Outskirts online journal

Siobhan Marren

Further information

About the author

Siobhan Marren is a PhD candidate at the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney. Her dissertation, due for completion in 2012, is an examination of political apologies and collective responsibility, with a focus on Australia and Northern Ireland.

Publication details

Volume 23, November 2010

“In history’s page, let every stage”: Australia’s Post-Apology Landscape.

There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future. Our nation, Australia, has reached such a time. 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 a true spirit of reconciliation, to open a new chapter in the history of this great land, Australia.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd,
Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples
13th February, 2008.

In 1991, the Australian Federal Government established the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, comprising twenty-five prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous figures from a broad cross-section of public life. The primary goal of the group was to spearhead the ‘Reconciliation Project’ in the lead-up to the celebration of Australia’s centenary; to promote and encourage a dialogue between communities and state bodies in order to address not only the ongoing issue of Indigenous disadvantage, but to also develop strategies to encourage an appreciation of and insight into the nation’s troubled colonial history. The creation of the Council cannot be understood as a discrete act – as an isolated event, reflective of the Australian psyche. Rather, it must be placed in the broader context of a nation grappling with issues of national identity and collective responsibility – a nation whose history is marred by division, exclusion and conflict. Any attempt to examine the 2008 apology issued by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Indigenous Australians must take account of Australia’s troubled past in order to fully understand not only the political and popular opposition to apologies as a tool for reconciliation, but the difficulties faced by the nation today as it forges a new post-apology landscape for its citizens. To this end, this paper will be divided into three sections: The first will examine selected key socio-historical trends in Australian colonial history; the second will examine the issuing of governmental apologies with a focus on the Australian context; while the third will situate post-apology Australia at the praxis between narrative ethics and a feminist ethic of care.

Our colonial history

The very concept of Aboriginality in Australia is highly contested (Dodson: 1994). Currently, in accordance with criteria considering descent, self and community identification, approximately 2.3 per cent of the Australian population comprises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (ABS: 2006). How such a small minority has come to impact our historico-political arena so profoundly will, in part, be examined in this section of the paper. From colonisation to the 1950s, explicitly discriminatory policies deprived Indigenous peoples of legal recognition and full access to the rights and benefits of citizenship. While many of these laws, including ones denying access to wages, and those preventing Indigenous peoples from travelling freely or marrying, were repealed by the early 1960s, it was not until 1967 that a referendum for constitutional reform was held, bringing the issue of Indigenous disadvantage to the forefront of national affairs. Although the technicalities of the reforms appear to have been largely misunderstood by the Australian public (McGregor: 2008), the campaign is historically remembered as a success; symbolically, at least, the deletion of Section 127 of the Constitution meant that Indigenous peoples were afforded the same constitutional rights as ‘ordinary’ Australians.

The campaign saw images of Indigenous disadvantage broadcast by national media outlets directly into the homes of non-Indigenous Australians. For many, this was their first exposure to rural Indigenous life: faces of barefoot children and camps overrun by mangy dogs were an affront to the average suburban Australian, labouring under the misapprehension that our nation was a land of equality and inclusion (Walter & MacLeod, 2002: 179). The Whitlam government, however, was slow to enact the substantive changes that the Indigenous peoples had been so hopeful for, believing that 1967 would signal a genuine turning point in Australian history. With the glare of media attention fading, Indigenous activists continued their struggle for recognition and inclusion, most notably with the establishment in January 1972 of the ‘tent embassy’ on the lawns of what is now Old Parliament House in an attempt to have their claims for social justice and land rights recognised (Short, 2008: 150). It seems that while non-Indigenous Australians were prepared to support campaigns for equality and (limited) recognition, they were far less responsive – hostile even – to any attempt to subvert their actual right to ‘settler’ sovereignty in Australia. This, in large part, is how the land rights struggle was constituted. The 1966 strike at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory is historically viewed as a watershed moment in the struggle for Indigenous land rights. Elder, Picher Manguari, articulated the reasons for the strike:

We want them Vestey mob all go away from here. Wave Hill Aboriginal people bin called Gurindji. We bin here long time before them Vestey mob. This is our country, all this bin Gurinsji country. Wave Hill bin our country. We want this land; we strike for that. (Hardy, 1978: 140).

