Apology a step towards healing the wounds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2009, 12:00am

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology this week to disadvantaged young British migrants abused and neglected while in state care would have been unthinkable a generation ago. So, too, was his saying sorry last year to the 'stolen generations' of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents in a strategy of white assimilation.

Such landmark shows of remorse are increasingly common in a world where politicians realise that the future cannot be successfully broached without the misdeeds of the past having been properly dealt with. The problem is that history is so lathered with sins against countries and people that there is a danger of expressions of regret becoming shallow and meaningless.

Rudd's apologies were for decisions made by governments before he was born. The policies persisted into the 1960s, but were little known by most Australians. His effort to make amends with victims and their families has garnered sympathy for his party and government. But by condemning the abuses, he has helped heal wounds and taken the first step in preventing repeats. As important, in the case of the tens of thousands of Britons who were forced to migrate to British Commonwealth nations with the promise of a better life - sometimes without the knowledge of their parents and without being told they had families in Britain - Rudd has shamed his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, also to say sorry.

Rudd's earlier apology to Aborigines increased pressure on other countries, particularly Canada and the United States, likewise to make amends for poor treatment of indigenous populations. Cynicism and claims of political grandstanding have to be put aside when such benefits are possible. Only with an entrenched culture of owning up to our mistakes, publicly apologising for them and eliminating the chance of them happening again can harmony reign.

Violations committed by past governments are being perpetuated by successors that are unwilling to openly admit guilt. Hurt spans generations. Compensation will not erase the emotional damage.