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A Decade Without Saying Sorry

Saturday, May 26th, 2007, marked the tenth anniversary of National Sorry Day in Australia. However, those who have waited patiently for an official apology to Aboriginals from Prime Minister John Howard and the Commonwealth (federal) Government of Australia are still waiting.

In Spring 1997, the damning conclusions of the “Bringing Them Home” report – which investigated the coerced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families in a misguided policy of assimilation that continued into the early 1970s – were released. Flatly denouncing Australian state, territorial and federal governments for what it considered genocide, the 689-page report attracted a flurry of media attention and became one of the biggest national stories of the year.

A total of 54 recommendations were tabled. These included the payment of reparations to victims, facilitation for rehabilitation and reconciliation, the observation of an annual “Sorry Day,” and a simple apology from Australian governments and other involved agencies.

On May 26, 1998, one year after the report was presented to Federal Parliament, the first National Sorry Day was “celebrated.” In a touching, grassroots display of compassion and unity, tens of thousands of Australians of all ethnicities came together in events across the country to acknowledge the harm inflicted on the Aboriginal people.

However, despite the Sorry Day movement’s early momentum, a decade later, critics question the progress which has been made. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, 35 of the report’s 54 recommendations have never been acted on. Perhaps the most hurtful of the non-actions has been the glaring absence of an apology from the Commonwealth Government and Prime Minister Howard (since 1997, all of Australia’s state and territorial governments have since formally apologized).

The Howard administration has consistently taken the view that a formal apology would constitute a admission that present generations of Australians are in some way responsible and accountable for the actions of earlier generations.

Opponents of this stance suggest that simply saying sorry would go a long way toward true reconciliation between Australia and its indigenous peoples.

Meanwhile, the quality-of-life and well-being of Aboriginals continues to lag that of other Australians. According to statistics, the life expectancy of an average indigenous person is some 17 years less than a non-indigenous Australian. In addition, Aboriginals make up about a quarter of Australia’s prison population but only 2% of the national population overall.

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