Suddenly, the focus of equality for Indigenous Australians shifted; no longer was it sufficient to simply ‘allow’ access to the benefits of full citizenship enjoyed by many Australians. Instead, we witnessed a challenge to the power and control exercised by non-Indigenous Australians based on the myth that had persisted since colonisation – that Australia was an uninhabited land ripe for claiming when white settlers arrived.

While the Wave Hill strike was resolved favourably for the Gurindji peoples, with Whitlam handing over 3236 square kilometres of land at Wave Hill to the rightful owners, and the eventual passing of the Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act by the Fraser government in 1976 (Summers, 2001: 194), the matter of Indigenous land rights was relegated as a minor issue until the early 1990s, when the landmark case of Eddie Mabo and others v. Queensland introduced the concept of ‘native title’ into the common vernacular of the Australian people. The Mabo case highlighted the fundamental disjuncture between ‘rights’ and ‘recognition’ in the Australian social and political spheres. Colonised Australia was constituted solely on the basis of the legal myth of ‘Terra Nullius,’ and the quest of activists (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) to overturn this common law dictum brought to light that the failure to acknowledge the original sovereignty that Indigenous peoples held over Australian land necessarily prevented any accordance of full rights and citizenship, regardless of the popular myths surrounding the 1967 referendum. The judgment in the Mabo case read, in part: “the Merriam people are entitled against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the island of Mer.” (Brennan in Mabo: 97). Justice Brennan went on:

The supposedly barbarian nature of Indigenous people provided the common law of England with the justification for denying them their traditional rights and interests in the land.

Discussing the way in which Indigenous peoples were viewed by those who colonised Australia, Justice Brennan lucidly summarised the justification used for the political and social exclusion of Indigenous peoples, as well as those aspects of national legislation that are unfairly discriminatory. Indigenous Australians, simply put, were non-peoples, deemed incapable of possessing the necessary civility to legitimate land ownership or to sustain any valid claims to sovereignty. Viewed in this manner, no constitutional reforms or legislative amendments would suffice – the very foundation of Indigenous rights had been denied on the basis of outdated and fundamentally flawed anthropological assumptions. Although often overlooked as such, the struggle for Indigenous land rights clearly demonstrated the discriminatory underpinnings of colonial culture upon which modern-day Australia is founded. As Mick Dodson, the then-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner wrote:

The deepest significance of the judgment is its potential to hold a mirror to the face of contemporary Australia. In the background is the history of this country. In the foreground is a nation with a choice. There is no possibility to look away. The recognition of native title is not merely a recognition of rights at law. It is a recognition of basic human rights and realities about the origin of this nation: the values which informed its past and the values which will form its future (Dodson, 1993: 16).

The systematic abuse of Indigenous Australians – the cult of denial that characterised our socio-political agendas – was suddenly brought to light by this historic land rights case. The highest court in the land, by legitimating the claim to sovereignty of the Indigenous peoples, demanded a fundamental shift in the way that Indigenous peoples were constituted in all legal, political and social arenas.

The hardest word: Australian apologies

In 1992, then-Prime Minister, Paul Keating, before a crowd of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern, challenged the Australian nation to confront a troubled past. It is worthwhile quoting it at length here:

In truth, we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the Indigenous people of Australia – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be – truly the land of the fair go and the better chance. There is no more basic test of how seriously we mean these things.

We simply cannot sweep injustice aside. Even if our own conscience allowed us to, I am sure, that in due course, the world and the people of our region would not. There should be no mistake about this – our success in resolving these issues will have a significant bearing on our standing in the world.

It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include Indigenous Australians. There is everything to gain.

