‘get it’. Working on KPMG’s Reconciliation Action Plan means that generally the people I talk to each day are already switched on about Indigenous issues. It’s always a shock to be reminded that there are still people who remain ignorant about much of Australia’s culture and history.

National Day of Healing, formerly known as National Sorry Day (26 May) has just passed. To have a day specifically for saying the word ‘sorry’ can provoke some fairly interesting reactions. People often tend towards the defensive, and always around this day I read at least one article, comment or social media post that reads along the lines of “I didn’t do anything to Aboriginal people, why should I have to say sorry?”

I understand that many are resistant to the idea of saying sorry because they see it as an admission of guilt. They draw parallels between saying sorry for the wrongs of the past and being persecuted for a crime they did not commit. It’s is seen as a sign of weakness and the default position is to act defensively.

When I encounter these comments I usually try to show a little empathy. Over the past couple of years I’ve come to realise that, more often than not, these comments don’t come from a place of malice but from a place of ignorance. Reacting with anger doesn’t usually persuade people to change their minds either. Instead, I try to tell them what saying ‘sorry’ actually means.

National Sorry Day marks the day that the Bringing Them Home Report was tabled in Parliament in 1997. This was the output of an inquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, who are known as the Stolen Generations. The Stolen Generations are the result of purposefully discriminatory policy essentially designed to ‘breed out’ Aboriginality. Indigenous children were taken away from their families, separated from their siblings and sent to live in missions and homes thousands of kilometres away from their country. Many people who were taken are now in their 50s or 60s and will never be reunited with their loved ones. Imagine never knowing your parents.

Imagine never even knowing your own birthday.

We cannot ignore the fact that ignorant, inflexible and racially discriminatory attitudes still exist in this country. We can’t “get over it” as some people claim we should do, because this isn’t just something that happened to a distant relative a hundred years ago, this is something that’s happening today, right now, all across Australia. Too many children are separated from their families; too many brothers and sisters are being incarcerated for minor offenses and dying in custody at an alarmingly high rate; too many Uncles and Aunties are being yelled at in the street and the sports field because of the color of their skin. Many of the issues people face today, such as substance abuse, gambling and crime should be treated for what they really are: symptoms of intergenerational trauma, caused by discriminatory policies that were created by government.

One of the key recommendations from the Bringing Them Home report was for the government to officially apologise to those families who were torn apart. And an entire decade of campaigning later, the Australian Government finally said sorry.

It’s hard to describe the way Indigenous people felt when the Apology was given. Perhaps the best way it to see the reactions yourselves, I highly recommend watching this video.

To those people who are still defensive, I say to you: asking for an apology should not be seen as an attack, but as an offer of peace. It is a message to non-Indigenous Australians that says, though we will never forget, we may be ready to forgive. Saying sorry should not be seen as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of strength. It means you are prepared to right the wrongs of the past, to make sure they never happen again, and to work with us to create a better, more equitable future. It is not so much an admission of guilt, but an admission that you are ready to come together, shake hands, and move on.

Sincere apologies are for those that make them, not just to whom they are made.

Even though the Apology to the Stolen Generations marked for many people the start of a long journey towards healing, for some an apology will never, or could ever, be enough. There are still many problems and there are no easy answers. I am aware that, unless there are long-term, sustained efforts by many people, we might not see an end to inequality or the close of the life expectancy gap in my lifetime. As a nation, we’ve only just started on a journey towards healing. Historical milestones like the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987, Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech in 1992, the Bringing Them Home report in 1997, the Corroboree Bridge Walk in 2000 and the Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, these are all key signifiers that progress is being made. And by celebrating annual events like National Reconciliation Week, we are given the opportunity to talk about these milestones again, so we can remember how far we’ve come and turn our eyes to what comes next.

Shellee is a proud descendant of the Nayiampa Weilwan people of Central Western New South Wales.

Children holding photos of the stolen generation
Children holding photos of the stolen generation

Feature photograph © Australia Human Rights Commission


10 thoughts on “I’m sorry: sincere apologies are for those that make them, not just to whom they are made

  1. Shellee – this is a beautifully expressed article that everyone should read on what the Apology actually means, why it is important for every Australian, and why National Reconciliation Week is an event that all Australians should be celebrating together. We can’t change our history, but we sure can choose the kind of country we want to be now and in the future. Well done. I’ve shared your wonderful words on LinkedIn.

  2. Amanda Aquilina

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    Excellent article Shellee – well articulated, informative and thought provoking. Very ashamed that ‘breed out’ movements in history seem to keep repeating itself in this day and age. Our stance on the issue should be far more progressive than it is currently. Thanks for sharing your thoughts; every bit of education on this topic helps with progression.

  3. Katherine Meagher

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    Great article, Shellee. Perhaps part of our problem in Australia is that we do not know how to say sorry properly. ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ is not an apology, no matter how many people in the public eye attempt to swing it past us.

  4. Shellee – really great and so well expressed. Healing trauma and committing to doing that is an issue for the whole of our society – and for the whole world in fact. Thank you for a very important post which I hope is read widely within the firm – and beyond.

    1. Simon Kuestenmacher

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      Loved the article Shellee. You wonderfully articulated the mental jump that one needs to make to feel responsible for acts you haven’t committed yourself.

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