Last week, Monday May 26, was National Sorry Day across Australia – but you could be forgiven for not realising. I’m not usually unobservant but I personally didn’t realise until I arrived at my job (as a sales assistant in a generic retail outlet) where our daily planner had a “National Sorry Day events in your area” notice laid atop it. I am an Indigenous Studies student at one of the preeminent institutions in the country, I spend 6 of my 9 contact hours a week engaged in discussion and debate about the potential pathways forward for Indigenous and nonindigenous Australians – and I had no idea that National Sorry Day even existed until a couple of years ago, never mind what date it falls on. As far as I can tell, The Age (my main source of daily news and one of the most popular newspapers Australia-wide) failed to report it’s occurrence at all this year.
For those who are totally confused as to what I am referring, let me clarify. In May 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a public apology to the Indigenous Peoples of Australia; on behalf of the Australian public and in particular on behalf of the Australian Government. The apology was intended to start the ball rolling in settler Australia giving reparations to the Indigenous population for the 200+ years of a genocide which has been enacted against them since the time of first white colonisation of this island nation, at every level of society – from outright murder and dispossession of their ancestral lands; to the Stolen Generations who were ripped from their families, homes, ways of life, cultural heritage and expected to assimilate within white Australia; to the ongoing cultural appropriation and profit resulting from the exploitation of what is regularly referred to as “the oldest surviving culture on the planet”. Having spent somewhere in the realm of 60, 000 years in Australia before the white man dared swoop in and declare it Terra Nullius, an apology was well overdue. The apology was hailed as everything on the spectrum, from insufficient, to tokenistic and indulgent. While well meaning, many voices have arisen in the subsequent years, criticising the government for simply paying lip service to the horrific acts which have been enacted against the Aboriginal people of Australia. No real action seems to have been taken and although change is happening – it is painfully slow and many argue that it still isn’t enough.
National Sorry Day is intended to commemorate this occasion. Lip service or otherwise, the occasion was a significant one in Australia’s history; Prime Minister Rudd was in office after a previous Government who had denied that there was any basis for an apology of any sort. It deserves to be recognised alongside other national days of celebration in the Australian psyche; at the very least held on the same level as Australia Day which remains an affront to many Indigenous people. The fact that it is so underreported and out of the public eye is an absolute crying shame and indicates that to the average Australian, Indigenous affairs and the ongoing change that is needed is not their problem, and not even on their mind. While the apology has been pointed to in the years since, as an example of Australia striving for reconciliation in the contemporary age, the truth is that little has changed since and indeed with the recent budgetary cuts to Indigenous programmes it certainly seems that matters are likely to get worse before they get better.
Why does it even matter? Indigenous Australians, the “oldest surviving culture”, report lower life expectancies than the non-Indigenous population, their educational outcomes are dismal across the board, incarceration rates are absurdly high and health is poor in general. They are neglected and forgotten, a race who were previously considered “doomed to extinction” and I think – I strongly believe – that Australia as a nation holds a great responsibility to further face up to the wrongs that have been done and to attempt to make reparations. Many seem to believe that colonialism is over, that we live in a post-oppression society and that the world is there for those who want to avail of it. This simply isn’t the case. Significant change, both institutional and at a societal level, needs to happen to even begin to improve the quality of life that is currently the norm for much of this country’s Indigenous population. The quality of life that I, my family, and probably most people who read this post, are largely complacent about enjoying. This won’t come from speeches in Parliament (though recognition at that level is fundamental) but from hard work, understanding, humility, cooperation and empowerment. After generations of dictating the rules, it is past time the reins were handed back to the Indigenous people of Australia to determine how their future looks and for the rest of us, that means sitting down and listening for the first time in our collective consciousness, and asking not “what do we do?” but “how can we help?”