For many commentators, Keating’s address was a powerful and vocal support of the institutional changes demanded by the Mabo decision – a heartfelt plea to ‘ordinary’ Australians to examine and indeed come to terms with the historical injustices of our nation’s past. It is not, however, historically remembered as an apology to Indigenous Australians for the injustices perpetrated against them. It is necessary then, to examine precisely what constitutes a political apology – not only to accord Keating’s speech its rightful place in Australian history, but to gain an insight into the common reasons offered for rejecting political apologies: primarily, charges of collectivism, and confusion over the attribution of responsibility.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot posits the political apology as an “abortive ritual” (Trouillot, 2000: 171). For Trouillot, apologies are inherently personal acts in which a repentant subject assumes responsibility for a particular transgression. A political apology seemingly violates not only the political boundaries to which modern liberal polities have become so accustomed, but indeed fail to recognise the fundamental differences between the individual and the polity-at-large that liberalism holds so dear – a dichotomy that is only strengthened when there is a temporal lapse between the original transgression and the issuing of the apology. For other theorists in the field, political apologies stand as a type of compensation that seek to ‘make up for’ historical damage inflicted upon a group of people. As Nicholas Tavuchis argues, “the apology itself... constitutes both the medium of exchange and the symbolic quid pro quo for, as it were, ‘compensation’” (1991: 33). The danger of this substitution is immediately apparent: denying the merits and value of political apologies as independent acts, existing as they do outside the repertoire traditionally utilised to make reparations for historical wrongdoings, results in the formal apology being viewed as a mere stepping stone – a first stage, as it were, where something more is always needed. Professor Larissa Behrendt’s speech on the first anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology is clear evidence of this. Here, Behrendt argued that: “the expression of sorry needs to be followed by the payment of compensation to members of the stolen generation who suffered physical, emotional and mental harm as a result of their time in state care.” The veracity of Behrendt’s claims are not in question here – to suggest that the issuing of an apology is and of itself sufficient to erase decades of state-sponsored abuse would be an erroneous claim. However, it is likewise incorrect to burden political apologies with the category assumptions that have plagued them since they burst onto the socio-political sphere just over twenty years ago. Doing this not only negates their potential to stand as transformative political acts, but also prevents us from overcoming the hostile reception that so often accompanies their issuing.

What is needed then is an understanding of what type of political act apologies are. For Nigel Rapport, they are “a claim to knowledge and/or a claim to responsibility” (2009: 349). While I concur with Rapport’s analytic framework, I deviate somewhat from the ways in which he elaborates on these two important classifications. Rapport argues that the first – the claim to knowledge – is “a kind of claim to superiority” (2009: 349). A more fruitful, and indeed appropriate, way of classifying apologies would be to argue that as claims to knowledge they are performative acts – public acknowledgements of past transgressions. In order to make this acknowledgement, a political apology must necessarily detail the wrongs committed – it is not merely ‘lip service’ or political rhetoric – it is an essential aspect of ‘owning up’ to the societal norms that permitted the violations to occur. This conceptual difference is of vital importance: although political apologies are, in part, backward-looking acts, it is only through the explicit detailing of past wrongs – through this claim to knowledge – that the cult of denial may be overcome. Political apologies are public assertions that a particular society did not live up to the ethical standards by which it seeks to be identified.

Rapport’s second categorisation of apologies as ‘claims to responsibility’ also warrants attention. He posits that a claim to responsibility is “a claim to a relationship: both to the perpetrator (either myself or my fellow) and to the sufferer” (2009: 350). The issue I take with this conceptual framework is that, in many instances, the aggrieved party is not directly involved in the political apology. That is, while those who have been wronged often call for an apology, and indeed may even be present at its issue, they are rarely, if ever, directly involved in the performative act that comprises a public apology. While the apology may carry an implicit call for forgiveness, it is more often about the party issuing the apology, than the party it is directed to. What is the significance of this? And does it diminish the power of political apologies? Is a relationship to either the perpetrator or the sufferer necessary for an effective political apology? I would argue, in both instances, and most emphatically, ‘no’. To suggest that a relationship is necessary for either assuming responsibility or issuing a political apology leads us back to the very Rylean category mistake that Trouillot utilises to condemn the form – it takes us back to the realm of the personal, the intimate, the individual – where it cannot be used as an effective tool by or for a collective.

The issue of responsibility is, however, paramount when considering the efficacy of political apologies – we simply need to consider very carefully the manner in which it is framed. Hannah Arendt elucidates the role of the individual in collective responsibility: “I must be held responsible for something I have not done, and the reasons for my responsibility must be my membership in a group (a collective), which no voluntary act of mine can dissolve” (2003: 149). For Arendt, it is our membership in human society that compels us to take responsibility. Careful to distinguish between ‘individual guilt’ and ‘collective responsibility,’ Arendt’s conception is a useful starting point for our analysis here, particularly when we examine some of the historical reasons offered in opposition to the issuing of political apologies.

During his reign as Prime Minister, John Howard steadfastly refused to issue an apology, despite the increasingly vocal campaigns for him to do so. His primary justification for his inaction was the issue of responsibility. In Howard’s view, saying ‘sorry’ would implicate current generations in the acts of their predecessors – acts that he believed would place an unnecessary burden of guilt on the shoulders of a ‘young’ nation. There is no logical basis to Howard’s claim – certainly none that would hold up to legitimate scholarly examination. Put simply, collective responsibility must be based on the willingness (or lack thereof) of the members of a particular society to uphold those norms that allow for the perpetration of evil. The discussion surrounding the struggle for Indigenous land rights in Australia earlier in this paper clearly demonstrated that the constitutional roadblocks to Indigenous equality were deeply embedded in our legal, political and social make-up; indeed, only a myopic analysis of the issue would allow us to draw the conclusion that it was simply those who actively and individually participated in violations against Indigenous Australians that can be held responsible for those actions. Rather, each member of the Australian community – regardless of their temporal location to the original transgression – implicitly maintains those morally deficient norms by their very membership in the Australian community. It comes down, according to Ross Poole, to our conception of national identity:

Acquiring a national identity is a way of acquiring that history and the rights and responsibilities which go along with it. The responsibility to come to terms with the Australian past is a morally inescapable component of what it is to be Australian (1999: 140 - 141).

Poole’s analysis has been criticised on the basis that using the term ‘national identity’ implies a singular, unitary view of history; as Ghassan Hage argues, Poole “implicitly assumes the unproblematic possibility of a noncontradictory national imaginary from which ‘we’ ought to relate to the past” (2001: 346). Hage uses this same argument to critique the use of “we” in Paul Keating’s aforementioned Redfern speech. What Hage fails to acknowledge, however, is that Poole’s analysis does not in fact presume national identity to be a mutually exclusive concept – there is adequate room in his discussions surrounding the concept for the multifarious conceptions of what it means to ‘be Australian’ or for contested national histories to be considered. As for Keating’s Redfern speech, despite his use of the collective “we,” he clearly acknowledged a contested view of Australian history and competing conceptions of national identity. In fact, Keating explicitly called upon non-Indigenous Australians to “try to imagine the Aboriginal view.”

Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations was his first major act as Prime Minister, on only the second day of sitting for his new parliament. Prior to its issue, Rudd made clear that the apology would not be accompanied by a federal compensation fund; however this did little on the day to stem the overwhelming tide of public support and sentiment from Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups alike. The apology was issued just over ten years after the release of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing Them Home Report – a detailed 700 page anthology of the systematic abuses against Indigenous children in Australia, interspersed with personal narratives of those taken from their families and denied their connection to country. These narratives provided the Australian Other with a legitimate voice – a voice that had been silenced in so many of their struggles up to this point. Rather than the colonised being relegated to merely the subject of the Report, the focus was placed directly onto the personal narratives – the individual stories that, when read together, produced a tapestry of suffering and abuse of so many young Indigenous Australians. Importantly – and this speaks to Hage’s concerns over contradictory versions of national memory – the Indigenous voices recognised in the Report were not ‘foreign’ – they were ‘Australian,’ and rather than leading to some irreconcilable rupture in the national psyche, the recognition of more than one legitimate national identity directly contributed to hundreds of thousands of Australians joining forces to demand the issuing of an apology by the Federal Government. The Commission considered evidence from 535 Indigenous people affected by the forcible removal, as well as written and oral submissions from governmental agencies, church groups and expert witnesses in the fields of psychology and trauma studies. Although precise numbers are difficult to ascertain, the HREOC Report revealed that one in every ten Indigenous people over the age of twenty-five had been removed from their kinship groups when they were children.

Rudd’s apology was a landmark moment in Australian history. Unlike Keating’s Redfern speech, it not only acknowledged the inhumane treatment of Australia’s Indigenous population, but it offered an explicit apology for them. The apology finally overcame the cult of denial that had plagued Australia since colonisation and put an end to the insidious effects of revisionist accounts of our collective history. The repeated invocation of the words “we say sorry” was not only a performative utterance that carried remorse and repentance for the acts committed against Indigenous Australians, but they also acknowledged the collective responsibility that current Australians had for those injustices. Through that political apology, Kevin Rudd sought to reorient the norms that constitute our nation away from those that either perpetrated or permitted fundamental human rights violations against Indigenous groups; by recognising that historical norms did not represent the ‘ideal’ Australia, he sought to ‘re-imagine’ the “very character of the nation” (Fagenblat, 2008: 16).

The post-apology landscape

The idea that Australia now enjoys a position as a ‘post’-apology state conjures up images of a radical departure from our past – a cultural fissure – that allows us to move beyond the confines of our colonial history to a bright and united future. Hage believes that such a future is not possible:

This impossibility resides in the fact that the very sides which have fought this colonial war have not melded into one. Despite the hegemonically inspired symbolic gymnastics of some, there remains two separate communal identities with two separate memories trying to live together in one state (2001: 348).

While correct in some of its particulars, Hage’s conceptual analysis and resulting prognosis of the Australian socio-political landscape is morose and devoid of possibility for change and growth. It may be possible then, utilising narrative ethics and a feminist ethic of care, to construct an alternative paradigm in which to view our post-apology nation – providing a framework for analysis that possesses both possibility and hope for determining a suitable way forward for all Australian peoples. Edward Said warned of the dangers of exclusions “that stipulate, for instance, that only women can understand feminine experience, only Jews can understand Jewish suffering, only formerly colonial subjects can understand colonial experience.” Such a framework, he argued “gives rise to polarisations that absolve and forgive ignorance and demagogy more than they enable knowledge” (1993: 31), a view echoed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s work (1997: 254). While Hage is correct in saying that Indigenous identities, politics and voices are distinct from non-Indigenous identities, politics and voices, this does not mean that we cannot move back and forth, dialogically, in order to produce substantive social change. I suggest that we locate this ‘compromise’ at the praxis of narrative ethics and a feminist ethic of care.

Narratives – stories – shape our human condition; they allow us to communicate with others regardless of our temporal location in a world of constantly shifting and inherently unstable boundaries. As Tom Wilks argues:

Narrative gives us a framework for understanding identity, which, in the move away from essentialism, offers scope for a less rigid and fixed accord of the concept. Identity grounded in narrativity is able to incorporate the multiply constructed and particularist qualities of modern subjectivity. It addresses the complexity of identity formation and its variability over time. It is the story that we make of our life that brings together the diverse sources of our identity and gives them coherence for us (2005: 1254).

While more commonly utilised to provide a voice for individuals, there is sufficient scope in the conceptual framework of narrative ethics to create what Margaret Somers refers to as “public narratives” – those “attached to cultural and institutional formations larger than the single individual” (1994: 619). It is here then that we can locate a space for the voices of Indigenous peoples so marginalised throughout Australia’s colonial history – it is here that their voices may be used not only to speak their own personal experience of truth, but also that those voices may come together to act as a moral compass for non-Indigenous Australians who wish to secure a future based on inclusion and recognition. The Bringing Them Home Report, interspersed as it was with hundreds of stories of those forcibly removed from their families and country, provides us with an initial starting point for the application of narrative ethics to this field. Those individual stories come together to form a narrative ‘patchwork’ which allows us to “look for worn and ugly threads that originate in images that we would like to remove from the tapestry” (Murray, 1997: 54).

To argue that we must endeavour to attain Indigenous conciliation lies squarely within the realm of the ethical, and yet the question of which ethical framework we select as our decision-making guide is one that plagues us. Traditional (masculine) approaches to ethics have been contained by the sphere of justice – “abstract universalised moral rules and principles” (Friedman, 1993: 258); while, by contrast, the feminist voice is differentiated by its focus on the relational – an emphasis on “care and responsibility, particularly as these arise in the context of interpersonal relationships” (Friedman, 1993: 258). The co-existence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous identities (and the multifarious groups that shape this latter category), do not lend themselves to the application of a Kantian-inspired ‘abstract neutrality’ for deciding our nation’s future. Rather, we must look to a more nuanced ethical system to support the problematical concept of national identity. Here, a feminist ethic of care proves useful. Deriving from the work of Carol Gilligan, an ‘ethic of care’ reveals the “moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women... an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognisable trouble’ of this world” (Gilligan, 1982: 100). Gilligan’s work, however, has been subject to much critique – not least for its reinforcement of the binary conceptions of morality that relegate ‘justice’ and ‘care’ to competing dichotomous positions. It has been the project of much feminist thought, however, over the last 28 years, to overcome the polarities brought about through Gilligan’s work – to extend and politicise her arguments in order to create a deeper appreciation for the potentiality that a feminist ethic of care possesses. Joan Tronto, for instance, argues that “we cannot understand an ethic of care until we place such an ethic in its full moral and political context” (1993: 125). Indeed, for Tronto, it is the employment and application of an ethic of care that provides the groundwork “necessary for democratic citizens to live together well in a pluralistic society, and that only in a just, pluralist, democratic society can care flourish” (1993: 161 – 162). Elisabeth Porter extends the work of Tronto, as she seeks to create a ‘politics’ of care: “whereas care ethics is usually directed towards a specific known person, a politics of compassion extends the political domain in which compassion might operate to include examples where we do not personally know the people requiring care” (2006: 99).

Importantly, a feminist ethic of care can be viewed as more than a set of moral principles. Rather, it may be interpreted as a direct call to action. As Alison Jaggar argues, “a feminist approach to ethics must offer a guide to action... such an approach must be practical, transitional and nonutopian, an extension of politics rather than a retreat from it” (1989: 91). There is a danger, of course, in the feminist ethic of care being misinterpreted and posited as an overly-burdensome duty to all others. While, as Sara Ruddick argues, we are “pained by the other’s pain... [and] act to relieve the other’s suffering” (1992: 152), there is no reason to equate this valuable field of ethics to outmoded and essentialist notions of gender in which women are ‘naturally’ inclined to be compassionate. Conversely, there is also the danger that a feminist ethic of care becomes “a form of charity and condescension towards the less fortunate” (Bunch, 2002: 16). I turn again to Porter for a ‘middle ground’ of sorts that overcomes these potential pitfalls. For Porter,

Compassion in care ethics focuses on people’s pain and specific needs, but within a political context, it requires also the realisation of human rights, and the fulfilment of liberty, equality, and justice for needs to be met. A struggle for justice and the realisation of human rights is part of striving towards a compassionate society (106).

Here, then, Porter provides us with not only a framework that allows a feminist ethic of care to prevail over the dangers associated with a misreading of this new paradigm; but she also emphasises that our ethical conceptions need not be relegated to an ‘either/or’ stance. That is, utilising a feminist ethics of care does not mean abandoning valuable notions of justice and conceptions of human rights. Rather, it provides us with a way to apply the particular to the universal – a way in which to acknowledge the responsibility we have to others around us, to regard others with compassion, to determine a rightful course of action to alleviate suffering, all while acknowledging that there is a ‘minimum’ standard of rights that must be employed in today’s interconnected world.

A feminist ethic of care may be comfortably integrated with narrative ethics, allowing the voices of individuals to be acknowledged, heard and to act as a powerful political resource for change. Indeed, it is at the praxis of these two ethical strands of thought that we may locate Nigel Parton’s notion of ‘generative discourses’ – where:

New ways of interpreting the world... provide ways of talking and writing (and any other way of representing) that simultaneously challenge existing traditions of understanding and at the same time offer new possibilities for action and change (2003: 9).


In September, 2010, in one of the most highly-contested federal elections to date, Julia Gillard was sworn in as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, holding a fragile, one-seat majority. Gillard’s appointment, while not without significant controversy, has challenged the gendered view of leadership so pervasive in our society. As Fine argues, “leaders are believed to have stereotypic masculine qualities – leaders are direct, assertive, commanding and powerful” (2009: 182). Academic discourses examining women’s leadership style have revealed that, when compared to male leaders, women “use more nurturing, inclusive and collaborative strategies that encourage participation and egalitarian environments” (Adler, 2005; Chin, 2004; Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001; Greenberg & Sweeney, 2005; Rosener, 1990, qtd. in Fine: 183). There is tremendous pressure on Gillard to somehow act as a bastion for feminism; and that, by virtue of her gender and her position, tremendous strides have now been made for all Australian women. Such claims are simply erroneous. While it is commendable to see Gillard assume the most powerful role in Australian politics, as Anne Summers notes, it simply serves to highlight the gross under-representation of women in the “upper echelons of business, the military, the churches and the federal public service” (2010: para 15). There is a danger here, too, of employing an essentialist viewpoint, in which “gender differences are ascribed to an unchanging quality of males and females [which] reduces all women and men to a particular set of characteristics” (Fine: 181). Rather, irrespective of her gender, Gillard must be encouraged to make strides in advancing the cause of Indigenous conciliation by virtue of her position as leader of the Labor Party. On September 11th, 2010, as Julia Gillard announced her new leadership team, a glaring omission was immediately apparent. Warren Snowdon was announced as the new Minister for Veterans Affairs, without a replacement being announced for the important position he held prior to this move – Minister for Indigenous Health. While the portfolio was handed back to Snowdon just days after Gillard’s original announcement, the blunder sent shockwaves through Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, who had presumed that the assurances of prioritising Indigenous issues offered by the Labor Government after their election in 2007 would be carried out by Prime Minister Gillard.

It is all too easy to cast an eye over the current state of inequality and Indigenous disadvantage in Australia today, and point the finger of blame directly at the apparent failure of the 2008 apology. There is no doubt that there is work to be done. The Australian Human Rights Commission estimates that Indigenous persons will live seventeen years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts, will have twice the rate of infant mortality, are three to five times more like to be hospitalised for mental health issues, will endure unemployment rates three times the national average, and are fifteen times more likely to be incarcerated. These are not merely worrying statistics or trends. They are an abominable indictment on a country that claims to have rejected the norms that permitted decades of state-sponsored abuse against Indigenous peoples. Here then is where the real issue around the apology stands. If, as I have suggested, political apologies provide the opportunity for a nation to repudiate morally-repugnant norms that sustain evil, then they must also allow that nation to reconstitute itself – re-imagine its very soul – by declaring a new set of principles that will guide not only social actions, but political ones too. As an Australian citizen, I stand by the issuing of the apology by the Labor Government. What should happen now, what must happen now, is that the normative values that underpinned the apology must be sustained by the political community of this nation. That is, the apology must be allowed the legislative scope to be the transformative act it has the potential to be. If those who oppose systematic discrimination and abuse in Australia – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices – are not given a place in the political arena to bring about change, then the apology of 2008 will drift into the history books as nothing more than political rhetoric. Worse, the fundamental rights and recognition to which Indigenous Australians are fully entitled, may never be realised. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Gillard is prepared to answer the call of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike – a call to place compassion at the heart our political landscape and to allow this important value to be a guiding principle for future decisions.


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